24 May 2010 10:40 pm   //   Filed under: Review, TV

“Lost” and the dawn of the criticism-proof TV show

“Lost” was the only TV series I’ve ever watched start-to-finish as it aired. The finale yesterday was superb television—keeping the mystery alive, adding a few life lessons to chew on, and remaining a textbook study in how to craft a powerful narrative from pictures, words, sound effects and (especially) music.

There were things about “Lost” that annoyed me. Soap-operatic births and deaths. Showy yet shallow literary and Biblical references. The feeling that I always had to be scanning for continuity problems so I could sound smarter than other “Lost” fans in water cooler conversation. And there were some real stinker episodes (like the 3rd-to-last one) mixed in with the excellent ones (like the one where Mr. Eko dies). But the show, as a whole, was great fun to watch, and deserves a rich, long life in reruns.

One of the best and worst things about the show was its tendency to be self-referential—especially in having the characters criticize the show’s own convoluted plot lines. I began to notice this in the fifth season, when the character Hurley announced his confusion when other characters tried to explain the time-travel aspects of the plot. Knowing we needed it, the writers wrote an ombudsman into the show. Hugo Reyes, audience advocate!

By season 6, we had Miles playing the skeptic. After a really contrived scene in which Sun is said to be suffering from aphasia after getting knocked out, Miles asks, “She hits her head and forgets English? Are we supposed to buy that?”

The writers became the show’s best and most obsessive critics. They identified places where bubbles of cynicism were be growing, and used the characters to pop them. By the time we got the finale, these there was a lot of bubble popping to be done. After a particularly corny bit of exposition in the first few minutes, Hurley, a Star Wars fan like much of the “Lost” audience, chimes in with a well-timed, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Then there’s this one, also from the finale. It primes the audience for the finale’s heavy-handed reliance on Christian imagery, and addresses “Lost”‘s annoying tendency to give characters obvious, symbolic names.

Kate: “Who died?” Desmond: “A man named Christian Shepherd.” Kate: “Christian Shepherd? Seriously?” Desmond: “Seriously.”

History may remember the way the show’s writers tailored the scripts around the fan chatter on the Internet. When fans decided they hated Paolo and Nikki, the show offed them in one of my favorite episodes. First blogs and, later, Twitter (invented two years after “Lost” went on the air) acted as a real-time focus group for the show. And it felt like writers and producers read the blogs and genuinely wanted to be liked—not only to make a commercially viable show, but to make something that the geekiest of the fans would enjoy.

As an added bonus, it’s hard to hate on a show that’s so smartly self-aware and self-deprecating. All these meta references built a wall of criticism-proofing around “Lost.”

And so I often wanted to abandon “Lost” but kept watching it because it was fun. Six seasons is a long time in TV years. Call it a success. If we’re lucky, there will more shows like it. See you in another life, brother.