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“I Better Not Have Wasted All This Time on Lost

May 5th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

I’ve heard the title of this post way too many times in the last few weeks. They bug me. But they also say something important about how we watch television, I think.

First, when Eddy Kitses and Adam Horowitz, two Lost writer-producers and University of Wisconsin Communication Arts alumni, visited Madison recently, several of our students shared a version of the lines with them. It’s popped up on numerous websites or Facebook threads I read. And it’s a general mantra as the show approaches its final episode.

But I really hope it is just a mantra, something that gets repeated over and over without a sense of why it’s there and what it means. Because if any fans are honestly pegging all their hopes, investment of time, and their ultimate evaluation of the show on how it ends, I have news for you: the show’s already failed for you.

Granted, a lot’s at stake, and I really hope the writers and actors pull it off. Granted, like most (all?) Lost viewers, there have been times in the last few years when I’ve felt as though they’re just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, and making up the plot willy-nilly. And granted, I want a brilliant ending, something that honors the journey (t)here. But it’s been an incredible ride. If you’ve stuck with it all this time, and have immense anticipation and hopes for the cast and crew to pull off a fantastic finale, surely that’s because its level of quality has told you that it’s fair to expect this. If not, why are you still watching? If the value of the narrative and of the experience still hangs in the balance, you have only yourself to blame for lashing yourself on the back by watching something you’re not enjoying. If, by contrast, you’ve been enjoying it, where’s the “waste”?

I ask that question in part rhetorically, since I think what’s really being said by many fans when they suggest that Lost might have wasted all their time is that they want a conclusion that justifies the time they’ve spent watching the show to others. Conclusions to stories matter, of course, but when you’re really enjoying a story, they matter more to those not watching. Indeed, much negative analysis of shows that someone didn’t watch harps on their conclusions, either of the show as a whole (cf. Sex and the City) or of any given episode, as critics can easily lambaste a show for its apparent closing message rather than paying attention to the journey – a strategy common to lazy textual analyses. Censors and would-be censors love conclusions, too, because that’s where they look for the moral.

But if you love a show, the journey is the thing. For Lost, it might be enjoying Nestor Carbonell’s performance earlier this year, or Michael Emerson’s performance throughout the series; it might be getting swept up by Jin and Sun; it might be a fascination with Sayid’s tortured path; it might be the pleasure of the puzzle, and of endless guessing, hypotheses, and counter-hypotheses. Etcetera. But those are the things that non-watchers aren’t watching. Eventually, all they’ll probably know is that Lost began with a bunch of people who crashed on an island and ended with _______. And, yes, what fills that blank is likely going to make many people laugh. It already does. Smoke monsters, time travel, cursed numbers, and resurrection don’t instill confidence in too many non-watchers. So I wonder if fans who worry about “wasting” their time are simply expressing a concern that when it’s all over, others will think they wasted their time [and yes, I do enjoy discussing “the others” in a post on Lost].

This is where I diverge, though … and where surely many Lost fans should too. See, if you told me back in 2004 where the show would be now, let alone three weeks from now, I wouldn’t have signed up for the ride. Time travel is nearly always handled poorly. Smoke monsters? Alternate worlds? Not one, but two guys who can talk to the dead? Not the stuff I signed up for. But I’ve stuck around because somehow they’ve made it work, or between the bits that don’t work for me, I’ve found lovely moments and characters and storylines. The fact that I’m not alone, and that so many people are still here could on one hand suggest the huge market for science fiction, but we already knew that. On the other hand, it suggests how much the journey, not necessarily the conclusion, matters, even though our culture at large is fond of its mantra that the conclusion’s the thing.

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  1. May 5th, 2010 at 08:32 | #1

    Yes: it’s the journey! Not that conclusions are totally unimportant, but that they’re not what the experience of five and half years of watching and thinking about Lost is ultimately about. This is why I’m OK with the odd clunker episode, or not that bent out of shape by the many questions that will be unanswered by the finale. I do not love Lost, but I like it a great deal, and I do love bits and pieces of it (shocking finales, character moments, stunning cinematography, etc.).

