It wasn't always like this, of course. As little as a year ago, when Lost first hit the airwaves, I was deeply impressed. The show's combination of lush production values, compelling characters, and fascinating mysteries made it irresistible. Then, almost exactly at the season's midpoint, the show began a terrific decline, so that by the season's end it was practically a pale, campy shadow of its former self.
I wish I could say with certainty that Lost's writers can still turn things around, but remember who we're dealing with--J.J. Abrams, a man who has consistently chosen to sacrifice character and story for spectacle, and who may not, in fact, be able to tell the difference. My one hope for Lost was that Abrams took nearly two years to run Alias into the ground, and that show's foundations weren't nearly as strong as Lost's, but it seems that I've underestimated the effect that overwhelming popularity can have. The writing towards the season's end practically screams "we want our show to still be on the air in 2012", which means that character development has ground to a halt, plot development is non-existent, and the writers aren't taking any risks (Boone was the big death? Boone?).
But this is a wish list, right? Which implies that I think the show could be salvaged. Unlike Rob Thomas, Abrams hasn't earned my trust or my indulgence. I believe there are measures he could take to bring his show back to brilliance of the first half of its first season. I don't believe these measures will be undertaken, but here they are anyway:
- Look, Lost writers. We know you don't have any answers to give us. We know you can't tell us what the island is or why our survivors are there or how they survived or what the monster is or what's at the bottom of the hatch or who The Others are or what happened to Danielle's daughter or why Claire's baby is special or why Walt is special or what the numbers mean or what the answers are to the dozens of questions that you raised so long ago they've actually slipped my mind (in much the same way that "who knocked Sayid out?" stopped being important weeks before you got around to answering it). It's OK. We're not mad. But here's the thing: the fact that you didn't know the answers before you wrote the questions doesn't excuse you from coming up with answers now. Make something up--it's what you're paid to do. You really don't need to have the entire show plotted out, as long as you don't descend to pulling plot developments out of a hat. There's a happy medium that most television shows manage to strike. Find it.
- It's time to move away from the flashbacks. At the beginning of the season, they were a good idea. They broke up the island scenes, let us see the characters in non-island settings, and let us get close to them. By the end of the season, the flashbacks were showing up simply because they were expected. Instead of developing the characters, they're now stunting them--there's no time or opportunity for character interaction, and while we learn a lot about the different people on the island, they don't get to know each other. Did the writers need, for example, to introduce an ill-conceived marriage in order to tell us that Jack has a savior complex that made it difficult for him to accept Boone's death? Did we need to see Charlie make what was no doubt one of many attempts to go clean in order to understand that it was his need to feel strong that drove him to kill Ethan? From an innovative storytelling technique, the flashbacks have become an albatross around the show's neck. I don't think they should be done away with entirely, but now that we know most of the characters' secrets, its time for them to start getting to know each other, and to start moving forward instead of constantly looking back.
- Isn't it time we let got of the fantasy that Jack and Kate have chemistry? There were definite sparks between them in the early parts of the season, but they've long since sputtered and died. The fault lies at least in part with the writers who, for reasons of expediency, made the relationship between the two bi-polar--this week Jack is suspicious of Kate, next week he likes her, the week after that he's suspicious again. But mostly the problem is that Jack and Kate have run out of things to talk about. Time for them to go their separate ways. Along the same lines, Sayid and Shannon? Is this a joke?
- The following storylines have worn out their welcome and need to be wrapped up and/or dropped as soon as possible: Kate, the Outlaw With a Heart of Gold; Jack and His Rotten, No Good, Really Mean Dad; Sawyer's Search for Sawyer; Sayid's Search for Nadia. The following storylines are circling the drain: Jin and the Rotten, No Good, Really Mean Korean Mafia; Locke and His Rotten, No Good, Really Mean Life; Charlie and the Drug Addiction; Shannon, Boone, and the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.
- 25 episodes (26 hours, as the last one was double-length) is an absurd number. Most shows can't maintain a steady level of quality with 22 hours per season. There's no question that Lost's super-sized season is a direct result of its popularity and had nothing to do with storytelling decisions, and it shows in the final result--the half-dozen episodes preceding the first season finale were wastes of space. My preference would be to see the show scale down to 12 episodes per season, but I'm aware that that's impossible, so let's settle for the standard 22?
- The show needs to get braver about death. The Charlie fake-out early in the season was harrowing, not least because at that point I believed that the writers would be willing to kill him off (and also because I still liked Charlie at that point). Faking Shannon's death a few episodes later was less resonant, and by the time the writers got around to killing a main character in real life I was jaded. Thus far, death has been relegated to the recurring or non-speaking survivors, which robs the show of a significant portion of its sense of urgency.
- It might seem strange to say this about a show that has a main cast in the double digits, but Lost's character palate is woefully understacked. We need to start seeing recurring characters on the island, but ones who don't explode once they've outlives their usefulness. A believable universe with palpable depth is one of the keys to successful novelistic television, and so long as Lost's cast remains an impenetrable clique, the show's universe will remain shallow.
- More Hurley. Lots more Hurley. He's without question the most decent person on the island, and the only one who hasn't become completely annoying over the course of the season. Not to mention that he's selfless, good under pressure, and seems to be one of the few characters concerned with the matter of day-to-day survival on the island. Plus, he's funny. I'm probably going to stick around for at least the beginning of the next season, but if Hurley dies, I'm gone.
- This last piece of advice is for the viewers: despite what you might believe, you don't actually need to know what the answers are. Sure, it'll bug you for a week or two, but you'd be surprised how quickly some other, better written show will catch your fancy. So don't let only thing stopping you from bailing on this show be the need to know what happens next. The odds are the answer will be 'nothing much'.