'Lost' or not, we're still at loose ends

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; A01

"Lost" exhausts. It was a vacation in hell, our own wonderful hell, a "Gilligan's Island" getaway for our nervous, crisscross-wired culture. A bunch of fictional characters clad in grimy gray Gap T-shirts tromped all over the hills and jungles of an illusory, magical isle -- a place that represented about a thousand different metaphors. America, it's so obvious: Millions of you loved "Lost" because you feel lost.

It's been a long six years of goose chases and mash-up mythologies. It was filled with ultimately irrelevant numerology and hieroglyphics that mostly turned out to be set decor. It was tall pirate ships and utopian VW buses; literary references to everything from 19th-century philosophy to "The Empire Strikes Back" to Holy Communion wine.

As it lugubriously ends Sunday night on ABC, "Lost" leaves us more or less where it all began, but also with a spooky idea of the 21st century thus far. It was the perfect show for our frustrated '00s era, in which no one had to answer for anything much -- not for the real estate and Wall Street busts, the levee floods, the bad war intelligence.

While we fought elusive enemies in distant lands; while we vanished down our personal, broadband rabbit holes; while we doubted our elected officials; while we spent ourselves into impossible debts, "Lost" was along for the ride, with its unsolvable puzzles and its exhilarating but dorky extremes of fandom culture.

Though ratings steadily declined since "Lost's" debut in 2004, the show held a firm grasp on some 10 million viewers (roughly half of the average viewership of the two most popular shows on TV, "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars"). Like anything these days, it survived on the passion of its niche audience, which skewed young and tech-savvy.

" 'Lost' is in a class by itself," ABC's programming chief, Jeff Bader, said this week. "It is the most successful cult show ever."

But enough now. Enough with the instanalyses blogged and updated and tweeted late at night -- or, more fittingly, during the next afternoon in cubicles all across the so-called American workplace. This is not one of those "Lost" farewells that goes over it and over it one more time. No charts, no diagrams, no last-minute theories.

Instead it's a farewell to a feeling.

"Lost" did feelings and vibes better than anything else it tried to do. The last of its stalwart followers are bracing themselves for the fact that there are no resolute answers -- not only to this epic, opaquely plotted television series, but maybe not to anything.

Pressed for finale revelations, the show's producers and chief visionaries, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, more or less cried uncle a few weeks ago, telling an interviewer that there's no way to answer all of "Lost's" many mysteries. (Indeed, fans have compiled online lists of dozens of questions that still "need" answers.)

It was never about answers, "Lost's" makers claimed, so much as it was about story, characters -- the surviving passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 who death-marched from one desolately beautiful beach to another, for days, weeks, time-warped decades, and, finally, when reunited, hardly ever asked one another:

Where have you been?

What did you see?

Tell me everything.

* * *

Or tell me nothing. "Lost" never valued direct talk. It preferred cutaways and clipped responses and the roar of a jet engine as a segue-saver.

In fact, "Lost" banked on the very modern, Internet-era notion that there is no such thing as truth. Anything you present to me as truth, I will simply find a link that demonstrates otherwise. No findings are ever definitively found. The closest you can get is "truthiness," as Stephen Colbert, a jester of the "Lost" era, christened it. Truthiness haunts the "Lost" years like the smoke monster that inhabits John Locke.

At its most essential, the show was about an airplane crash, told from every possible angle. That's also our story -- wounded by the events of 9/11 and the controlled chaos that came with new battlefields and the worst economy in 70 years.

Like the Oceanic survivors, we have become paranoid about security and finding our way "back" to something we'll never have again. We placed our trust in the show's lead character, Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), and he spent seasons squandering it. For years, the show was simply an argument about faith. (And a fear of "the Others.")

Although it functioned as a glorious escape hatch from our concerns, "Lost" performs ably, if a bit accidentally, as an allegory about society at is most insecure: It premiered just weeks before George W. Bush's reelection and during a disastrous war effort, and bows out amid the increasingly unfulfilled ambitions of the Obama years. It begins in the undisclosed location and ends with a background din of show-me-the-birth-certificate suspicions. It aired during years and years of endless committee inquiries on Capitol Hill that resulted in . . . nothing much at all.

(Disagree? Then there was a show for you, too, on another network -- another Jack to turn to in our time of national need; a show custom-wrapped in all the same 9/11 anxiety, where plot was a rigid, linear set of calisthenics and torture was A-OK; it was called "24.")

"Lost" was mostly about people saying one thing and doing another, or withholding answers. That hit a nerve, as we demanded answers from officials and CEOs and government contractors who seemed willfully noncompliant about sharing secrets. "Lost's" island was filled with duplicity, duality. Our world was all too like the tangled mess of "Lost's" second season. It was the feeling of being had.

Finally, in the spring of 2007, the makers of "Lost" had to agree that their story's convolutions had become unbearable. It was a little like the demands to pull troops out of Iraq. Order came in the form of a firm deadline, when it was announced that the show would wrap up, like it or not, in 2010. After that, bit by bit, "Lost" started making some sense.

Which, for some, dovetailed nicely with the youthful sunshine that accompanied Barack Obama's election -- the "hopey-changey" stuff, to borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin. Six of the lead castaways made it home, while the island started hiccuping through time with the rest of the gang. When it skidded to a halt, some of "Lost's" characters lived happily on the Dharma Initiative's commune in the 1970s, while Jack and the others who made it home to the late 2000s had to face their fates and return to the island, via another plane crash. There, they set off a nuclear bomb that split the stories and the characters into parallel timelines.

Which, in a way, is how it's always going to be. We'll go on living in the future; the people of "Lost" will forever belong to the 2000s, which some are already calling "the lost decade."

* * *

The right way to experience "Lost" was on a vast Internet archipelago of fan sites. You couldn't just watch a TV show; to truly experience it, you also had to do all the auxiliary "Lost" homework and reading assignments.

This is where many people checked out -- the show eventually shed 6 million of the 16 million viewers it had averaged in its first season. But with each season, something more important went up: a feeling of belonging to a club.

You can sell an audience like that a lot of expensive gizmos. Lately, and not coincidentally, many of the commercials that air during "Lost" are about constant linkage.

On the iPhone commercials, a woman in an airport brags that she used her phone to check in for a flight, find a suitable snack bar for her children and turn off the lights that her husband forgot to turn off; a college kid boasts how he traveled across Spain and always knew where he was (and how to communicate in Spanish) and was able to send photos to his worried helicopter mommy, thanks to his many iPhone apps.

The phone ads love to show you colored maps of the continent, where you're safe (coverage) and where things get spotty, desolate, lost -- especially if you have the wrong plan. The car commercials all boast about GPS and OnStar connections, because you never know what will happen.

There's always a way out of trouble now, with the right gadgets. Perhaps what many loved most about "Lost" was the idea that you can still get lost. Now, after all this flailing about, how do we get found?

Staff writer Lisa de Moraes contributed to this report.


ends with four-plus hours of programming Sunday night on ABC, beginning with a series recap ("The Final Journey") at 7, followed by a 2 1/2 -hour final episode ("The End") at 9.

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