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On the occasion of the 'Lost' premiere

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TV analysis

On the occasion of the 'Lost' premiere

Why did we all start watching in the first place?

  • Courtesy ABC

September 2, 2004: ABC premieres their new island-mystery-drama "Lost" to great acclaim and stellar ratings. Roughly 18 million viewers tune in and stay tuned in for the better part of the first season (sometimes nearing the 22 million mark). Six years later, it’s easy to forget the context in which "Lost" premiered.

"Lost" was one of the first major piece of pop culture to grapple with 9/11, right at the time when media was starting to take it on as subject matter. Paul Greengrass’ "United 93" and Oliver Stone’s "World Trade Center" wouldn’t come out for another two years, but Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11" had opened that June.

"Rescue Me," FX’s post-9/11 NYC firefighter drama, premiered a month later. But unlike such literal histories, "Lost" dealt with that national tragedy by obliquely attempting to recreate, in its pilot, the confusion, terror, and visceral hysteria of those moments immediately following a sudden collective trauma in a pure fiction.

Upon re-watching the two-hour series pilot, it becomes clear that what made "Lost" so initially engrossing is that it begins as a recovery narrative. A disparate cross-section of characters struggle to cope, to varying degrees of success, with a catastrophe they don’t understand and couldn’t have foreseen. The central premise of the show – Why did this bad thing happen? And where has it stranded us? – perfectly dovetails with the cultural fallout from the September 11th attacks.

As "Lost" strayed further and further from that initial moment of trauma, by the end of Season Two, its narrative urgency and visceral impact was significantly lessened, if not altogether, well, lost. Silly genre tropes – mysterious multinational corporations, New Age self-improvement cults, time travel, Smoke Monsters – pushed us further and further away from the vital, humanizing elements of that first season: a community of specific characters coping with tragic loss. "Lost" has never been as good as it was in Season One, despite never being a bad show.

There is also something brilliant about synthesizing the gritty realism of recent catastrophe with paranormal science fiction. On a fundamental level, "Lost" really effectively addressed the fact that 9/11 was an uncanny event.

"Lost" asserted that collective tragedy could not be comprehended as a whole. It had to be broken down into pieces in order to make any kind of sense. The show's postmodern fracturing of narrative and outright refusal to tell one, single story is perhaps appropriate to the subject matter. "Lost" has done something elegant in its madcap yarn-spinning and circuitous, fractured form: It has refused to reduce or diminish the trauma.

Season 1 pilot

The first ten minutes of the pilot episode are split between establishing a stark intimacy and shattering it.

We are first alone with Jack in the bamboo thatch as he awakens, disoriented and visibly shaken. The melodrama of the body’s response to trauma is integral to this opening. Jack’s inability to breathe easily, to control his body’s tremors. He is struck dumb, and his expression shifts from panic to terror to miscomprehension.

Everything about this initial set-up recalls the horrors of 9/11, from his blood- and soot-stained business attire, to the single white sneaker caught in the foliage as he runs by, to the awesome spectacle of the destroyed airplane that he discovers. The shrapnel and smoke and bodies, the confusion, the screams, are all familiar.

Several characters are introduced wandering in pursuit of missing loved ones, and this emphasis on tragedy’s severing of human ties is pointed. We first see Jin screaming for Sun, then Michael searching frantically for Walt. Later, Rose is weeping and kissing her wedding band, thinking of her absent husband whose body is unrecovered. Everyone is, initially, bereft.

Intimacy is newly established between Jack and Kate, as she reticently stitches up the gash on his back. They occupy two slightly different but analogous responses to the trauma. Kate tells Jack, “You don’t seem afraid at all. I don’t understand that.” “Well,” Jack says, “fear’s sort of an odd thing.” He goes on to explain that when the “terror is so real,” you let it take you over, but only for five seconds. Then, you act.

It’s this moment that best captures the show’s cultural moment: Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly are both excel at affecting the shell-shocked dumbness of trauma victims, a mixture of vulnerability and resilience as you fight to keep in your body in check, to regain control. That’s what Lost is ultimately about: regaining control after trauma.

There’s one other moment that forecasts the show’s juggernaut success: it’s the survivors’ first night on the beach, and suddenly the palm trees shake and strange sounds emanate from the jungle. There’s something huge, unknown, and dangerous out there. The camera pans over the survivors, for the first time together as a group. Until now they’ve been fragmented, wandering the wreckage in twos and threes.

