Reflections on Reviewing Lost
May 22nd, 2010
There are a lot of articles floating around the internet right now about Lost’s legacy (including a great one from my brother), but I don’t necessarily know if I’m prepared to contribute to them.
This comes from the fact that I’ve already written about nearly every facet of this series. Because of my recent “Television, The Aughts & I” series, I’ve written extensively about how Lost was part of my initial initiation into the world of being a television obsessive. Due to the complaints piling up even before this past season began, I already wrote my lengthy diatribe against those who believe that Lost “owes” something to its fans. Since we were also already in a list-making mood before Season Six, I’ve done my list of key episodes as well. And not only has the mysterious nature of Season 6 kept the series’ conclusion almost entirely unpredictable, but reviewing every episode along the way means that I’ve already analyzed much of the season’s narrative in great detail.
However, I feel like I’m letting the haters win if I don’t write something “broad” ahead of the finale: I’ve been arguing for weeks that the people who believe that a finale could fundamentally change their opinion of the series are a bit nuts, so to avoid writing about the series’ legacy (definitively speaking) until after the finale would be conceding defeat on that particular argument.
So, taking all of this into account, I figure the best way to write about Lost is to write about the experience of writing about Lost, which feels especially timely considering the attack on Lost criticism in Mike Hale’s New York Times piece I responded to on Thursday. I am not paid to write about Lost, nor are paid critics necessarily required to write as much about the show as they do. If we ask why myself or my fellow critics write about the show with such passion, the answer would be part reflection on the show itself, part reflection on the fan culture surrounding the show, and part reflection on the ways in which television criticism has evolved over the past six years.
Critics write about Lost for reasons beyond its popularity, just as bloggers write about Lost for reasons beyond blog stats, and their reasons offer an interesting glimpse into Lost’s legacy and an explanation for why so many of us will be burning the midnight oil long into Monday morning and still writing about the show in the months ahead.
When I first started writing about Lost, I wasn’t writing what one would call criticism: I’d spent the entire hour viciously taking notes to be able to provide a step-by-step recap of the episode immediately after it aired, and then I’d take some time to throw together some brief thoughts on the episode as a whole (forgive the stilted writing style, but here’s an example). I was trapped between two of the dominant modes of writing about the series, each with their own pros and cons as it relates to capturing the unique dramatic qualities of the series.
In some ways, Lost is built for recaps: its often-confusing narrative twists and its reliance on embedded references to earlier storylines and episodes means that recaps are a great way for fans who might have missed something to get filled in on the details. While I am amongst those who would argue the show is about characters first and mythology second, I understand that “plot” is an important part of the series, so lengthy explanations of every character action are a logical way that viewers engage with each episode. This was especially true in the third season, where it still felt like these little details could hold the key to something much larger and that this sort of dialogue was the series’ distinctive quality.
However, “Through the Looking Glass” was unquestionably a turning point for Lost as a series and my own experience writing about it. The introduction of the Flash Forward structure completely shifted the series’ narrative, and in confirming that they would eventually leave the island it made the hypothetical tangible in a way which I would argue changed Lost criticism forever. During this period, the series announced its end date and delivered a twist which created concrete goals the series was heading towards, forcing writers to think beyond small moments. It wasn’t that recaps were no longer valuable, but rather that the show was clearly interested in doing something more, and that what happens is perhaps not as important as what the episode “means” in a thematic sense. Small hints were replaced with major structural shifts, and my reviews evolved (starting with Through the Looking Glass, and extending into the fourth season) into thematic considerations more than strange recap/review hybrids.
Going back into my old reviews, it’s like an artifact of an earlier time: I had oddly critical things to say about “Greatest Hits” (an episode I love), while I was fairly apologetic towards “Stranger in a Strange Land” (a terrible episode which, in my defence, I saw as an extension of my argument that the time spent with the Others in the early part of the season was worthwhile). In some ways, I find those reviews more refreshing than recent analysis: sure, I’m much more practiced at talking about the series with three years of criticism under my belt, but I’m also much more cautious about what I write. At that stage, I was sort of just along for the ride, frustrated when the show turned in a direction I didn’t like and willing to respond to an episode with a quick gut reaction. In the show’s sixth season, I’m so wary of the big picture that sometimes I don’t get those reactions across; I wonder if I’ve so internalized the need to look at an episode from every possible angle that I don’t even have the same gut reactions I once had.
I don’t necessarily lament this turn of events: I’m generally one of my first to post my reviews of Lost episodes (to quote my brother, I have a propensity for “writing like it’s going out of style”), and I think it’s because I have so readily embraced this sort of critical approach to television that I’m able to more quickly sort through my thoughts on an episode. And in the show’s sixth season, where getting too reactive would be ill-advised amidst a complex narrative structure which demands patience, this particular approach has a lot of value. At this stage in the series, people don’t necessarily want a gut reaction so much as they want something to chew on, theories and ideas and perspectives which could spark more conversation. The fan culture has evolved to the point where they don’t want simple opinions, nor do they necessarily want elaborate conspiracy theories: rather, they’re looking for analysis of episodes which adds a new context or a new perspective to the mix, something that encourages further criticism.
