It’s been 12 years since Lost ended, but we finally have our heir to the mystery-box throne.
It was more than a decade ago that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse closed the book on Lost. The serial action-drama, which blended in elements of science fiction and light fantasy as the years went on, lasted six seasons on network TV between 2004 and 2010. It survived the 2007 writer’s strike as one of the most popular network shows of its time and unfolded during the seismic shift in television, with viewers beginning to move from cable to streaming subscriptions like then-burgeoning versions of Netflix and Hulu.
12 years later, Lost exists as a rare hybrid breed of compelling serial drama and so-called “mystery-box,” a word sometimes used pejoratively to describe the way JJ Abrams and his writing disciples, like Lost’s showrunners, have a penchant for throwing a bunch of unanswered questions at the audience, sometimes before the writers know the answers themselves. The Lost writers’ messy but lovable handling of this aspect of the show helped popularize the online theory-crafting fandom that today can be found behind basically any popular mystery-box show. As the internet and social media were going mainstream in the mid-aughts, people took their water cooler talk out of their respective offices and onto forums such as podcasts, Reddit, IMDb, or, in this specific case, Lostpedia.
In the years since Lost went off the air, many shows have been billed as its heir-apparent– Flashforward, Dark, Stranger Things, The Event, Castle Rock, The Leftovers, et al. Most recently, Yellowjackets shares the same catalyzing event of a plane crash leaving survivors stranded. There’s been no shortage of attempts, but only now do I find we finally have the next Lost in HBO’s Westworld. The sci-fi action-drama checks all the boxes of what made Lost special, and most of all, that’s because it’s kind of a lovable mess.
To be the next Lost, a series needs to meet a few requirements. First and foremost, it has to be a show that releases one episode at a time. The Netflix model of dumping an entire season on the audience’s lap isn’t conducive to forming the next Lost. As the network or servive, you leave the audience with no time to theory-craft. As soon as a new season is out, many fans rush to the end, totally avoiding the popular forums where the fandom dwells between episodes. Perhaps cynically, this format doesn’t seem to be about giving fans an experience to remember. It just gives them something to consume. Like beating a bad video game or reading a lousy book, sometimes the act of starting something and getting to the end just feels nice. Netflix and others know this, but to be the next Lost, that breathing space is critical.
To be the next Lost, a show also needs to carry its mystery-box in the hands of compelling characters. Lost’s approach was to dedicate each episode to a single character. We’d watch their latest happenings on the island they crash-landed on in 2004, but we’d also flashback routinely to their lives before the crash. This gave brilliant insight into the massive ensemble cast of characters, and it’s still odd that seemingly no show has lifted this approach wholesale.
But Westworld has come pretty close at times, like when instance one of the major reveals of its first season is that the characters William and The Man In Black (sound familiar?) are one in the same, and the events we saw playing out for them during the season were actually from two different periods of William’s life decades apart. Like Lost’s own Man In Black and his brother Jacob, William’s arc touches on the dark and light duality of humankind.
In a way, Lost’s centric episode format was given a season-long treatment for William. Through similar time-jumps or perspective shifts, we’ve gotten to know Dolores, Bernard, Maeve, Charlotte, Caleb, and more of Westworld’s ensemble just as well, and because they too are so compelling, the mystery-box is able to persist and thrive. A show doesn’t need these time jumps to be the next Lost, but it at least needs a long list of great characters, and Westworld certainly has that.
While the mystery-box needs to be held up by a weekly format and compelling characters–without the latter, a show may be destined for cancelation–a good mystery-box series also thrives on one other factor: disarray. Lost, for all of its awards and plaudits, was routinely a mess. What were the whispers? Who really was the smoke monster? Why can the island move across Earth? These and many, many other questions were often asked by writers who wanted the fans to consider the answers, but often times, when the show gave us definitive answers, fans felt unfulfilled.
In one Season 6 example, we learned that the smoke monster couldn’t directly kill “candidates,” a term for prospective protectors of the island, but three seasons earlier, we saw the smoke monster demolish Mr. Eko in an instant, and we know from the show that Mr. Eko was, at one point anyway, a candidate. Was he no longer a candidate when the smoke monster killed him? It’s reasonable head-canon, but the show never really explained it. I like a show that doesn’t spoon-feed some things, but even as a Lost superfan I can point to half a dozen mysteries that were given answers that clearly don’t mesh with some earlier events in the series.
Westworld has a similar problem, but mind you, I wouldn’t say either show “suffers” from being messy. What does it take to kill a host? What really is the Sublime? Why does Maeve have her emerging, almost supernatural, abilities and no one else does? Perhaps the writers plan to answer these questions in due time. Through three seasons and then some, however, the internal logic isn’t always consistent. Some hosts die when they’re fatally shot, others don’t. We jumped ahead seemingly many years to see William being replaced by host copies of himself, but how long in the future, and what’s it matter anyway? Sometimes a mystery-box series can get so caught up in the puzzles, it forgets to plot out the solutions.
Like Lost, it’s reasonable to want–and even expect–answers to every question propositioned by the writers. But series are rarely plotted out in full ahead of time. Even an all-timer like Breaking Bad was largely made up as it went along–pretty remarkable when you consider how tightly it all comes together. But that’s a show about regular people. Lost is part-sci-fi. Westworld is all sci-fi. Keeping things neat and answers satisfying across half a decade or more when a show’s lore bible is constantly being re-written to include stuff like time travel, robots, smoke monsters, and futuristic dystopias is simply a tougher task because writers aren’t existing in our world, they’re building a new one.
This is especially hard when you’ve got legions of fans looking over every inch of an episode for clues like it’s the Zapruder Film– a lesson the Westworld crew learned firsthand when fans on the subreddit accurately predicted pretty much the entire first season’s worth of events after a few episodes.
Such nerdy fervor for a show’s plot, themes, and characters hasn’t really been seen since Lost, and it only gets to exist now because the show is aired one episode at a time, because the characters are worth getting to know, and because a messy mystery makes for a fun fandom.
Westworld exists in a much more fragmented TV landscape, so it doesn’t pull in the 10 million viewers that Lost once did on ABC, but I’d estimate the spaces where the diehard fans hang out to craft theories based on the latest still-frames of Dolores’ computer screen are even better populated than similar spaces were in 2009 when Lost fans tried to figure out who Jacob was. I hope Westworld gets to meet its natural end, much like Lost did, because with shows like these, I’m not compelled by simply finishing something I’ve started. With shows like these, the messy and exciting journey with like-minded fans will always outshine the destination anyway.
Mark Delaney on Google+
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