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).