It's alright if it takes the scenic route. But Lost doesn't even know what town it's in, says David Davies
I was a massive fan of The X-Files. I had a schoolboy crush on Gillian Anderson and tuned in every week to see if David Duchovny would trip over his bottom lip. It was a thrilling show; grown-up science fiction minus the tongue-in-cheek, treating subject matter such as alien abduction and liver-eating stretchy men with the seriousness they deserved. Of particular interest to a schoolboy with nothing to do in the winter months except attempt to surf the net on a 56k modem was what is now referred to as the "mythology" of the series. This was a narrative thread that encompassed the entire run of the show. The principal idea evolved around a government conspiracy to cover up the existence of extraterrestrials. Sounds juicy - and for a few glorious seasons it was magical television, tidbits of information revealed by key characters uncovering yet more of this all-encompassing plot to bring about the end of civilisation as we know it.
To paraphrase Edmund Blackadder, there was, unfortunately, one fatal flaw in their plan. It was bollocks. By the end of the ninth and final season, the show's creator Chris Carter was ringing fans up to figure out just what the hell was going on. Turns out the fans had about as much idea as a straight man in Habitat. The series ended on a farcical kangaroo court two-parter, where David Duchovny spent a steady ninety minutes outlining exactly what it was that didn't make sense. Left behind in the rubble was the hope of keeping the reputation of the series intact, and one damaged young man who vowed never again to indulge the ramblings of madmen.
So it was with a heavy heart that I avoided Lost. Like the plague. During the first couple of seasons, LCD exposure of more than ten minutes at a time was unacceptable. One time I got through half an hour, feeling myself sucked in by the strangely magnetic presence of the Jack Osbourne lookalike and the bald man who, quite clearly, had lost it a long time ago and wasn't getting it back any time soon. There also appeared to be a very large black man with a big staff who definitely, at some point, was about to kick serious ass. I felt like Homer watching the little white-suited karate man: 'But, Marge, that little guy hasn't done anything yet. Look at him. He's going to do something and you know it's going to be good.' By casting my mind back to those horrible final seasons of The X-Files, I was able to tear myself away. Now, with the show enduring Battleships-style potshots from critics and fans alike, it seems like the wise choice. Even my brother, an avid Lost fan, has let the current series float away on the airwaves. One of the biggest shows on TV is succumbing to The Show Must Go On syndrome.
The incubation period of the syndrome is long, perhaps terminally so. Programmes can go through three, sometimes even four seasons before they begin to display initial symptoms. The first is viewer dissatisfaction. In the creation of a mythology, a fine balance must be struck between questions and answers. Too many answers, and it begins to lose its mystique. Too few, and the viewer begins to lose interest and feel cheated. This is what's happening to Lost. Although J J Abrams and co. claim to have some kind of eight-season plan in hand whereby everything will be revealed, there comes a point when fanboys register how unwieldy the myriad story threads have become. I can already predict a similar outcome for new show on the block Heroes. Creating a mythology, especially in the geeky science fiction genre, is an excellent way to forge viewer loyalty, but only if you give the viewer what they want.
It's beginning to sound like too fine a line. Yet some shows have succeeded. Babylon 5, for instance, was widely considered to be an incredibly well executed story arc. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine also settled into a beautifully conceived mythology in its final few seasons. The difference is, these were niche shows. Originally aiming for broad appeal, they eventually whittled their audience down to the die hard few. They worked because they wrote for a fanbase. With a show like Lost, the phenomenon has outweighed the original premise. It has entered popular culture in a way that the initial remit never really catered for. Mythologies simply don't work across a wide demographic. To fulfil their promise, they must filter down their audience into those who understand, and are willing, to follow the show to its conclusion.
More than this, there has to be a conclusion, and the audience must feel aware that this is so. Where Lost has gone wrong is in its insistence on creating this massive, incomprehensible world of flashbacks and randomness. There is never that sense of resolution of parts, which are in turn vital components of the still unknown whole. If you want your viewers to invest in your programme, you have to pay out the occasional dividend.
There will never be a ratings smash based on a thought through, put together mythology. By establishing a long running, insular world of references and unsolved puzzles, creators of great television would acknowledge that they need to go after an audience who will be receptive to the mythology they have created. If you go the Lost route, you will end up floundering and your show will crash and burn like a broken airplane. There's still time for Abrams to turn it around. All he needs to do is identify the viewers who are still asking the questions, and tailor his answers to them and them only. Maybe then he won't have to ring the fans to find out what's going on.