Lost in Lost’s Critical Culture: A Response to the New York Times

Lost in Lost’s Critical Culture

May 20th, 2010

The end of Lost is going to create a deluge of pieces celebrating the show, but it’s also going to create a lot of pieces which claim quite the opposite. I don’t want to suggest that the latter is in some way invalid, as not everyone is required to be a fan of the show, and there are plenty of arguments to be made that Lost’s success sent the other networks on a wild goose chase for a similar series which has in some ways crippled dramatic development over the past number of years.

These pieces are going to be a dime a dozen this week, but I want to make a few comments regarding Mike Hale’s piece at the New York Times, “In ‘Lost,’ Mythology Trumps Mystery,” where he makes some fairly contentious arguments. The piece, which reads as if it could be an artifact from the show’s third season as much as its sixth, makes the claim that Lost’s only good season was its first, which I would personally contest but which is Hale’s opinion. I don’t agree with his classification of the show, and I have some concerns with the way in he boils down the series to suit his argument, but he’s entitled to dislike the show as much as he likes.

However, I am personally offended at the way in which Hale attacks those people who do like the show, especially those who choose to write about it. It is one thing to say that Lost itself has failed to live up to his own expectations, but it’s quite another to make the claim that critics and fans have become sheep being led by Shepherds Lindelof and Cuse – not only is this patently untrue of critics of the series, but it is also belittling to those fans whose Lost experience has been enriched, rather than obfuscated, through the interactive experience of watching this series.

There is room for a critical analysis of the ways in which the relationship between Lost and its fans has been managed, but Hale is more interested in vilifying rather than embracing its complexity, and it makes for a frustrating piece of journalism.

Ignoring Hale’s personal opinion about the show itself, which I would consider to be reductive but which is well within his rights as a critic, I want to focus on his description of Lost’s fan culture:

As “Lost” bogged down and its audience shrank…an interesting thing happened: a core of viewers emerged for whom the endless complications, which were ruinous in any traditional dramatic sense, were the basis of a new sort of fandom. In this sideways universe, making sense of the show became the responsibility, and even the privilege, of the viewers rather than the producers. The compromises and continuity lapses and narrative backing and filling that characterize all broadcast network series became fodder for a kind of populist biblical commentary, and the logical gymnastics performed to read authorial intention into every word and image and in-joke began to feel religious in nature. Every question about the show had to have one true answer, and discerning it — or asserting your version of it the loudest — wasn’t the stuff of water cooler chatter, it was blood sport.

Now, I don’t think Hale is inventing anything with this particular analysis: this kind of fan certainly exists, and they have certainly staked their claim on the internet. There’s a tinge of Hale’s disdain for what the show has become to be found here, as he seems to deride fans for celebrating and embracing the parts of the show which he personally feels ruined a perfectly good drama series, but I think that Lost’s fan culture knows it’s a little bit crazy at times. What gets them through is that they enjoy it: while he is right to point out that this type of fan culture has created the kind of fans who could entirely turn on the series if the ending proves unsatisfying, it’s also the type of fan culture that has a whole lot of “fun” watching, discussing, and experiencing their favourite television series.

For Hale to ignore the positive elements of this fandom isn’t surprising considering his thesis, but it is disappointing; however, it isn’t nearly as disappointing as his attack on fans and critics for being so blinded by the show’s mythology that they were unable to watch television in a proper fashion:

It’s clear that the rise of “Lost” geekdom has encouraged fans, and critics who should know better, to celebrate the mythology — the least important element of the show, from a dramatic standpoint — while glossing over things like pacing, structure, camerawork and acting. (With a few exceptions, notably Terry O’Quinn, as Locke, and Henry Ian Cusick, as Desmond, the performances have been undistinguished since the first season, which may have as much to do with the conception of the characters as with the actors themselves.)

There is some part of me who immediately wants to start listing off distinguished performers he left out (Emerson, Mitchell, Holloway, etc.), but my bigger concern is his claim that critics have celebrated mythology entirely independent of pacing, structure, camerawork and acting. While there are occasionally circumstances where critics will focus more on questions of mythology, I would challenge Hale to list a critic who has entirely turned off their critical faculties in reviewing Lost. The show’s sixth season, which Hale considers its worst, has not been given a free pass by critics, and elements like pacing and structure have formed the basis for many of those complaints. If Hale believes that critics have taken to drinking the Lost Kool-Aid – perhaps because he believes it to be the only reason they could still like the show – then I would challenge him to look at reviews from Alan Sepinwall or James Poniewozik (or the countless others I could mention) and tell me that they aren’t concerned with those other qualities. Just because they disagree with him on the quality of the performances or the strength of the camerawork does not mean that they are glossing over them in order to celebrate mythology; it may just mean they disagree, which isn’t someone expressing a fairly divisive opinion can really attack them for.

