“Guys, this isn’t just a bear….it’s a ***polar*** bear.”
With this one line of dialogue, LOST announced that it wasn’t like other TV shows. It wasn’t about who wanted to be a millionaire, it wasn’t about housewives who were desperate (fictional or otherwise) and it wasn’t about a hospital where hot doctors have sex, save lives, and make poor personal decisions. Instead, LOST was a cool tv show. The kind that would let you have a clandestine sip of wine and didn’t make you wait 15 minutes after lunch before you could swim again.
LOST was a mystery, science fiction show, but even more broadly, it was a mysterious show with a mysteriously willful allergy to genre simplicity. It didn’t have time for explanation because it was too busy telling us the tv watching populace to “get in losers, we’re going serializing.”
Now though, LOST has become something of a binary issue. People who saw it mostly now consider it as something that either was or was not worth the time spent watching it. Seven years, one hundred twenty one episodes of television, and disrupting how TV shows can be produced, written, and considered, and now a conversation about LOST is mostly relegated to whether or not the person in question liked the series finale. WHAT A WORLD.
This is what we call “experience compression”1 and it is a curious thing but it isn’t a unique thing. It’s in our nature as human beings to simplify incredibly complicated things otherwise, there just wouldn’t be enough time to engage with life and the world because instead of inventing AI, we’d be stuck talking about Adlai Stevenson or the dietary customs of the Plantagenets2. But LOST is unique in that it intentionally zigged into complexity when most other television was zagging into simplicity. To be sure this was a sort of playing with fire but in doing so, it lit the torch on an entirely new way of creating and considering television, which was to eschew neat and tidy stories and instead focus on complex mysteries that tested audiences instead of coddling them.
I, myself, was actually late to the LOST party. My original observation was that it looked too science-fictiony for my taste, but a friend recommended it to me and after a bad case of the flu, Ashley and I watched the entire first season in one week thanks in large part to Netflix DVDs3. This prepared us for the debut of season 2, which we eagerly jumped on board for and never stopped obsessing.
It’s important to consider the larger cultural context at the time when LOSTaired. Pop culture in general was approaching a new inflection point both in terms of how we watched TV (the return of serialization, the slow emergence of streamers, etc) but also how we processed watching TV via the internet. It’s one of those moments that only a few years later feels so inevitable but in the actual moment, the tiny steps of this evolution were almost imperceptible.
The internet and communality of it was quickly formalizing and though pockets of it allowed for community to gather around niche fixations, in terms of television, there hadn’t yet been a monocultural central text that unified people on a significant scale.
Whether you’re talking about the zeitgeist, episode recaps, water-cooler conversations, or a vivid but undetectable influence on the industry, discussing and analyzing LOST was almost an industry unto itself, which is remarkable, because the digital infrastructure for something like this didn’t yet exist. LOST made it possible for future monocultural obsessions to be combed over in excruciating detail because of the way it inspired the internet bootstrapping of analysis and consideration through website recaps or message board sleuthing. Anecdotally, as a person who often runs from from unnecessary small talk, I remember frequently engaging with anyone who showed the slightest interest in LOST, such was it’s allure to the tv-watching populace.
It goes without saying, but this occurred in large part because Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and the rest of the writers leaned into this compulsion to theorize and consider. With easter eggs, callbacks, and audience hints, they encouraged the exegetical approach to each episode. It was a way of making sense of something that felt playfully obscure. You could watch an episode and be unsure of what was happening and why, but if you read the right recap or browsed some theories on what was going on, it was a way to find some certainty and clarity. This is a powerful dynamic in general (the ability to experience something moderately inaccessible but then find accessibility later) but we cannot overstate how powerful this dynamic was because of the societal subtext going on at that point in time.
Consider this timeline of events in the lead-up to the LOST premiere.
1999 - 2000: The Y2k Scare
2000 - 2001: The 2000 Presidential election controversy
2001: The search for weapons of mass destruction
2001: The war on terror begins
2002: Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake break up
2002: The Catholic Church Sex Scandal
2003: The Iraq War begins
2003: SARs outbreaks begin and threaten to spread
In just four years, the relatively tranquil and blank period of the 90s gave way to both tangible and intangible chaos.
Suddenly, instead of the biggest problem we faced being whether or not Fred Durst was an actual skeeze or just a performative skeeze, we were being asked to reconsider our reliance on technology, the election process / the Supreme Court’s non-partisan rulings, domestic safety, the threat of terrorism, the existence of civilization altering weapons, our presence in the middle east, whether Britney and Justin had actually loved each other, the trustworthiness of our religious institutions, and our susceptibility to pandemics. None of these things were issues we had to worry about much less consider just four years prior and even more, the inherent messiness therein contributed to an unmitigated proliferation of existential anxieties4.
LOST arrived at a time when were not choosing to deconstruct life, but rather life was deconstructing itself in front of us and LOST was our docile and loving instructor using a tv show to help us gently understand that we needed to change our sense of what we’d always thought about the world.
As I write this, my kids are 13, 10, and 7. My son, the 13 year old, has aged out of me tucking him in at night. My oldest daughter is almost a carbon copy of myself and will Irish Goodbye us in the evenings when she’s ready to go to bed. Some nights though, she asks if I can help her get ready for bed. Because I see myself in her, I always accept this invitation because what it really means is, she wants to talk. Sometimes she wants to talk with me and other times she just wants someone there to listen to her talk, but I prize these moments because I know soon they will be gone. Before I know it, her interpretation of me will abruptly transform and instead of being the person who understands her the most in the world, I will be the person who seemingly understands her the least. I will embarrass her, I will oppress her, and I will be removed from my role of emotional consigliere. This will be the darkest of days, so while I can, I listen to her tell me about what she just read about the Titanic or what someone said to her during recess that made her feel sad.
With my youngest daughter though, she still wants me to lie in bed with her and read every night. She’s a little skittish in the evenings and it helps for me to be in there with her while she falls asleep. I don’t know what all bedtime routines are like, but my son was like this when he was younger so I’m familiar with the machinations. When you are young and tend towards anxiety, the night can feel overwhelming with all its darkness and silence so she likes the security I bring to her room. With me in there, she can sleep because for now, I am certainty made manifest. Something most parents aren’t told but eventually find out is that for kids, certainty is a different form of safety.
With a requirement like this so close to the end of the night, it’s easy to get frustrated because I am so close to the end of my parenting obligations, but I try to remind myself of the need behind it and even more, I tell myself that one day, not too long from now, I will be desperate for the kind of emotional access my daughters are eager to give me.
Recently, my youngest daughter and I talked about Heaven, which can be a tricky conversation because of the ricochet assumptions of concretely defining the undefinable.
On the one hand, she is seven and I want life to be simple for her for as long as it can. But on the other hand, I want to disabuse her from the blankcheck theology that traditionally defines heaven for most Christians (as it did for me).