What Happened, Happened

We’ve seen our last Lost (except for the ones that are playing in an alternate universe), so analysis of the series is reaching Zapruder-like proportions. With its extensive use of metaphor and imagery–particularly Christian imagery–it lends itself to quite a bit of analysis for a TV show.  Both Gospel.com and Think Christian took a crack at it:


… I keep thinking back to the themes that defined the show: atonement, second chances, faith, trust, life and death. In a lot of ways, it ended up being a deeply religious show.

Think Christian:

I have always viewed Lost as a network TV equivalent to metaphoric literature—a great fable or legend epitomizing or explaining the human journey—similar to Pilgrim’s Progress or something C.S. Lewis or G.K Chesteron would write. However, as I sit here the day after the full story has been revealed, I regret that Lost did not end up having one specific trait in common with the works of Flannery O’Connor, Lewis and Chesteron: a clear and definite belief system behind the story.

I think Lost is a great achievement for its creators and it’s certainly one of the best TV shows of its era.  But if you’re looking to a weekly drama to answer the heavy questions of the universe or even address them with the depth of a Chesterton or Lewis, you’re barking up the wrong island.

TV shows (and movies) are not good platforms for thinking.  They are engines for manipulating emotions. They give you good guys and bad guys, put them in compelling predicaments, and then reinforce your emotional responses with dialog, lighting, and music. That’s not a put down; that’s just what that medium is.  And when it’s well done, it can be very compelling indeed.

I understand how some people might be upset that the storyteller’s contract with the audience was broken when all these questions were left unanswered. It’s true that people have a right to expect a plot line that makes some kind of sense.  But there’s also the tradition of the MacGuffin:

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is “a plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction”. The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. (Examples might include money, victory/glory, survival, a source of power, a potential threat, etc….or something entirely unexplained.)

The MacGuffin is common in films, especially thrillers. Commonly, though not always, the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and later declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. It usually comes back into play at the climax of the story, but sometimes the MacGuffin is actually forgotten by the end of the film.

(Thanks, Wikipedia!) If you’re unfamiliar with the use of MacGuffins for convenient, and disposable, plot devices, well then allow me to introduce you to the work of one Mr. J.J. Abrams, whose work is so riddled with them that he should change his name to “MacGuffin.”

Abrams isn’t in business to answer plot structure questions.  He wants to draw you into character studies, and the record shows that he’ll throw out whatever red herring is required to get you.  If you’re offended by this, let him know, and I’m sure he’ll send you a lovely apology note written while he sits in a bathtub full of hundred dollar bills.

That is also not a put down, mind you. It’s just an attempt to emphasize two points: 1) By now, you should know what you’re getting from J.J. Abrams, and 2) J.J. Abrams is very good at what he does.

My definition for “art” is, “a creative work that leaves itself open to interpretation.” I’m not going to call Lost art, but I will say that it approaches art.  I hope that all the people who are mad about the loose plot threads don’t miss the really interesting thing that Lost gave us, which is: all the loose plot threads–all the opportunities for speculation, contemplation, and interpretation. (Sorry, didn’t mean to get all Jesse Jackson on you there.)

Now, did the writers know what they were doing the whole time? Nope, not even close. And because of that, Lost veered into the silly a whole bunch. But the producers did a great job of leaving us that open space to fill in our own interpretation of events.  Whether they did it on purpose or they needed it because they couldn’t figure out anything else to do, it’s that space that makes the show bigger than the writers could have made it themselves.

(pic from io9 post, “Land of the Lost Was Cooler Than Lost.” Sleestaks, y’all!)


  1. Some excellent observations, especially on the nature of TV as an emotional rather than intellectual medium.

    However, I would disagree with your suggestion that a weekly drama cannot answer or even address the heavy questions of the universe. Clearly, they can’t with the depth of a written novel.

    But all narratives–written, visual, or oral–deal in questions, big or small.

    TV stories, no less than Bible stories, wrestle with who we are, what’s wrong with us, and how things can be fixed. One way or another, every story has an opinion on some sort of salvation.

    And of course, when stories start using religious symbols and debating the nature of faith and evil, even as a macguffin, they’re saying something about those questions.

    So even if Abrams just likes to stir up the pot with religio-mumbo-jumbo, he’s still saying ‘enjoy the ride, because it doesn’t matter.’

  2. True dat. Even in cases where “religion” or religious imagery is used unthoughtfully or inconsistantly with tradtion, it still says something about the attitudes of the people who use it and the religious attitudes of the era. The people behind Lost probably have some respect for Judeo-Christian trations on some level, but outside of their subconscious, they probably just see it as convenient window dressing.

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