LOST is easily one of the most innovative TV shows of this century, and will, without a doubt be one of the greatest in this millennium. But why? How did we all get sucked in? For two reasons: 1) they return to Aristotle’s notion/formula of what is a great ‘poetics of society’, and 2) it addresses our deepest anxieties around time and space.
As I’ve tweeted (and been quoted by KEZI news http://kezi.com/news/local/175012), I think LOST is best described as an epic poem- similar to Homer’s Odyssey and Milton’s Paradise Lost- in visual form. (Thinking about it, the show may have been a combination of those two epic poems). An epic poem has 9 main characteristics- 1) it opens ‘in media res’, or in the middle of a state of affairs (moving from point a to point b, living to the afterlife in LOST) 2) The setting is vast, covering a universe (LOST covers the world, as well as tome, as well as the afterlife!) 3) begins with a prayer (hinted at in the beginning of the series when Jack wakes up) 4) starts with a praepositio (statement of theme, pretty obvious), 5) the use of epithets (hello Sawyer, Freckles, Doc, etc.) 6) includes long lists (the candidates, the others’ list of who Jacob needs, the flight manifest) 7) long and formal speeches (this one might be a stretch) 8 ) shows divine intervention on human affairs (smoke monster, Jacob, Christian Shepherd) 9) Star heroes embody the values of civilization (think the whole show is about working through and gaining these values)
“His work being for public performance, a good poet often stretches out a plot beyond its capabilities, and is thus obliged to twist the sequence of incidents,” (Aristotle, ‘The Poetics’, 236). This very much sums up LOST in a nutshell. Even more uncannily, Carlton Cuse often mentioned that “it was if the actors were already there, and we just happened to tap into a story,” which mimics Aristotle’s notion of what characterizes the greatest tragedies. “Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life, of happiness and misery… Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions- what we do- that we are happy or the reverse. In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the characters; they include the characters for the sake of action. So that it is the action in it…that is the end and purpose of tragedy; and the end is everywhere the chief thing,” (230) Often,the producers and directors have said “We’ve always known the end.” To close this section, I invoke the spirit of Aristotle one last time when he states, “It will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary,” (234).
So aside from it being a fantastically told story that is told in Aristotle’s conventions of a great poem, why do we love LOST so much? My research, both on the US and on the Mediterranean, has focused on the ways in which media acts as a reflection of, and is a mode of working through, our cultural anxieties. LOST is no exception. In it, we see hints of our anxieties over how technology has unhinged time. Facebook, Twitter, Email: the world of Space and time as we knew it has collapsed onto itself, and is made manifest through the mind bending time warps and homospatial co-impossibilities that occur throughout the show. Even on the end, the show begs us to consider one of our largest cultural anxieties: what happens after death? When do we actually die, and do we know it? To put it simply, the reason LOST has been such a hit is because it breathes and reflects OUR social world, while giving us another social world to inhabit as we project ourselves onto its characters.
There is a great article by the semiotician Juri Lottman that I often go back to on ‘Poetry and Autocommunication’. In this piece, Lottman suggests that the purpose of a poem is not to convey a message, but to provide us with a new way of seeing the world. LOST did just that. It gave us a new language, a new position, to work through our anxieties over time and space and death. Watching LOST was less about a group of people trying to find their way off of an island, and more about a group of people trying to find themselves. The power of the show was that the people in search of their inner core were not the characters, but ourselves, the viewers, looking inside the tragedy to find who we are.
This brings me to my final theory about LOST. It was an epic, centered around Jack, this much is obvious. But what we watched was not a story about him saving other people, but about him decomposing his psyche. Each character- most importantly the Oceanic Six- represented an aspect of his soul and psyche. We open with him opening his eyes in a complete chaos, and this is the chaos of his inner mind. I assume that he is on his death bed, moments before dying. Throughout the series, he works to reintegrate those parts that make him whole, and cast out those which splinter him. Only when he reunites the aspects of his inner being (sends them to the heavens on a plane) can he re-close his eyes and move on. He departs this world from the inn sanctuary of his mind that, as Christian Shepherd notes, they (the characters and more importantly Jacks unified psyche) have built for themselves.