However, I also think Hale doesn’t give fans nearly enough credit. While the discussions on Lost message boards do tend to focus largely on questions of mythology, Lost fans are more than just amateur detectives desperate for answers. I won’t claim that all Lost fans are concerned with camerawork or pacing, but I think that they notice when something is off, and I think that critics like those listed above help them contextualize some of their concerns. The relationship between fans and critics with this show has been a two-way street, as critics get a glimpse into how fans are experiencing the series while fans gain some insight into how some of their concerns or responses to a particular episode stem from things like pacing, episode structure, or directorial choices.

It becomes clear later in the piece, though, that Hale laments that this sort of dialogue has taken a substantial place within television’s impact on culture as a whole:

The contract between author and audience is being rewritten throughout our culture. Certainly we have always expected the satisfaction of resolution and revelation in our fictional narratives, but we had to let creators provide it on their own terms and then judge the overall result. “Lost” is a sign that that’s not so true anymore, at least with regard to television. Now that the public conversation about how a work should play out can be louder, and have greater impact, than the work itself, the conversation will inevitably begin to shape the work in ways that earlier television producers — or, say, Charles Dickens — never had to reckon with. “Lost” has turned fans into critics and critics, including this one, into semiprofessional fans, and in both cases you can sense that some exhaustion has set in.

I think Hale actually has some interesting points here, but I’m struggling to discern what he considers to be the cause of this phenomenon. Is he claiming that Lost caused this particular trend by becoming so complicated that fans were no longer able to watch in a passive fashion, or is he blaming the fans and critics for giving themselves over to Lost’s mythology and ruining the contract between author and audience? Hale seems out to criticize both author and audience with this piece, but are either of them really at fault in this situation even if we accept his argument that television has been forever changed by these events? Lindelof and Cuse chose to tell the story they wanted to tell, and fans have chosen to respond to it the way they wanted to, and the resulting shifts in responsibility or expectation have been the result of their free will; Lost eventually moved into the realm of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) as a way to harness this fan potential, so you could argue that they were stoking the flames so to speak, but Hale doesn’t make any specific arguments about the ways in which Lost’s relationship with its fans was managed over the past few seasons, nor does he properly contextalize how the internet is largely taking advantage of long-existing fan responses to television as opposed to inventing them out of thin air.

Instead, he simply argues that obsessive fans are creating pressures which will ruin narrative television as we know it; however, while he is correct in that Lost’s legacy goes beyond its storyline to its influence on the way we watch and analyze television, it feels reductive to claim that Lost is the only example of this phenomenon. A show like Heroes tried to tap into the same subculture and failed because it wasn’t built to withstand that sort of pressure, while Battlestar Galactica managed its way through four seasons before meeting similar resistance in its finale. Lost, by comparison, has lasted six seasons as one of television’s top-rated series, and I would argue those who would entirely throw away their enjoyment of those seasons should the ending fail to meet their expectations are a vocal minority more than a chaotic majority. There is something positive to be found in the show’s fan culture, just as there is something positive to be found in how closely connected fans feel to Lost (mainly that the show might not have survived if they had not become so attached).

Rather than focusing on these sorts of complex fan relationships with the series and then hypothesizing their impact on television, Hale chooses to simply voice his own disapproval of the show’s direction and suggest that it led television and the people who follow it down a slippery slope towards the death of legitimate criticism of the series. There are important discussions to be had about the last six years and the changes we’ve seen unfold in that time, but Hale’s attempt to conflate complexity with devolution is woeful and fails to capture the series’ footprint (whether you consider it a blight on the landscape or an aesthetic pleasure).

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17 Comments

Filed under Lost

17 responses to “Lost in Lost’s Critical Culture: A Response to the New York Times

  1. Cory

    Great response, Myles. It seems as if Hale is simply disappointed with the direction the series took in later seasons and the pessimist in me says he’s just looking to get noticed amid a sea of celebratory articles. And that’s lame.

    Some of the arguments and statements he makes feel completely full of distaste for active fandoms and any sort of conversation between fans and producers. And he also throws out a number of obvious comments: Wait, you mean some fans would rather the series be LESS complicated? No kidding! He seems to suggest that declining quality = more fervent response from the web, but then admits that the only “good” season was the one that was most-watched — okay?

    I also love when critics pull out “the ratings are nearly half what they were in season one!” cry without ever mentioning the general decrease of live viewing over the past five years or how the series reaches higher numbers with DVR figures. Yes, the ratings are lower and people have left, but those things didn’t occur in a vacuum.

