In the end, they weren’t in purgatory—but now the series is.
A decade after Lost's September 22, 2004, premiere, the arguments over ABC's groundbreaking drama series—not to mention, its series finale’s placement in the pantheon of great TV—are more exhausting than the Jay Z vs. Nas debate. So exhausting, in fact, that I’m not going to bother making the case for the show's polarizing ending here. I liked the finale, maybe even loved it. Notice that I didn’t use "satisfied," that loathsome word so often associated with series finales, because a series finale should be about more than checking off boxes... Wait, I’m doing exactly what I promised I wouldn’t. If Lost’s final episode, let alone the entire final season, didn’t work for you, that’s cool. Rock with that opinion.
Just don’t contextualize that opinion as “wasting six years of your life.”
The weight that’s been put on series finales is wild, as if a TV show is only as great as the sum of its parts. Lost fell down more than a few creative hatches that led nowhere during its six-year run. But even in its worse season (read: season five), there’s no shortage of episodes that made the frustrating, and for some unfulfilling, journey worthwhile. Specifically, your time spent watching Lost can never be deemed a waste when that time includes the masterpiece of a first season. And after revisiting Lost's hatch-exploding first season, one thing is clear: it holds up remarkably.
Rewatching Lost alongside co-creator Damon Lindelof's new series, HBO's The Leftovers, it's impossible not to draw comparisons. But what's striking is how for all Lindelof’s disclaimers about The Leftovers' tone, goals, and overall disinterest with answers, it has even more supernatural intrigue than Lost's first season. Even to a huge fan like myself, the banality of Lost’s debut is stunning. The castaways are all caught up in relatively straightforward personal conflicts, and the jungle is more or less devoid of the whispers, Others, and Smoke Monsters that would come to [over]populate it. Sure, Claire gets kidnapped mid-season and Locke finds a hatch in the jungle, but aside from those departures and a measly three (!) appearances from The Monster Not Yet Revealed To Be Smoke across 25 hours, the first year is largely just 16 people with absurd amounts of inner-turmoil and Daddy issues trying to survive amidst their big, endless culture clash.
For all of The Leftovers’ ambitions to be a Serious Character Study™, it doesn’t come close to the inner torture-turned-outer turmoil on display in Lost. With no buttons to debate over and no Others to defeat, the drama instead lies in Jack and Kate, both of whom are too wrapped up in their personal baggage to acknowledge a budding connection; in the mystery behind why a smooth con man like Sawyer would use the situation to play the outlaw; and in Jin and Sun’s marriage. Ten years later, those conflicts are all still gripping, and with the foresight of all the madness to come, the smaller-scaled adventures are comforting. Lost covered its bases with a pilot that gives you monsters and polar bears up front—no critic can ever say it swerved into the otherworldly lane out of nowhere. But, even in its most sci-fi-minded seasons (read: season five), Lost is at its best when everything slows down to explore what makes these people tick and why they’re better stranded on this dangerous island than they ever were in the real world.
In The Revolution Was Televised, veteran TV critic Alan Sepinwall's book chronicling the handful of Golden Age series that would alter television as we know it, Sepinwall writes of Lost's first season: "Lindelof's decision to give the characters reasons to stay on the island opened a rich vein of material about regret and redemption. The island provided a thriller format to sustain the tension, while the flashbacks functioned as tragic short stories about people whose lives hadn't turned out as planned." Lost wasn't just operating on a masterful level, but like a classic debut rap album it was implementing new techniques in the medium to offer an original narrative experience. I almost hate Lost for inspiring waves of lesser writers to use flashbacks like a crutch, but damn if the device doesn't seem as fresh and engrossing as ever in Lindelof and co-overseer Carlton Cuse's nervous yet adventurous hands.
Masterpiece though it may be, Lost's inaugural season isn't perfect. Despite having one of the most sympathetic backstories, new dad Michael is just plain unlikable, the glaring weak link in an otherwise A1 cast. Shannon isn’t far behind him, mostly because actress Maggie Grace fills the role like its her first time on camera. The inconsistencies in how the mythologies of the Monster, the Others, and Rousseau the French Lady will later play out are front and center. Kate still stages a bank robbery just to get a toy plane from a safety deposit box. But stupid as that flashback resolution is, on the island Kate's sheer inability to stop lying and manipulating is affecting enough to cut through the bullshit. It's almost as affecting as the quiet simplicity that concludes an episode spent following Jack madly chasing visions of his father through the jungle. Watching the survivors struggle between the tabula rasa Jack and Locke believe the island offers or using the break from society to revert to their ugliest personae makes the earlier episodes damn near quaint.
Resenting Lost because of its finale is a quick-trigger response that rarely seems to plague other series. I don't know one person who thinks the Seinfeld finale was a success. I also don't know one person who says, "Seinfeld? Oh, that show would be an all-time great if the ending weren't so stupid." If Breaking Bad bricked its ending, would that have diminished remarkable episodes like “One Minute” or “Crawl Space”? How, then, can you front on Lost when season one kicks off with one of the greatest, most arresting pilots of all time and then follows that with the one-two punch of Locke and Jack’s origin stories, “Walkabout” and “White Rabbit?” How about Kate reading Sawyer’s letter? Or the action-adventure epic/three-hour season finale that manages to anchor exploding rafts, two kidnappings, a Smoke Monster encore, and the volatile death of Dr. Leslie Arzt with flashbacks to everyone’s final hours before the flight, showing the wonders one month away from civilization can do for the soul.
You still want to know who shot at Sawyer’s outrigger in season five? You're still seeking answers about Jacob's Mother? It’s time to let that hurt go. You can hate how Lost turned out, but you can’t ever deny its debut.
Ever the geeky fanboy, Complex Pop Culture staff writer Frazier Tharpe has used Lost's 10th anniversary as an excuse to
waste time embark on a full rewatch of the entire series. He tweets here.