Come to think of it, that’s a fundamental thing that they teach trial attorneys: if you aren’t absolutely sure of how a question is going to be answered, don’t even raise it in the first place. But I was thinking of the “Lost” series finale and other TV series in which Big Questions and Ongoing Mysteries are meant to be front and center.
I’ve read enough of the response to the finale to grasp that the show’s creators never got around to answering a whole bunch of questions. Most of these questions begin with the worse “So what was the deal with…”
“What was the deal with the Dharma Initiative?”
“What was the deal with all of the time-traveling whatsits on the island?”
“What was the deal with all those people who were on the island, like, forever, before the plane crash people or even the Dharma people arrived?”
“What was the deal with those recurring sets of numbers?”
Compare and contrast this with two epic TV series that I actually watched from start to finish. In “Babylon 5,” you found yourself wondering “What’s the deal with the Vorlons and the Shadows?” — two ancient and godlike alien races who were behind every conflict among the younger races and seemed to have a lot of shared history and animosity. The deal with “The Shield” was the final fate of Detective Vic Mackey, one of the LAPD’s most effective street cops and its most corrupt (one would hope).
In both of those shows, the producers made it clear to the audience that these were important questions. And when both shows ended, their producers left the audience with clear answers. The series finale of “The Shield,” particularly, stands as the example of how this sort of thing ought to be done.
I’ve probably seen about ten or twelve episodes of “Lost.” It’s not enough to pronounce the series to be good or bad. But it’s enough to know that the producers kept dangling those questions in front of us week after week, like a woman with a squeaky toy on a string trying to lure a cat into a travel carrier for a trip to the vet. If you don’t let us have the toy at the end…you don’t want to be the person who opens that box and lets us out.
It’s so unnecessary. The show’s producers were interviewed on the Creative Screenwriting podcast a couple of weeks ago and while talking about the technique of writing scripts for television, they explained a term that’s often used in the writers’ room while they’re breaking a story: “Let’s just hang a lantern on it and move on.”
They explained it thusly (I’m paraphrasing): “It’s when we’re getting bogged down in a tortured and interminable explanation of something that just doesn’t matter and that the audience shouldn’t even care about. Like when we realized that we needed to explain how a beacon was jamming radio signals underwater. We came up with all kinds of technical explanations of how this would work until we finally just had a character say ‘It doesn’t matter how it’s happening; all that matters is how we disable it.’ We’ve just ‘hung a lantern on it’; we’ve told the audience ‘yeah, we know this doesn’t make sense, but it’s really not worth getting into’.”
They could have done that with (say) Dharma. They didn’t. Even in just the episodes I saw, the producers were making it clear that the Dharma Initiative was a very big deal and we were right to want to know what the deal was with that group.
I have to say that I loved the finale. I didn’t watch it, but fan reaction seems to underscore the correctness of my decision not to watch “Lost.” Watching this entire series was clearly going to be one hell of a major time commitment and (speaking only for myself) if the producers didn’t deliver hard and satisfying answers to every question that the producers themselves seemed to insist was important, well, then there was a serious risk that I would have defenestrated my television. Right about now, I’d be left wondering why I didn’t spend those 100+ hours on a more rewarding enterprise, like directing and staging a production of David Mamet’s “Speed-The-Plow” with an all-Roomba cast.