  2. Alison

    Great response, Myles. One commenter on Hale’s article points out that Dickens was not immune to fan or critical response (as Hale seems to allude to at the end of the article). Although the example the commenter gives–that Dickens changed the ending to Great Expectations in response to fans–is incorrect (it seems to have been on the recommendation of a friend and fellow writer who read a proof of the last chapter before it was published), the criticism of the idea that the Lost fandom is completely unprecedented stands. In fact, I would go so far to say that the entire mystery genre that was pioneered by writers such as Dickens and Wilkie Collins is predicated precisely on such speculation. Their mystery novels that were released serially in magazines set the tone for the genre; since both authors (and especially Dickens) became celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic within their lifetimes as a result of their work, I presume that there was “fandom” surrounding their stories. The more I think about it, the more connections I see between the stories of Dickens and Lost (drawn out mysteries, preposterous coincidences and connections between characters, etc.) and their receptions.

    The grad student in me had to break out my copy of the Norton edition of Great Expectations. Here are a few quotes from the 1861 review of the novel:

    “It is in his best vein, and although unfortunately it is too slight, and bears many traces of hasty writing, it is quite worthy to stand beside . . . David Copperfield. . . . It is impossible not to regret that a book so good should not have been better. Probably the form in which it was first published may have had something to do with its faults. The plot ends before it ought to. . . . This is too stiff a pace for the emotions of readers to live up to. . . . Characters, too, are entirely altered, in order to make the story end rapidly. . . . Villains, again, are sketched in and then smeared out again. . . . It is rather a story with excellent things in it than an excellent story.”

    Sound familiar?

  3. Jeff

    thank you so much for an insightful piece, unlike that dreck Mike Hale wrote…

    • Mark

      I think the comment above is precisely what Hale was getting at: The fandom has become so “into” what they feel Lost is (or should be) about that anyone who criticizes it can only write “dreck”. Whether you agree or not with all he says, only a closed mind would call it dreck and not see the validity in some of Hale’s points.

      • Damien

        For me, there was no validity in Hale’s point the moment he said that Season 1 is the only good season. It is clearly designed to get attention amidst a swath of congratulatory articles about Lost.

        • Evamarie

          Yes, his article seemed to be written to anger fans and garner a strong response – thus selling more copies of the paper. It was dreck, in a fashion. His criticisms were nothing new, actually. People and the critics that he puts down have been saying similar things for years. I always thought that season 5 was the best season.

  4. I’d say what he’s responding to (and having trouble) with that argument is the larger TV/Internet culture that has surrounded Lost from the beginning. The line between fans and creators (and critic) has ellided with the invention of the internet, to the point where we can have fans like those who instigated the Chuckpocalypse, or the fans who are claiming a Shark Jump on Bones over tonight’s finale, simply because what they wanted to happen didn’t happen . . . (especially when those fans arguably have no place making such claims on a show which they have no authorial claim over) .

    Before the internet, you watched what was on your TV. It was a dictatorship, with the network and the showrunners holding all the power. Now, creators are certainly feeling more pressure to make fans happy, but when you have a fanbase with such differing opinions (and wants and desires, etc.), that is frankly impossible. This is why Lost won’t please everyone (and why BSG didn’t either).

    In short, I agree that Hale is wrong to criticize Lost in this manner. Because while this rabid internet fan culture is, well, rabid, I think they have also proven themselves intelligent, passionate, and demanding of quality television (which is another thing altogether: the networks have largely failed at creating another Lost because they’re focusing on concept over quality). I don’t think that’s something you can gloss over just because you don’t happen to like the story being told.

  5. Darren72

    Nice response to Hale’s uneven and surprisingly cynical piece. It seems as if he sought out a perspective that has yet to be taken on the show and latched on. It’s more “different” than insightful and in the end it’s a bit unconvincing and a little insincere. He doesn’t quite blast the show but rather sprinkles in some petty quibbles (Season 1 is the best – ok, sure but so what?). He seems to be a reluctant fan who wants to distance himself from the hype at the eleventh hour. But rather than take on the huge phenomenon that is LOST, rather than break it down to its pieces, Hale merely rolls his eyes snickers. He might get a smile out of someone who knows very little about LOST – the reader who just wants to know what all the fuss is about so they can dismiss it. But for the rabid fans (who love the show) and the even more rabid anti-fans (who hate the show but still watch), the piece is neither here nor there.

  6. Darren72

    Oh yeah – and since when do critics site ratings as a sign of quality?

  7. Damien

    It seems that Hale is trying to get attention by writing a contrarian piece about the show. It is very suspicious when someone writes a piece panning Lost just 3 days before the finale in the midst of congratulatory articles about the show. It seems to me that Mr Hale is trying to be the Armond White of LOST criticism

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  9. HJA

    Really great response, thanks.

  10. Matt

    I just have to say thank you for this piece. You really hit it on the nose with Hale’s article being “disappointing” in how he handled it.

    And I really don’t understand any complaint someone could have about cinematography on Lost. I don’t think you can get much better camerawork than this show and Mad Men. The only thing I could think of is the flash-sideways seem a little washed-out lighting-wise but I absolutely think that’s intentional.

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