  2. May 5th, 2010 at 08:41 | #2

    I agree completely – except that we can look at how the show might be wasting time on something that doesn’t payoff in the end. For instance, right now Sun’s aphasia seems like a time-waster. On a larger level, the whole season 6 sideways device might not end up paying off and be viewed as a waste, or at least a failed experiment – although there have been enough moments that have worked to suggest that even if it doesn’t fully payoff, it will have been worth it. Viewer time is less scarce than story time (as we can afford to rewatch, blog, wiki, etc.), so if anything is wasted, it seems like it’s the opportunity to tell the stories that work best in lieu of things that fall flat.

  3. May 5th, 2010 at 08:53 | #3

    @Jason Mittell
    I’m with you there — individual things waste time, but the show as a whole? If someone thinks so, the time to get off the bus was 2005

  4. May 5th, 2010 at 09:23 | #4

    As a critic (or a critical thinker), I have no issues with people not liking the direction the show is going, or having a negative opinion of the sixth season, or feeling like the ending doesn’t live up to the rest of the series. And as Noel Murray pointed out, it’s very possible that a bad ending could sour a re-watch, so it’s not that a bad ending has no consequences.

    The problem, though, is when people place so much value on the conclusion that they come to believe it could retroactively rob them of previous enjoyment. It’s one thing for a bad ending to put previous events into perspective (as Jason points out with the aphasia), but it’s another for it to overwrite things that people actually enjoyed.

    I can believe that Lost’s ending might send some fans back to things they didn’t like before and think “What if,” but if they try to argue that “The Constant” is no longer fantastic television then I’m willing to say they’re watching it wrong (which I’d resist saying regarding general Lost naysayers since, you know, to each their own).

  5. Jonathan Gray
    May 5th, 2010 at 10:16 | #5

    yes. After all, don’t almost all other shows long overstay their welcome, petering out in pathetic ways, the cast and crew no longer caring about what they’re doing? Yet that doesn’t kill the value of the entire show. I thought the Seinfeld finale was kind of lame, but that doesn’t make me hate the show. Or even for stories with a firmer storyline, Buffy goes downhill, imho, but I still consider it a good show. If The Wire ended with Carcetti becoming President and bringing Bubbles, Weebay, and Marlow with him to the White House as trusted advisors, I’d think that final episode was a travesty and something from Hell … but it wouldn’t make me think I’d wasted all that lovely time with the show previously

  6. EG
    May 6th, 2010 at 07:15 | #6

    I don’t entirely agree with the premise. Part of the “journey” is anticipating a brilliant conclusion, and the individual episodes are partially delightful and suspenseful because we believe that it’s going somewhere. So, the end justifies our feelings during the journey.

  7. Jonathan Gray
    May 7th, 2010 at 16:01 | #7

    granted, anticipation is important, and a joy in and of itself, one that a great conclusion could provide. But I’d pose that at this point in the series, if anticipation is the only/major joy one receives from the show, it’s already failed one. I watch bad movies or TV shows sometimes and feel a weird need to see to the end just to know what happened, but I do so knowing that the movie or show is crap and that it’s just curiosity; even a good ending couldn’t make it all better at that point. So if Lost needs to have a good ending to justify one’s time with it, it’s become one of those crappy shows, and is bound to fail at providing it. (which, for the record, I don’t think it is, but that’s just me and my own feelings about the show).

  8. May 8th, 2010 at 04:47 | #8

    This seems to me to be a difference between short- and long-form narratives. People curse the “time wasted” in films they dislike after the ending, but I’ve never seen it reach this degree of hand-wringing that we’re seeing with Lost viewers. Because there is literally so much time invested in engagement with a series, there is consequently much more invested emotionally in the full arc of its development, including how it ends.

  1. May 7th, 2010 at 10:56 | #1