When I read about Lost, it sounded like exactly the kind of show I’d love. I didn’t watch it. To understand why, we need to look at The X Files.
At some point during the first few seasons of X Files, the writers decided that it would be good for the show if there was an overall story arc involving the alleged extraterrestrial invaders. Initially, they were right. However, shortly after the movie a problem became apparent: the network was never going to allow them to solve the mystery.
Things quickly became ridiculous. The need to keep adding new bits of plot twist to an already confused backstory quickly turned the UFO thread into an unintelligible mess of black liquid, killer agents, swarms of bees, body implants, and superintelligent children.
Then in a three-part episode, in what was originally intended to be the final season (Season 7), Mulder and Scully located wreckage of an alien spaceship, washed ashore on a beach in West Africa. You might have thought that they’d take photographs, get teams of scientists in, and get some answers; but the network’s desire for a neverending plot meant that the following week everything went back to normal—or rather, to a guy with a mysterious hunger for human brains—and the proof of alien existence was casually left on the beach.
At that point, I knew the shark was most definitely jumped. I watched for a while longer, but when Season 8 ended with Scully having her child, that was enough closure for me, and with a sense of relief I stopped watching.
Something very similar happened with Earth: Final Conflict. Season 3 had a multi-part story that turned out to have absolutely zero to do with the ongoing plot; when they followed that with a clip show, I realized the series was being shamelessly padded out to fill time, and I stopped watching.
So when I read the scenario for Lost, I immediately suspected that it would go the same way—that it would start promisingly, but that the network’s demands for a show that never ends would quickly mean that the writers would be forced to jerk the audience around. I figured if I turned out to be wrong, and there was a satisfactory resolution after 2 or 3 seasons, I’d hear about it and could rent the DVDs.
An added disincentive to watching Lost was that it was on one of the major networks. That meant if it was any good, it would almost certainly be killed part-way through a season. It amazes me that ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX will kill a show that doesn’t get mass-market audiences, even if there are complete, paid-for episodes sitting on the shelf. After seeing it happen to Stressed Eric and The New Fantasy Island (much underrated), I had vowed never to watch anything on a major network until it had made it to the end of season 1. If they didn’t kill it, then I’d watch the reruns.
So I’m not surprised to read that Lost is now hemorrhaging viewers as the writers overload it with red herrings. If you’re addicted to the show then I feel sorry for you, because I doubt you’ll ever get a satisfactory ending. Probably once the audience figures drop below a certain level, ABC will kill it mid-season; but in the mean time, they won’t allow any key questions to be answered, because they want to keep their options open. End result: lousy stories.
It’s clearly not impossible to have a series with a long story arc on US television. Babylon 5 managed it (though not without problems), and Star Trek: Deep Space 9 did too. But Lost is more typical: shows either die before everything (or anything) can be resolved satisfactorily (Firefly, Harsh Realm, American Gothic), or they are padded out with endless sub-plots that go nowhere until everyone turns off in disgust (X-Files).
So, is there a way to save future TV mysteries? Yes, but it might hurt: It’s vitally important that you all stop watching Lost, right now. Show ’em they can’t just jerk you around endlessly.