And while I do sometimes miss the days where I would just hop over to NeoGAF and get into an argument with someone about an episode of the series without the “responsibility” of further analysis, it’s important to note that I love this process; I still get excited before each new episode, and I’m still on the edge of my seat with everyone else. The critics who have been writing about every episode of Lost this season (Alan Sepinwall, James Poniewozik, Maureen Ryan, Noel Murray, Todd VanDerWerff, Jace Lacob, etc.) have one thing in common: they enjoy writing about Lost. If they didn’t (and we’d be able to tell), they wouldn’t be doing it: while there is certainly some value to bringing fan audiences to their respective publications, the amount of time and effort people spend would be far less were they only doing it for a paycheck (or, in some cases including my own, for no paycheck). Someone like Jeff “Doc” Jensen at Entertainment Weekly is the perfect example of this: while a major entertainment site having copious amounts of Lost coverage is smart business, Jensen’s obsessive tendencies come from a love for the show and its storytelling rather than obligation, which is what makes his coverage so definitive.
Reviews are not simply an outlet for these critics’ own thoughts about an episode but are also way to prompt further discussion: when I sat down to collect reviews of the divisive “Across the Sea,” reading all of the various critics’ perspectives was a microcosm of viewer response, capturing the range of reactions we all experienced within friends or twitter followers who viewed the episode. TV criticism is serving more and more as a magnet for discussion, an initial statement which branches off into hundreds of smaller discussions. In some ways you could argue that a Lost review is much like an episode of Lost itself, telling a single narrative while creating and connecting with dozens more, interactive experiences which go beyond the initial act of reading or viewing and become something more substantial.
The sixth season has had all of the reviewers on edge to some degree: everyone knows that this is the end, so we’ve all been balancing our patience in Lindelof and Cuse as storytellers with our anxiety over the pace of the season. I’ve been participating (after some kind folks suggested my name) in The ODI’s poll regarding each episode where they ask for a letter grade, and it’s been a real challenge: since I don’t generally grade episodes, it’s been a bit strange to have to consider this each week, and at times it has felt near impossible without knowledge of where the season was going. Noel Murray has said that his letter grades are at this point pretty much stabs in the dark, the text of the review a far better indicator of his perspective. The poll includes a collection of critics and fans, and there are some whose grades range from A to A+++ and some whose grades range from D to A+++++. Mine have settled in between B+ and A, personally, a range that either reflects the show’s general quality and the narrative ups and downs the series has experienced this year or a completely unscientific process where I just sort of threw out a letter and let it sink in for a few minutes.
Along the same lines, Metacritic has been doing something interesting (and, I believe, unique) for the series, collecting and quantifying the reviews for each episode. Film criticism has been irrevocably changed by the way in which sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes boil down a series to its grade and a single blurb of text, and television criticism has by and large avoided this trend (although sites which do offer grades, like The A.V. Club, are subject to some of the negative ramifications as readers lash out against the grades without really reading the textual justification). I don’t meant this to say that no one can offer grades, or that there is no function for offering a quantified overview of an episode’s success, but now that I’ve been on the other side (the critic whose reviews are being summed up) the Metacritic ranks have been a bizarre experience. Every week when editing my review I look over it and think about what pull quote Metacritic will use, and what grade they think I gave the episode. In a season in which critics have smartly resisted making snap judgments, Metacritic turns the reviews into snap judgments anyways; I’m not angry about this, but I can’t help but notice that I got more hits when my review was listed as the “lowest” than when it was simply in the middle of the pack, and I can’t help but feel like this season in particular resists such quantification in favour of the more thorough and complex analysis reflected in the reviews being quantified.
If I had more time (and less to do), I’d try to quantify my experience writing about Lost, and chances are the results (word count, in particular) would terrify me a little bit. I’ve spilled a lot of (digital) ink on the series over the past three years, and been there for many key transitions within its narrative, but ultimately the amount of words I’ve written is irrelevant compared to the experience of it all. I don’t want to harp too much on the “Writing about Lost is like Lost itself” metaphor, but the journey was the most rewarding part of this process: being able to go back and see what I wrote in the past makes me wish that I had been writing about the show from the beginning. In some cases, I imagine reviews that I never actually wrote, remembering my vivid response to “The Constant” even though I didn’t review the episode when it aired (a life-commitment necessitated oversight I later corrected). Writing about Lost has been a tremendously important part of watching Lost for me, and I don’t think I could really imagine it any other way – regardless of what happens in the finale, and how late I end up staying in an effort to write about “The End,” I will never regret a single hour spent furiously writing about the twisty, complex episode I just watched.
And while I’ll miss the show a great deal, I might miss writing about and discussing the show with other critics a little bit more.
- In terms of tomorrow night, the plan is to write a typically lengthy review immediately following the finale, following by a Critics’ Roundup/Response post on Monday morning. Consider this my promise that the review will not reach the unreasonable BSG Finale length (over 9000 words long, in case you were wondering).
- My single longest Lost review: Season Five finale “The Incident,” clocking in at roughly 5000 words.
- My first ever post on Lost: “Dangers of the Lost (Mini-)Arc: Season Three Continues” [February 7th, 2007].