We Wuz Robbed
As Barnum might have said, there’s a ‘Lost’ viewer born every minute.
May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In 1973, the wonderful Paul Newman-Robert Redford con-man movie The Sting—then, now, and forever one of the most entertaining films ever made—introduced us to the idea of the “long con.” If you’re going to try and trick a murderous gangster out of a fortune, you can only succeed if the gangster stays conned permanently.
This week, after six years, the nerviest and most expensive Long Con in history finally reached its end, only its target wasn’t a murderous gangster but the American television audience. Early indications are that millions of people, just like the gangster in The Sting, are going to stay conned. Millions of others are going to figure it out and they are going to be furious—but unlike a psychopathic gangster, they will have no recourse except impotent complaint. And then there are those of us who figured out that it was all a bluff years ago and yet have stayed around to the bitter end.
Meanwhile, the con artists are deservedly laughing all the way to the bank. Their names are Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and they are the head writers of the ABC series Lost. The show finally closed shop on May 23. As I write this, the final episode hasn’t yet aired, but after watching all 119 previous hours of their show, I can state with a reasonable degree of certainty that it will be beautifully filmed, wonderfully well acted, brilliantly paced, superbly scored—and will be a complete and utter cheat. Like the overflow crowds at P. T. Barnum’s circus who were led to an exciting event by the sign “This Way to the Egress,” only to discover they had been directed through the exit, Lost viewers were directed to this sixth and final season with a promise of completion, only to find themselves kicked out the back door on May 23.
Lost is about a plane crash that marooned a large cast of characters on an island somewhere in the South Pacific from which it was impossible to escape. The island has mystical and science-fictional aspects to it. It houses both a polar bear and a flying plume of black smoke that kills people. There is a 19th-century shipwreck in the middle of the jungle. Cancer patients are cured by the island; wheelchair-bound people find they can walk; pregnant women can’t deliver children. Eventually, it turns out that there is a mysterious man-made hatch leading down into an underground bunker. And there the first season ends.
Now the sixth season has come and gone, and in a display of narrative chutzpah unrivaled in creative history, not a single thread of these first-season plotlines has been tied up. We have finally learned that the flying plume of smoke is what remains of someone who was pushed into a tunnel of golden light 2,500 years ago, but that’s no answer, because we don’t know why that man was on the island or what turned him into smoke or why it was smoke or why he went around killing people.
Cuse and Lindelof obviously had no idea what they were going to do with all their plotlines, and in a stroke of con man genius, they realized they should just do . . . whatever.
And so, with each successive season, Cuse and Lindelof have simply added more—more mysteries, more characters, and more confusion. It makes no sense to mention any one of them, since by one count there are something like 80 unresolved plotlines. As it became increasingly clear this season that there would be almost no resolution, one could see the Lost fanatics of the Internet seeking new Kool-Aid to drink. “The show is about the characters!” they say. “Life is a mystery—why should the show be resolved?”
Here’s why. Mystery plots offer an unstated pact: You follow me along and try to make sense of the mystery and in the end you will find out if you’re right or wrong. Lost is a 25,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that can’t be assembled into a whole. It’s an incredible violation of the compact between its creators and its audience. That is why, along the way, Lost lost nearly half its audience.
The only question you need to ask yourself now is: Why did I keep watching if I figured out after the second episode of the second season that there would never be any answers? There are two possible answers for you to debate. One: That is an unsolvable mystery akin to Lost itself. Two: I’m a sucker.
The Internet chat may now begin.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.