"We have to go back!" Ten years later, "Lost" is a requiem for the joys of pre-Netflix, pre-social media TV
This week, it will have been ten years since Dr. Jack Shephard's wide open eye lured viewers into what would become the most ambitious, surprising, and frustrating network television series of all time.
Drawing equal inspiration from David Lynch and Jesus Christ, not to mention four centuries of Western philosophy, "Lost" was a surreal, spiritual, and sprawling journey unlike anything television viewers had ever seen before, nor seen since. Yes, the uninspired final season and, in particular, the irredeemable garbage fire of a finale make its inclusion in the television canon suspect for some. And "Lost" doesn't quite plumb the psychological depths of a "Mad Men" or a "Sopranos." Nor does it achieve the suffocatingly tight storytelling of "Breaking Bad" nor even brush against the tapestry of societal ills illuminated by "The Wire."
But you want heart-stopping set-pieces? Moments of sheer wonder? Enough mythology and philosophical inquiry to fill the Library of Congress? An enormous ensemble of characters you wish you could hold in a loving embrace (or strangle)? Then "Lost" was the show for you.
We may never experience a show like "Lost" in the same way ever again, and not just because network execs would sooner crank out "NCIS: Wichita" than finance a show as ambitious and expensive as "Lost."
A show like "Lost," rich with historical and pop cultural references and twists that inspired obsessive theorizing, arrived at the perfect moment in the evolution of the Internet. Blogging had finally grown beyond the mad ramblings of Livejournal dilettantes to include the (occasionally less-mad) ramblings of serious critics at major publications. And the bulk of the show came before social media dumbed down television analysis into little more than flurries of snark-laden 140 character farts, crudely discharged before an episode even finished airing.
The poet laureate of post-"Lost" analysis was Entertainment Weekly's Jeff "Doc" Jensen. Over the course of the show's six seasons he probably wrote more words about "Lost" than Herman Melville wrote about whales. He sank his teeth into every last one of the show's cultural, literary, philosophical, and religious references, extrapolating on how a casual allusion to an Egyptian deity, in connection with a character namedropping an Italian Renaissance poet, might hold the key to understanding the island's mystical properties. His recaps were knowingly absurd but also absurdly smart -- and often hilarious -- just like the show itself. Reading them was like getting sucked through a series of Wikipedia warp zones, and for the most devoted fans, a "Lost" episode wasn't truly complete until it had been filtered, deconstructed, and rebuilt by Doc Jensen's pop-culture-damaged brain.
The other major digital and behavioral development since "Lost "debuted is the rise of binge-watching. Thanks to Netflix, every episode of "Lost" -- and "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" and a host of other popular titles -- can be watched over the better part of a week, back-to-back-to-back until nothing matters. There's no time wasted between episodes considering the ramifications of that Desmond Hume reference; no anticipation intensified by the hope that your wild "Walt manifests polar bears just by thinking about them" theory is correct. Nor is there any urgency to gather with friends each week at a specific time and place to watch. Although many households had DVR and TiVo at the time, Netflix and HBOGO have taken time-shifting to a whole new level. Ironically, television has never been less social than it's become during the "social" age.
Many people still watch their favorite TV shows week-to-week, even if they don't do it "live." But the days of letting something digest, either before heading to Twitter or Facebook for rapid reactions or letting the next episode play on Netflix, are waning. Yes, mythology- and mystery-rich shows like "True Detective" and "The Leftovers" (which comes courtesy of "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof) still inspire a good deal of online philosophizing and reference-spotting. But as consumption and reaction habits continue to shift to Netflix and social media respectively, it stands to reason that fewer and fewer people will experience these shows with the sort of depth that the technology limitations of traditional TV often facilitated.
"Lost" was special for many reasons, and not just the fact that it had good bloggers writing about it and a huge community of fans both online and off. But those might be the things we end up missing about it most.