The reveal of the monster in the jungle sets the main mystery of the series in motion, and it also is the moment when the survivors unite and become a community. With that birth of the collective, the united resistance to the horrors of trauma, combined with the uncanny presence in the jungle that can’t be seen and can’t be known, "Lost" signaled that it would be a phenomenon.

Season 6 premiere: 'LA X'

So if we initially fell in love with the show as a kind of grand, post-9/11 mythological inquiry into post-traumatic communities, then what are we still doing watching the show six years later? The Final Season is being billed as our big pay-off, the one where we finally get to find out all the answers to the various mysteries and inexplicable occurrences that have driven the show for the past five seasons.

We want resolutions, we want reunions, and we want them now.

Responding to our desires with “LA X,” the sixth season premiere, the Lost writers have split the difference, essentially having their cake and eating it, too. We get two fractured timelines: one in which the detonation of the bomb erases the show’s narrative completely, delivering all the characters back to the original Oceanic 815 voyage and allowing the plane to land safely in Los Angeles; the other in which the detonation brings the survivors out of the past and back into the present-day, but otherwise leaves their circumstances unchanged.

They’re still stranded, Locke’s still dead, his form stolen by the shape-shifting entity haunting the island. There’s still a confusing host of rival factions engaged in guerilla warfare over possession of the island. The mode of the show is still high sci-fi camp: secret jungle temples, mysterious golden ankhs revealing inscrutable lists, resurrecting Fountains of Youth, multi-cultural bands of brigands.

It’s telling that the Lost writers couldn’t commit to one creative choice, but instead had indulge in both. The plane not crashing is the ultimate wish fulfillment – to literally erase The Bad Thing from existence. But neither can the writers disavow the event itself. It would be too much of a breach in trust to erase the event altogether, and to render meaningless everything we’ve spent the past five years invested in. You can’t rob the survivors of their story, because isn’t that the very thing that ennobles them? These are our martyrs, the ones who endure, who fight to live, who fight to escape. So instead we’re given two different kinds of aftermaths, and in comparing the start of season six to the start of season one, we see that a lot has changed.

In both of “LA X”s alternate timelines, Jack is now a fallen hero. On the island, he’s the suicide bomber responsible for Juliet’s death. This isn’t the man who focused on pulling people from the wreckage of Oceanic 815 back in the pilot episode, while everyone else wandered about in a daze. He’s now morally compromised, so driven by his obsession with undoing the original trauma that he’s inflicted even more trauma on his peers.

When Lennon and Dogen, the mysterious Others in charge of the jungle temple, ask who shot Sayid, Jack replies, “I didn’t shoot him, but its my fault.” Sawyer, holding the lifeless, bloodied body of his dead lover – and Jack’s one-time flame – says flat out, looking at Jack, “You did this.”

For anyone who might have been bored or put off by Jack’s bland, All-American take-charginess back at the start of the show, it’s compelling to note that this is where the show's writers have taken that intrepid Everyman: he’s now faithless, deflated, borderline apathetic. Hurley’s the one who insists that they save Sayid; Jack seems all too ready to give up. His attempts to revive Sayid later come to nothing. In the pilot, he resuscitates Rose. He saves Claire and Hurley from falling wreckage. Now he’s a born loser.

Even in the passenger timeline, where the plane never crashes, Jack’s heroism lacks gravity. He does revive Charlie – whose first line, in a nice bit of meta quippiness, is “Am I alive? Terrific…” – but there’s no sense of rightness to his actions. This timeline’s an abomination, as the show suggests a moment later when Charlie growls at Jack, “I was supposed to die.”

The only glimmer of old Jack that we get is when he chats with a wheelchair-bound Locke down in baggage claim, and says to him with eyes sparkling, “Nothing’s irreversible.” Of course, the narrative we’re watching proves Jack’s right: the entire un-crashed plane timeline is a huge reversal. Jack has changed fate. It’s the only feather in his cap in “LA X,” but neither of him know about it.

The island plotline in “LA X” nicely mirrors the pilot episode’s opening moments – the single survivor of a catastrophe waking up alone in the jungle, discombobulated. Only this time, it’s Kate, and the event she’s survived isn’t quite a devastating trauma, more like a bizarre and violent miracle.

