Each US TV season brings with it a crop of new shows: some outstanding, some memorably awful. 2004/2005, though, was a little different from most. This was the year in which we watched Gregory House solve his first medical mystery and were introduced to those notorious housewives of Wisteria Lane, while Battlestar Galactica brought the Cylons back to our screens after decades spent in sci-fi oblivion.
This unusually impressive bunch dominated the schedules for years, attracted reams of critical and fan commentary, and are still remembered with varying degrees of fondness. However, one of the series to air for the first time that season was a different proposition entirely. Mention its famously divisive ending online and you’ll unleash a torrent of derision, nostalgia and passionate debate. Ask fans to explain its myriad mysteries, and, for the most part, you’ll end up no wiser than before. Some buttons should not be pushed, even all these years after it all began.
Still, it’s got to be done. Settle into your seats and prepare for some turbulence. We have to go back to the island.
Lost was, amongst other things, the first pop culture treasure Damon Lindelof – in his capacity as showrunner, alongside Carlton Cuse – was accused of ruining. Those of us who were left more or less satisfied by the finale might wince at this, but it does underline one incontrovertible fact about Lost: it inspired strong feelings in its viewers. That, of course, was always the plan. Its network ABC encouraged fans to post their own theories about the show’s twists and turns on dedicated website The Fuselage, while the fan community on the late, lamented Television Without Pity (TWoP) was a haven for devotees of the show. Even those whose patience wore thin before the end would surely have to admit that part of the fun of the Lost experience lay in thinking, talking and blogging about it for the benefit of fellow aficionados. Best of all, we sometimes got it right – my wild guess that the ageless Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) was actually an immortal survivor of the wrecked slave ship turned out to be spot on, much to my surprise. Some would argue that this says more about the increasing wackiness of the show’s plotlines than it does about my powers of deduction, but we’ll let that pass.
Over the course of its six seasons, Lost introduced us to a large and shifting cast of fine actors, each one tasked with exploring a multi-layered backstory. The downing of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 as it flew from Sydney to Los Angeles left its 70 survivors struggling for survival on a beautiful island that quickly revealed itself to be fraught with danger. The impossible presence of polar bears was an early clue that all was not as it should be, while a deadly ‘Smoke Monster’ was soon established as the castaways’ biggest fear. Then, of course, there were the mysterious Others, whose habit of kidnapping members of our rarely merry band helped ratchet up the tension.
The pilot episode gave us a hero of sorts in the shape of Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), a surgeon whose unravelling personal life haunted him even as he found new purpose in leading the survivors to a fragile safety. His friends and rivals in the ill-matched group included fugitive Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), emotionally damaged confidence man Sawyer (Josh Holloway), enigmatic survivalist John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) and sweet-natured, luckless Hugo ‘Hurley’ Reyes (Jorge García). Sun Kwon (Yunjin Kim) and her husband Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) struggled with their ailing marriage and Jin’s initial lack of English, and clashed with Michael Dawson (Harold Perrineau) whose sole interest was in protecting his young son, Walt (Malcolm David Kelley). Heroin-addicted rock star Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan) forged a bond with gentle mum-to-be, Claire Littleton (Emilie de Ravin), while Boone Carlyle (Ian Somerhalder) smouldered in the general direction of his stepsister Shannon Rutherford (Maggie Grace) as she embarked on a tentative romance with Iraqi former torturer, Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews). Then, of course, there was Rose Nadler (L. Scott Caldwell), who sat looking out to sea and waiting for her husband, Bernard – missing presumed killed in Flight 815’s detached tail section – to return. Her fellow survivors looked on with pity, but as it turned out, Rose’s faith would be rewarded.
Faith, in its different forms, was a driving factor in Lost. Locke’s unswerving belief in the island’s regenerative power after it restored his mobility pitted him against Jack’s determination to rationalise their experiences. On the surface, this appeared to be a straightforward clash between a man of science and a man of faith, as the season two premiere would have it. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s powerful performance as warlord-turned-priest, Mr. Eko appeared to reinforce Locke’s respect for the island, as the only man who dared to confront the Smoke Monster head on was struck down. Yet in the end, Locke’s touching conviction that he had been chosen for greatness was revealed to be the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecies. Jack, meanwhile, would lead a successful escape attempt only to make equally strenuous efforts to get back to the island. It was his final acceptance of his inability to fix every problem he faced that made Jack’s character arc so moving, as he gave his life to allow his fellow castaways to escape. Ultimately, love and self-sacrifice proved to be the redemption of all these broken souls.
Lost’s deft handling of science-fiction ideas sharpened the plotting of seasons four and five, with magnificent, Emmy-nominated time-travel episode ‘The Constant’ finally explaining the history of Desmond Hume (Ian Henry Cusick) and setting the high-concept tone for what was to come. Even though co-creator (with Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber) J.J. Abrams departed after directing the pilot, the show could still provide spectacle on a grand scale. In the end, though, the action set-pieces and the often exhilarating twists aren’t what come to mind when I remember Lost. As characters’ backstories were fleshed out, we journeyed all over the globe and centuries back in time. The one link between all these disparate scenarios was the overwhelming need for human connection, and the unbreakable bonds of human devotion. Desmond’s plight was emblematic of the show’s greatest theme: the need for a fixed point in each life, for a person or people without whom nothing really mattered. Lost’s superb cast drove this point home at every opportunity. If one performance stands out above the rest – and that’s a big if – it’s Terry O’Quinn’s. John Locke’s blighted, unfulfilled existence was a tale of cosmic unfairness, and O’Quinn made us feel every bitter blow. No character was more deserving of the possibility of a second chance at happiness in the hereafter.
And that, of course, brings us to that ending, in which we learnt that the island didn’t really matter much after all. The people we had followed through six seasons of half-truths and red herrings met in the afterlife, after a season’s worth of plot that, it transpired, had taken place in some purgatorial realm as they came to terms with the circumstances of their life’s journey. Was this a touching moment of spiritual awakening or a monumental cop-out? While the latter view’s entirely understandable, you can count me as one of those who loved it. In the end, the island and all its mysteries melted into insignificance as our castaways found each other again. It shouldn’t have worked. Those who protest that the events of season six were invalidated by the revelations of the final episode make a good case. But as soon as Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score kicks in, reason takes a backseat.
Frustrating, baffling, convoluted and unsatisfying. All these terms can be used to describe the long and winding tale that ended in that final, blissful reunion in May 2010. It was also ambitious, inventive, frequently moving and rarely dull. There will never be anything quite like it on TV again – and that, in a nutshell, is why we’re still talking about Lost.
This article originally appeared in September 2014 for Lost’s 10th anniversary. Read about the new sci-fi, fantasy and horror US shows on their way here.