I’ve been a big fan of Lost, the hit television show, for a while now. Unfortunately, I think that’s changed and I’m getting a divorce. The third season concluded this year, and I got to thinking a lot about what’s happened on the show, and where I think it’s going.

If you haven’t ever watched the show, I’ll try and summarize it. A plane on its way from Sidney, Australia to L.A., California becomes lost and crashes on a remote tropical island. About fifty people survive the crash and try to survive as best they can until rescue. The complication is that the island is inhabited by mysterious phenomenon like an invisible monster, voices in the wind, and strange apparitions. The past lives of all the survivors intersect with one another and are related by a cursed numerical formula. Each show focuses on one of a dozen or so “main characters” in the tribe of survivors, and their efforts to overcome some personal obstacle. Punctuated by the current action are “flashbacks”, where an aspect of the character’s past life is shown.

The show has presented itself as a puzzle deep in subtext and invited viewers to speculate on what might be happening on the island. In other words, what the “answers” to the “mysteries” might be. The writer/producers of the show have engaged in all sorts of evasive suggestions in interviews, numerous products have been put out to suggest “clues”, and the network’s hype machine has pushed viewer buttons saying “this is the show you don’t want to miss”. You watch the show, hoping to catch a vital clue and figure out what is going on. What did the billboard in the back of the character’s flashback say? How does the billboard’s message relate to several other similar clues we’ve seen? You know, that kind of thing.

If you haven’t watched the show and want to preserve some of the so-called surprises for yourself, read no further.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Lost was a miniseries with a bunch of really good ideas that should never have gone beyond a dozen episodes, and that the creative team behind the episodes have exhausted those ideas and are not up to the task of making what’s left interesting. A lot of the happenings in the show rely heavily on context, so it’s really hard to come to any conclusion until you’ve had enough information to gain a certain amount of perspective. In retrospect, it’s easy to see where the major flaws were, and at what point the writers slipped up. I think Lost “Jumped the Shark” in it’s sixth episode, but it was so subtle, and the wipe out so prolonged, that it is easy to mistake later slip ups as the “definitive moment.”

To be fair, the flaws in Lost were there right from the very first episode. I took the time to revisit the first and second season, and compare and contrast their development with what came out of the third season. A lot of internet discussion has revolved around whether the writers have a plan and where the show is going, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter if they have a plan or not. There are only so many moves you can make in a story, even a long term one, before you run out of options. The story resolves in one way or another, whether or not you have a long-term strategy.

For example, Babylon 5 is often toted as an example of an “epic series” planned out from start to finish, but I think the whole thing is rubbish. Every story is punctuated with major events that push the story forward irrevocably. The shark has to keep moving or it dies, so to speak. You could condense the epic story arc of Babylon 5 (the Shadow war) to a dozen episodes. The rest is just story-of-the-week and fluff (that’s gamer talk for background material not immediately relevant to the story).

The same goes for Lost. If the writers had a plan, it wasn’t much of one to begin with and they’ve made so many tweaks to the outline that the original idea has been squashed to jelly. They’re just flying blind now. The “puzzle”, whatever it was, will never make any sense or strike home with any resolution the way say, the first season of Veronica Mars did (an excellent example of how to keep an audience involved in a mystery without spoiling anything until the end).

I think it is more likely that the writers had an outline for a miniseries with a bunch of mysteries that never had any solution, and they’ve been milking things out as much as they can. Unfortunately, as of the last few episodes of the third season they’ve run out of ideas.  They’re having to recycle old plotlines and revisit territory already traveled (Charlie dies again! The Others attack the camp again! Locke finds a Dharma station again!).

It’s sad. Lost had a lot of potential, but as so often happens in television, the corporate suits get their stupid hands in the pie and ruin the recipe. The writers for the show haven’t exactly risen to the challenge either. The quality of the episodes has gone down as the ideas lose their freshness, and the writing just hasn’t kept pace with that fact. I’ve had to watch the show that excited my interest and imagination slowly break my heart with every growing mistake and misstep.

The high point of the show for me was the fifth episode of the first season, “White Rabbit”. There are already several points that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but I think they are minor at this juncture. As I mentioned earlier, the flaws were there at the start, they just haven’t developed into actual cracks. The main integrity of the story’s consistency hasn’t been breached as of yet, and a lot of narrative momentum is going on to keep viewer interest high.

