Can what was `Lost' be found again?

Doubt lingers in the air, but creators try to reassure faithful fans and network

February 06, 2007|By Verne Gay | Verne Gay,Newsday

In the old days — In the opening seconds of Lost when it returns tomorrow at 10 p.m., there's a long dissolve of a beach at sunset, with striated bands of orange and deep red on the horizon and phosphorescent waves crashing on a distant reef. It's alluring and unsettling, familiar yet strange. All in all, a classic Lost kind of visual.

In the old days - that would be a season ago - a scene opener like this might send fans, or at least the more compulsively odd ones, scrambling to discover Meaning: Why a beach? What do those colors signify? Do they correspond to the number? Does Alvar Hanso like beaches?

And so on. One of the infuriating charms and undeniable pleasures of Lost was that a beach or just about anything else could signify something in the overall Lost mythology - that word commonly used by "Losties" for the evocative and richly symbolic world that's all tied into the big mystery. Fact is, many things often did.

Then, the third season rolled around, and over the first six episodes at least, a cigar was usually just a cigar. A beach? Yeah, that's the thing with a lot of sand on it. (Or, in this instance, it sets up a flashback for Elizabeth Mitchell's character, Juliet.)

As if anyone needs to be told, Lost became a different show last fall, with clear plot lines, some thriller components and a love story as well. Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) have clinched, so to speak. Jack (Matthew Fox) is jealous - or perhaps about to be pumped and primed for his own star-crossed love affair (see Juliet). Ben is still Ben (Michael Emerson), though feeling much improved after the operation. (ABC airs a Lost Survivor Guide at 9 p.m. tomorrow, recapping the story so far.)

We've heard nothing, by the way, from dear old Hanso, though Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) did have an unfortunate run-in with the Black Smoke.

Now that we've caught up - the final 16 episodes begin tomorrow - fans, critics, cultural observers and even ABC could be forgiven for taking a wistful glance over their shoulders. The reason is, Lost was the best show on television for most of its first two seasons, and one of the more influential in TV history.

The immediate impact of all this influence is more or less mundane: setting sad-sack ABC back on the road to full recovery, and spawning a sub-genre of serials that also played with haute-literary narrative devices like character point-of-view or time-shifting. (None, with the exception of Heroes, worked, by the way.)

But for a brief, shining moment, Lost made viewers forget that they were just watching a TV set because they were actively engaged in it. They believed - no doubt, many still do - that all the symbols, numbers and visual clues weren't just clutter but signposts to a deeper meaning and mystery off-screen.

"What's in the hatch?" became a cultural catchphrase, closely followed by "Who the hell is this Desmond dude, anyway?"

Then enter (stage right): the backlash. Ratings started to slip, viewers clamored for answers, and the nub of a question began to take shape, from fandom to networkdom. Where is all this leading and when will it all end? As the third season wraps four months from now, the show will deliver some answers. Indeed, it has been forced to.

There's still hope

The producers "still have three things going for them," says Orson Scott Card, the prominent sci-fi novelist (Ender's Game) and editor of a recent book of essays on the show's meaning called Getting Lost. "One, they've got the mythology - though if they explain all of that away, then the show's not mystical or magical anymore; second, the overall conspiracy [and the fact that] everyone's lying to everyone else and that we need to find out the truth; and finally, the intense character relations.

"But every time [producers and writers] give us a glimpse of what's going on, that leads to a bigger mystery. You can only do that for so long, and I think they're nearing the end of their rope."

Lost's dilemma - if that's the right word - is actually an interesting one, and begs some other questions, most notably: How long are TV series supposed to last anyway? Should they have a beginning, middle and end?

Episodic dramas don't need to worry about this sort of stuff because they are (after all) episodic. They just keep on chugging along - like the Law & Order train - until they run out of track (and viewers). But serials are like novels, and novels have an ending.

The end game for Lost is "one of the things we're in discussions with the network about right now," Carlton Cuse, the show's co-executive producer, told a roomful of TV critics at a media tour last month in Pasadena, Calif.

"It's time for us now to find an end point for this show," he said. "It's always been discussed that the show would have a beginning, middle and end ... [and] once we [figure that out], a lot of the anxiety and a lot of these questions will go away."

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