Monday, March 20, 2017

LOST in translation

On September 22, 2004, a plane crashed on an island in the South Pacific leaving 72 survivors stranded. Jack Shepard (Matthew Fox), a spinal surgeon, successfully established a triage, prevented a woman from going into in preterm labor, and helped the survivors set up camp. By the evening it was obvious the survivors weren’t going to be rescued any time soon so they settled in around a giant bonfire when suddenly trees began to crash and a primeval howl bellowed from the jungle. A camera closed in on Charlie, (Dominic Monaghan) a drug addicted musician, and he asked, “Guys, where are we?”

Then everything went black leaving only the name of series LOST emblazoned on the screen. It was at this point that I realized that this was not a typical television pilot and the story was not going to take place on a typical island. 

LOST had the production value of a full length feature film and a diverse ensemble cast of intriguing characters and I was hooked. 

Steven Johnson states that for television to stimulate viewers mentally it needs to create complexity. This complexity should involve three primary elements: multiple threading, social networks and flashing arrows. (2010)

Week after week the story of these castaways unfolded. In each episode multiple threads were introduced and woven into the story. Each episode had a primary “on-island” plot and a series of flashback sequences from the point of view of one of the characters. As character backstories began to take shape the plot became more complicated and intriguing. This threading made the series more complex and addicting creating a need to watch the series religiously. If a viewer missed an episode, they would become hopelessly lost. 

As each characters backstory began to unfold, the viewer would learn more about what brought each of them to the island. As the series progressed the characters previous lives became more interwoven. For example, in a flashback, Sawyer (played by Josh Holloway) sat in a bar and drank with Christian (John Terry), Jack’s alcoholic father who had died, which is the reason Jack ended up on fated flight Oceanic flight 815. Viewers never knew where the series was going and the story continued to grow more complex. 

With so many threads, the series became dependent on online dialogue. The rise of the internet and social networks at the same time as the series premier created a new medium to discuss theories and plot threads. Not only could fans interact with each other, they could interact with the creators, writers, directors and actors. Any questions the devoted 15 million fans (called Losties) had could be answered on ABC’s Lost interactive website, discussion boards, watching mini episodes called Missing Pieces and rewatch the last few episodes. 

Before the internet a show as complex as Lost would have been impossible to follow. If a viewer missed one or two episodes there is no way they could ever catch up and would spend the rest of the series, either hoping for a rerun or remaining in the dark. 

Lost creators and writers were aware of it’s success and wanted to help their viewership be able to stay in the know, so each week they would provide flashing arrows that referenced threads the viewers may have lost track of to help them keep up. Sometimes these arrows would come in the form of “easter eggs”, recognizable treats for the devoted fans to reward viewers for paying attention. Sometimes the arrows were more overt such as the recurring numbers sequence in the series (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42), a polar bear or any reference to the DARMA Initiative. But many of the flashing arrows seemed to lead the viewer in opposite directions.

By season four, the multiple threads and flashing arrows became unmanageable. Not only were the writers using flash backs, they were also using flash forwards, flash sideways and alternate realities. There were so many plot threads the show became less like an elaborate tapestry and more like a giant knotted mess. Even devoted fans, like myself, began to lose patience. No amount of online discussions or watching the past few episodes could fill in the blanks and as the death count began to rise and characters return from the dead it became hard to know what time period you were watching. 

In the original run of the series. I just assumed I had missed or forgotten something from the weekly episodes. It’s pretty easy to lose track of plot threads over the course of a week, so I continued to watch and just trusted that eventually by the series finale it would all make sense. After the series wrapped, I admit I was still hopelessly confused but felt satisfied I had seen the series through to the end.

Recently, I have been watching the series again on Netflix. What I have discovered was that I didn’t lose the multiple threads on Lost, the writers did. They created such a convoluted story it became impossible to weave them all together. It’s easier to recognize on Netflix because we no longer have to wait a week for a new episode and rely on the flashing arrows of the recap to catch up. We can binge watch an entire season in a day and the plot holes become more obvious. 

Perhaps the fatal flaw of Lost is the creators became too caught up in online dialogue and trying to keep the happenings on the island a mystery that they lost track of the threads. Maybe they needed a few more flashing arrows, half as many plot threads and to spend a little less time interacting with the online fans. 

I will always be a fan of the show and I still consider it to be some of the greatest television and character development ever produced. I agree with Johnson that television can be mentally stimulating. However, if I’m really going to enjoy a show, I trust the creators are going to use all those flashing arrows to stick to their own map. 

Do you think multiple threading has become easier to follow with the rise of on demand streaming sites like Netflix?

Can you identify television shows you enjoy that employ multiple threading, flashing arrows and social media? 


  1. I agree with you when you say that Lost got "lost" by focusing too hard on building suspense (which resulting in some freaking awesomely tense moments) and too little on the actual payoff (which is why eventually you realize that the writers are in the dark too). I've noticed that the key thing when writing scripts employing multiple threading is TIME. It's easier to notice a pattern in books sometimes. A series like Beyonders, which was like 30 years in the making, kept a hold of different subplots very efficiently. On the other hand, the Scholastic debacle of the 39 Clues series (that's right, this is WAY back in the old days), only kept hold of 2 plot threads, "crash" and "burn". A mistake like that in a platform series is common, because of the multiple authors. I've never really liked the idea in the first place. Also, I'd like to add that despite its shortcomings, Lost is still awesome in my book.

  2. I was drawn to your post because I am also a LOST fan - fun fact is that my brother in law was actually one of the main camera men for the show. However, staying true to its title, the story lines were lost. In the effort to keep the audience guessing, they missed creating the answers to many of the viewers questions. The ability to watch complete seasons in one sitting has changed the game for many TV viewers. I actually waited to watch Lost until it was on Netflix so I wouldn't have to be submitted to the painful week wait for the next episode. We have become incredibly impatient as a society since most of what we want we can find within minutes on our cell phones.

    Another example of a show with complicated and multiple threading of characters, plots, drama, etc is HBO's Game of Thrones. I have become addicted. This is some stellar writing with interesting characters and plot twists. At first, it was very difficult to understand what was happening as they introduce numerous characters right off the bat, but the more you watch, the more you understand, and the more you want to watch! The new season comes out this July! I highly recommend it!!