In “White Rabbit”, you have an amazing amount of stuff going on. The survivors suffer their first death due to the dangers of the island (someone drowns in a riptide), they are running low on water (on a tropical island that’s life or death), the pregnant woman has passed out from heat exhaustion, and group cohesion is starting to break down. Jack, the unofficial leader (who also happens to be their only doctor), has a temporary crack up and nearly dies in an accident after chasing his dead father around in the jungle. Meanwhile Locke, the guy everyone thought was a nut case, turns out to be the only guy who has an idea of how spooky and magical the island really is. He acts like a kind of shaman and gets the people with the next strongest leadership skills to keep everyone cool while he goes off in search of water and their cracked up leader.

Locke rescues Jack, then helps the guy get his head on straight. Jack continues his quest for his dead father, only in a more reasonable frame of mind. A dead father who may not be dead at all, because the island is special. Jack finds his father’s empty coffin (from a section of plane wreckage), near a cave with a large fresh water source. He works through some of his issues (though not all of them), and he finds it in himself to accept what people need from him. Jack makes an awesome speech and assumes the leadership role he was afraid of. At the end of the episode, you get the feeling that something amazing is happening, with all sorts of story possibilities popping forward. The episode is a thrilling mixture of real life danger and interpersonal conflict, with some of the creepiest ghost scenes I’ve ever seen on television.

Then you get the next episode, “House of the Rising Sun”, in which the story takes a disappointing turn. Last episode, Jack made an impassioned speech about everyone working together, and the need for everyone to find a way to contribute to the group’s well being. A day later, he’s decided to try and convince everyone to live in the cave he found, regardless of what people want. Never mind that no one knows if the cave is stable, or if it is a sometimes home for the polar bears that live on the island, or that there are two old corpses placed in little makeshift tombs in the cave near the water. It becomes a divisive issue, with half the group wanting to stay on the beach, and half wanting to go live at the caves.

I’m not even going to go into the problem of not following up on the crazy mystical stuff Locke brought up last episode, the lack of a funeral or mourning for the woman who drowned yesterday, or that nobody challenges Jack for leadership over this bumbling mistake. There are a dozen loose ends I could point to and get upset about. What I object to is that Jack’s behavior and subsequent poor decision completely nullifies everything he went through in the previous episode. His “new” leadership ability ends up dividing the entire group, and fails to organize them into any kind of mass labor necessary for survival.

All of this is glossed over or minimized into the background because the episode focuses on the character whose episode and flashback this is (Sun, the Korean woman with a Mafia father). Not that the focus shouldn’t have been on Sun, or that the story is done poorly (it is rather excellent), but I think the decision to negate Jack’s character development is a fatal mistake. It is this decision, I think, that creates the first crack in the integrity of the show. How can you take anything the characters do seriously, when their actions will be rendered meaningless in the next episode?

It’s hardly an immediately devastating blow. You keep expecting Jack to get back on track as a character, and you don’t have enough episodes under the belt to form any context. But it begins a precedent that the show never recovers from, and in fact grows steadily worse as the seasons drag on. By the end of the third season, every character on the show has experienced life-altering moments, made what should be irrevocable choices, or acted in ways that would get them clobbered by any reasonable group of people, only to return to the same person they were when they first came to the island. As a side effect, the things that these characters interact with also become meaningless. The ghost of Jack’s father? Never seen again and never explained. Locke’s mystical explanation for the island? Never followed up or referred to again. The cave? Abandoned at the end of the first season for no real reason. The water source? Tarps magically appear and are turned into rain collectors by invisible servants. The things in “White Rabbit” may as well have never appeared, for all the importance they had.

That, I think, is my fundamental problem with the show, and why I refuse to watch it anymore. Nothing matters. Nobody changes. I’m not sure that the puzzles even mean anything, if they exist. I’m still waiting, three years later, for Jack to fulfill the promise he showed in “White Rabbit” (among many other numerous stalled storylines). You could fit the character development of the entire cast in about six episodes, even though there have been over seventy episodes now! Everyone is still stuck in the “I can’t get over my issues” phase of the heroic journey, and consequently all we get is the characters eating dirt instead of facing consequences.

It’s a problem I think has become particularly endemic in today’s television programs. Networks make money off of shows that they can milk long term. They are afraid that if they have actual long-term storylines that resolve themselves, they’ll lose the audience share they are milking for ratings. The result in recent years seems to be a preponderance of what I call the “false tension rollback”. You build up a massive conflict in an episode with promises of major consequences, only to back down at the last minute, then spend the rest of the episode explaining how the characters got to that point. I’ve seen a lot of “promises” from Lost in the last two years, none of which have delivered.

Broken promises. Broken heart. These boots were made for walkin’.