When you think about it, last year’s finale in which the characters are fighting to detonate a nuclear bomb in order to eradicate themselves in the present moment and – potentially – be reborn in an exalted alternate history, a fetishized past they’ve imagine as possible, is a pretty dark turn for our heroes. Because this is "Lost," our characters have found a mythic, self-alienating way of grappling with their circumstances: just change history.

"Lost" has become Donnie Darko: bodily vessels, space-time continuums, sacrificial martyrs. Juliet and Sayid are the lambs at the slaughter now. Sayid’s a surprise, because this show has conditioned us to accept that women – Libby, Shannon, Danielle, Alex, Ana Lucia, etc. – make the best offerings.

The vast, shared traumatic experience of the original plane crash has been replaced with small, individual tragedies. Only Sawyer is bereft here; well, and Ben, whom we first re-encounter dumbly mute, struck senseless by the death of Jacob and the weird entity inhabiting Locke’s form. It’s the closest anyone in “LA X” comes to the pilot episode’s nerve-obliterating loss of control. Ben, our verbal virtuoso, can’t speak, he is so stunned and unraveled. His world is shattered.

To be a "Lost" fan these past five years is really to be a Lost apologist. I can’t think of another show that’s had as much discussion about the behind-the-scenes storytelling choices of its creators. The show has been so reticent to deliver its story honestly and simply, and so dependent upon withholding, red herrings, smoke and mirrors (literally), and narrative cul de sacs, that all the fan grumbling about the show is entirely warranted.

That’s why the best parts of “LA X” are the ones that restage the series’ pilot episode. It returns us to a time when these characters were coherent, where the visceral charge of Lost’s central premise – plane crashes – is still felt, oddly enough by un-crashing the plane.

That long sequence at the end of the first hour, where all our characters are de-boarding the plane, still strangers, is one of the series’ best and most moving, especially when John Locke, who has lied to Boone about his walkabout,  must wait until everyone else has left the plane before he can be helped into his wheelchair. It’s kind of devastating, especially when you take into account Not-Locke’s soliloquy that John Locke was “the only one who realized how pitiful the life he left behind was.”

The passengers in the other timeline all experience weird moments of déjà vu as they encounter each other aboard Oceanic 815. There’s some Internet grumbling that the alternate timeline is a waste of our time and patience, that we can’t care about these versions of the characters because they’re not the “real” versions.

But it seems like a stroke of brilliance to me. The show’s creators have made literal Others of their heroes; doppelganger versions who are unknowingly acting out their deepest desires: normalcy, tedium, a return to the familiar. These are the “real” ones, the people as we first met them, and we know them so well. In watching Kate hijack Claire’s cab, in watching Jack propose a free surgical consult to paralyzed Locke, in watching Sawyer knowingly help the strange yet vaguely familiar woman wearing handcuffs in the elevator, we’re experiencing our own déjà vu.

Remember when we knew these characters? Since then, Claire’s become a literal phantom (a kind of confession from the show about its nasty habit of rendering all women inscrutable and “mysterious”), and we’ve been forced to spend time with a whole host of people who’s motivations we don’t understand and whose desires are unknowable: Ilana, Bram, Ben, Not-Locke, Jacob, Cesar, Libby, Cindy, the list goes on and on.

It’s nice to be back in a world where all those stupid Others and Dharma people and Widmore employees and other random folks aren’t jamming up the gears, frustrating and distracting us.

Remember, in the pilot, when Kate experiences déjà vu? It’s when she, Jack and Charlie go off in the jungle on the show’s first away-mission, the first of so many times Kate would go running off into the jungle, often against someone’s better judgment. She turns to Charlie and says, “Have we ever met anywhere?” Charlie replies, “No. That would be unlikely.” She’s mistaking his fame for personal familiarity; she knows his band, but not him.

From that moment, we’ve seen the elaborate ways in which this show has woven all of these characters’ lives together, from before the crash. "Lost" has made many unlikely connections: Jack and Desmond running in the same stadium, Kate and Sawyer’s connections to Cassidy, Jack and Claire’s shared paternity. Even in this alternate timeline where the plane doesn’t crash, they’re still presumably linked in these ways.

To win, the show must justify all of this narrative weavework, must make us understand how and why these people are connected. It’s another of the show's inquiries that sustains our interest, beyond how people react to crises. Basically, how – and why – the hell are we all connected to each other, anyway?

Sean Bottai is a Tucson-based novelist and journalist. He teaches at the University of Arizona.

'Lost' airs Tuesdays at 8 on ABC.

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9-11, abc, lost, matthew fox,

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