“If you don’t tell me what happened to Walt, none of it will have mattered.”

Check out Mike Hale’s infuriating commentary on Lost (2004-10) in the New York Times.  It’s fine that Hale doesn’t like Lost very much — that’s his prerogative as TV critic — but the reasons he gives for disliking the show suggest that he doesn’t understand TV very well.

On the one hand Hale suggests that the fans of Lost are out of control with their speculations about the show’s mysteries and don’t seem to care about the show itself.

He claims Lost has become “a gigantic international parlor game, in which the goal is to find answers to questions that often have no real connection to what’s happening on screen.”

Hale rightly notes that it’s not really important whether the show’s creators “knew from the start where they were going to take their story.”  That question, he suggests, takes us away from the text and into the realm of “feelings”.

“It’s a meaningless question with regard to evaluating the show — all that matters is what they have actually put on screen. But that would mean paying attention to the show itself, rather than your feelings about the show.”

I can buy that.  But Hale seems to contradict his own advice when he goes on to criticize fans for paying attention to what’s actually on the screen instead of trusting the intention of the author.

“In this sideways universe, making sense of the show became the responsibility, and even the privilege, of the viewers rather than the producers. The compromises and continuity lapses and narrative backing and filling that characterize all broadcast network series became fodder for a kind of populist biblical commentary, and the logical gymnastics performed to read authorial intention into every word and image and in-joke began to feel religious in nature. … now there is a vast body of shared commentary and speculation that often seems to overshadow the show itself.”

Mostly Hale seems to dislike the notion of a show based on “mythology”.  Mythology, he claims, is what the fans care about, but it is “the least important element of the show, from a dramatic standpoint”.  I suppose that depends on how you define “dramatic”.  Now, Hale can define dramatic however he wants, but I don’t see any reason to think that a good television show has to be “dramatic” in his sense.  Why couldn’t one of the many functions of TV be to provide mythology?

Hale claims that Lost went downhill when it let its mythology come to the foreground: “A spooky tale about plane crash survivors on a strange island increasingly became a labored allegory about free will and destiny, individualism and solidarity. Mystery began to give way to mythology.”

This is an accurate description of the evolution of Lost.  But this is also what has made the show good.  Hale compares Lost unfavorably to The X-Files, but I think (assuming Lost can pull off the finale tomorrow night), Lost will be better than The X-Files precisely because its mythology works better.

Chris Carter and The X-Files writers were obviously making the story up as they went along, not bothering to even try to bring the later events into coherence with earlier ones.  And the show eventually imploded.  Once it became clear that the show was not going anywhere (and had never been going anywhere and never would go anywhere), as a fan, I felt betrayed.

In retrospect, Hale is right that what in fact made The X-Files good was the stand-alone episodes, but what we wanted was a good mythology.  It looks like Lost may deliver this.

Hale thinks the Lost fans’ emphasis on mythology is new, but he’s wrong.  If anything, this trend started with Start Trek and then matured with Twin Peaks.  The only thing that has changed between The X-Files and Lost is the internet.  Now fans can more easily find each other and discuss the mythology.  They don’t have to go to a Star Trek style convention.

So I  think Hale goes too far when he claims that “The contract between author and audience is being rewritten throughout our culture.”  Hale says,

“Certainly we have always expected the satisfaction of resolution and revelation in our fictional narratives, but we had to let creators provide it on their own terms and then judge the overall result. Lost is a sign that that’s not so true anymore, at least with regard to television.”

But I think that is exactly what the fans are doing: letting the creators tell a story on their own terms and then judging the result as a whole.

Hale complains that fans want their questions to be answered:

“Among the best evidence that something new is happening with Lost is the fact that so many people, if their online comments are true, will be willing to change their judgment of the entire series based solely on how well the final two-and-a-half-hour episode satisfies their need for answers. Forget the first 119 hours — if you don’t tell me what happened to Walt, none of it will have mattered.”

But the fact that the fans care about mythology shows that they are taking the show on its own terms in a way Hale is not.  Hale, not the fans, is the one who wishes the show was about “things like pacing, structure, camerawork and acting” instead of being “a labored allegory about free will and destiny, individualism and solidarity”.  And the fact that the fans are willing to change their judgment of the entire series based on the ending shows that they are indeed judging the work as a whole.

If anything has changed with Lost it is the widespread understanding (first suggested to American audiences, perhaps, by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, following the example of British TV) that a TV series is a single work of art.  Hale’s mistake is continuing to think in the old-fashioned vein that each episode of TV is a distinct work of art and can be judged on its own terms.  But at least some TV series (the best ones, I would argue) are now constructed like novels.  Each episode is a chapter of a longer artwork and cannot be understood or judged apart from their place in the overall context.  You can’t judge a novel based only on one chapter.

Hale himself mentions Charles Dickens who published his novels serially, the equivalent of Victorian television.  But it would be artistically irresponsible to judge David Copperfield, for example, one chapter at a time instead of waiting until the end to answer the question “what did it all mean”.

What makes Lost a good show (if, in fact, it turns out to be a good show after it ends tomorrow night) is that it is the first show to pull off this ongoing mystery, achieving something that the maddening X-Files and even the brilliant Twin Peaks could not pull off.

That’s why “if you don’t tell me what happened to Walt, none of it will have mattered.”

UPDATED (May 24, 2010):  So we didn’t find out what happened to Walt, but I think the Lost finale did indeed pull off a satisfying end to the narrative of the mythology.  It’s hard to know for sure without watching the whole thing again, but I think the ending worked.  Maybe I’ll post more thoughts about the finale later.

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