Thursday, May 27, 2010

Culture Shock 05.27.10: Did 'Lost' get lost along the way?

If you haven't seen the conclusion of "Lost" yet, come back later. There are spoilers ahead.

So, was that the ending "Lost's" creators had in mind from the start?

Probably not, because it seemed a lot like an ending cobbled together during the final season to make up for most viewers having already guessed the original ending.

If you had "they're stuck in purgatory" in your office pool, you're a winner.

Well, almost. It turns out the "sideways timeline" introduced in season 6 was purgatory, while the Island was pre-purgatory, or maybe semi-purgatory, but definitely not just plain old purgatory, since that's what everyone had already guessed. Whatever the Island was, it made me glad that, unlike many of my friends, I hadn't invested a lot of time and emotion on "Lost."

On the list of TV shows with polarizing finales, "Lost" is going to rank pretty high, along with the likes of "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Sopranos," both of which had controversial endings I'll happily defend, after enough drinks.

If ABC's remake of "Life on Mars" had lasted more than one season, people would be arguing about its final episode, too. But nobody much cared about "Life on Mars." That's the difference. Viewers and critics alike really cared about "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Sopranos." And now some of them say they've been betrayed.

A common complaint about TV dramas with complex mythologies and storylines is the writers are just making things up as they go. That's how most TV shows are made, but for mythology-rich shows like "Lost," making it up as you go is a cardinal sin.

The major offender here is "The X-Files." Chris Carter clearly had no idea where his show was going, so in the end it's a miracle that all of the various conspiracy plotlines fit together as well as they did. If you have a couple of hours and a flow chart, you can see how all the threads converge.

The problem with "The X-Files" isn't that Carter had no grand plan and definite endgame. It's that the show stayed on the air too long. Most shows run out of steam around season 5 — for example, "House," which has been a disappointment all year. "The X-Files" should have ended with season 7. Instead, it limped along for two more pointless, mostly David Duchovny-free, years.

That's one thing "Lost's" staff writers got right. They decided to end with season 6. Besides, any longer and they would have had to explain how Hurley is the only person in history to gain weight — without resorting to cannibalism — while stranded on an island.

If I'm right that the Island was originally meant to be purgatory, then "Lost's" problem isn't making it up as you go but sticking too close to the original plan while pretending you're not.

Sticking with the plan has its own hazards. J. Michael Straczynski mapped out "Babylon 5" before the first episode aired. He even built in "trap doors" so he could make changes on the fly if an actor decided to leave. But he couldn't account for everything. He rushed season 4 to tie up loose ends in case the show didn't get its planned fifth season.

And when "Babylon 5" did get a fifth season, it mostly marked time until reaching its predestined conclusion.

So, if there's a lesson here, it's that you can have a master plan or you can make it up as you go. The risks are the same. Just don't end your TV series with anything involving purgatory.

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