Lost in Real Life

It has been ten years, and I still fume about the ending of the TV series Lost. To this day, when I see the name of Damon Lindelof, the show-runner of Lost, attached to some new project, I take it as a red-flag of caution, not a badge of quality.

Lost was the hit TV show that ran from 2004-2010 on ABC. The story concerned the fates of the survivors of an airliner that crashed on a mysterious island somewhere in the Pacific – a tropical island inhabited by polar bears and smoke monsters and strange groups of castaways. With compelling characters and intriguing plots, the series became both a popular and critical success. I started watching it with the second episode and was immediately hooked. From the very beginning, questions and mysteries filled the show. Questions about characters’ past, questions about characters’ futures, questions about who else was on the island and why and what do they want, questions about the very nature of the island itself. The show was very good at hooking viewers with questions. Unfortunately, the show was never quite as good at providing answers. Even when the creators delivered answers, those answers just generated even more questions – or weren’t even answers at all, just the original question in a different form. The final episode of the show left so many questions unanswered that the producers had to follow up with a short epilogue on the DVD collection to address some of them, and even then questions were left unanswered and many answers we had gotten made little sense. To this day, fans still debate the ending of the series and try to make sense out of it all.

But Lost is hardly the first story to get so wrapped up in its own mystery that its creators forget about figuring out answers.  Spinning questions, posing cryptic riddles is easy and fun. Coming up with answers is hard work. Twin Peaks was notorious for its never-answered questions. The finale of The Prisoner makes no sense. Has anyone ever figured out what was really going on in The DC Challenge? If the creators of Lost ultimately could not make sense of their own web of cryptic confusion, at least they gave us an entertaining show along the way. So, the show’s failure to provide clarity is not what so especially galls me even now. Failure is an essential risk in creating art.

Instead, what gnaws at me is how Lindelof and his co-showrunner Carlton Cruse tried to excuse their failure. Before the final season of the show aired, the pair promised that in the coming season many questions would finally be answered. Many, but not all. Some key mysteries might not be explained, they warned. Just like in “real life.” In real life, they said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here,) we don’t always get answers, mysteries don’t get neatly wrapped up, we don’t always find out what is going on, nor what happens next. And we are creating something that mirrors Real Life.

Wrong. Lost was not real life. Lost was a Story.

I don’t mean that in the obvious sense that in real life there are no magic islands that skip through time, inhabited by smoke monsters and the remnants of ancient and modern civilizations. Instead, I mean there is a fundamental difference between stories and real life that anyone creating stories must recognize.

Lindelof, and many other creators like him who use that same justification for cryptic work, was correct that in real life we don’t always get answers. In fact, we rarely even get proper endings. Or even beginnings a lot of the time. We meet people when they are already deep into the problems and questions and issues of their lives. We interact with them a while and then they or we move on – one of us moves, we graduate school, we change jobs – and we often never find out what happened next to them. We never see how that relationship worked out or whether they achieved that big promotion. We don’t find out how their story ended. Our lives are buffeted by big forces – pandemics, wars, civilizational change – that we as individuals can only dimly perceive, and even less understand. We are often just background actors in some epic tale spanning decades. Life is fragments and random actions and questions never answered.

Stories, on the other hand, have a beginning, middle, and end. In stories, questions get answered. In stories, everything has a point. Edgar Allan Poe insisted that there should never be anything in a story that is not somehow important to the unfolding of the story. Anton Chekhov famously pointed out that if there is a pistol in Act 1 of a play, it should go off in Act 3. Stories pull things together into a coherent whole. Stories provide a sense of boundedness and connection and even control. And that is why we seek out stories. In stories we can see the patterns and connections and bigger meanings that elude us in real life.

We want the world to make sense. So we turn to stories. We invest 6 years into watching a TV show because we know that in the end, the mysteries will be explained, questions answered, conflicts resolved. There will be an ending. Stories provide an escape from the randomness of life. While we are reading/watching/listening we are in a world where we know everything somehow makes sense. And even more important, we carry that sense with us when we return to rest of our lives. We know that, somehow, the world works – that life does have meaning, questions have answers, things happen for a reason. Even if we will never perceive those things, we know they are there because we have experienced them in our stories.

So it drives me up the wall when the creator of a TV show or novel or spoken word tale not only fails in the basic task of creating a story that makes sense, but then goes on to try to claim that their failure is actually some sort of intellectual triumph. When rather than doing the hard work of fixing the story, they excuse themselves by proclaiming that their effort is “just like real life.” We already have real life. We turn to stories to transcend the randomness and confusion. We turn to stories for something more important than just real life.

And that’s why I am still leery of any project that Lindelof is connected to. By his own admission, he has no clue about the nature of stories. So why should I trust him to tell me one?

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