Never raise a question that you can’t answer.

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…”

Viz:

“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?”

et cetera.

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.

23 thoughts on “Never raise a question that you can’t answer.”

  1. Couldn’t agree more! I’d like to have HALF of the time back I spent watching LOST. Bravo for mentioning The Shield, that was one of the best finales ever. Six Feet Under also had a fantastic ending. I’ve been so burned by LOST, I doubt I ever get that into a mainstream TV show again…

  2. Most of these questions have been answered but as the producers have said on numerous occasions every answer they give will only lead to another question. To give an example based on the most prominent question in your article, the Dharma Initiative, our own characters spent half of last season working for and exploring Dharma in the ’70s – I don’t think we could have expected such a thorough explanation of them back in the early seasons yet we apparently need more.

    Don’t get me wrong I know there are things the producers sidestepped (Walt being special/Hurley seeing the dead) but I don’t think its fair to produce a judgement of a show based on the opinions of a vocal group on the internet.

  3. “Hanging a lantern on it”, at least sometimes, does seem valid. Viewers shouldn’t require a 200 page technical manual for every odd vehicle used to move a plot forward. TBH it bothers me when people need answers about sideline stuff (like Walt – clearly psychic in some way), but completely miss real stuff (like a scene in Jurassic Park – remember the clearing with the goat for the T-Rex? That same clearing was the cliff their jeep went over shortly after).

    That said, Lost was written sloppily. The reason there are so many unanswered questions is the writers seemed to explore every idea that popped into their heads, probably with the notion that it could be a door to open later. There were more doors than walls.

    OK, the Mamet / Roomba show has to be made!

  4. 84 hours(120ep * 42 minutes) over 6 years was not a huge time commitment for intelligent entertainment. It was almost as long as watching the extended versions of the the Lord of the Rings Trilogy ;). Seriously, though, Lost did not lose its focus over the seasons the way many long running shows do (I’m looking at you x-files).

  5. Why did the cat have to go to the vet? Damn it Andy, don’t leave me hanging. You wouldn’t have brought it up if it wasn’t critically important. What, you want us to use our imaginations, is that it? You sick bastard. WHY DID THE CAT HAVE TO GO TO THE VET?!?

  6. The questions are moot. Plane crashes. Everyone dies. Some aren’t ready to be dead. They live in a limbo until they achieve what they need to accept their own deaths. Jack had to do something important to save the world, ending in death. The world was fiction, created by the wandering souls within it. Come on, a Smoke Monster? Seriously? In the Real World?

    Near the end Desmond says to Jack, “It doesn’t matter.” They created their own crisies to struggle with. In the end, they all accepted–in peace–they were done.

  7. The LOST finale was definitely a polarizing one in the truest sense of the word. Among other things, it showed that there were essentially two kinds of people watching the show. The first group, under which this post falls, is that set of people who were watching the show for it’s intrigue, mysteries, and rabbit holes. These people, for the most part, simply want answers to those questions; they want the puzzle to be solved. The other group has been engaged in this show for the past 6 years because of the characters. Having become emotionally invested in our 14 main characters (and nearly 60 in all) throughout the course of the show, this group wants to know what happens to these people. Are these people, at their core, just as lost (not physically) and alone as when the show started, or have they been, in some sense, redeemed?
    The producers have certainly been clear (even stating such in the pre-finale event) that LOST, at its heart, is a character study. Their purpose was to tell the story of these characters. It’s about faith vs. science, free will vs. fate, community and redemption. In so doing, they have said that these questions of are, in many cases, rabbit holes (the show is filled with references to Alice in Wonderland). These things have served as great examples of MacGuffins, elements that are important to move the story forward and are indeed sought after by the characters but in the end are meaningless, or at least peripheral, in terms of the story being told.
    Anyway, I’d recommend that you give it a shot. I’m still not sure how I felt about the finale, but I do know that in terms of a character study this TV show has been phenomenal. Whether you agree or disagree with the outcome of the show, the scope and imagination involved its storytelling will most likely stand for some time.

  8. You’re either a left-brained enjoyer of fiction, or a right-brained enjoyer. Andy is a lefty.

  9. I learned my JJ Abrams lesson watching Alias. It went exactly the same way. He would pose twice as many questions than he would answer. He would put focus on items that appeared to have a huge answers coming. Anyone that watched Alias and then started to watch Lost has to remember that George W. Bush quote: “Fool me once shame on you….Fool me twice…won’t get fooled again!”

  10. I also learned my less from Alias. I didn’t expect any answers from Lost and knew that from episode to episode bad guys become good guys; good guys become bad guys, etc. With no expectations, there are no disappointments. I think anyone who loves good writing will enjoy Lost. Then again, it may be too late. If you already know that the button doesn’t matter, then you won’t care if they push it or stop pushing it.

  11. I also learned my lesson from Alias. I didn’t expect any answers from Lost and knew that from episode to episode bad guys become good guys; good guys become bad guys, etc. With no expectations, there are no disappointments. I think anyone who loves good writing will enjoy Lost. Then again, it may be too late. If you already know that the button doesn’t matter, then you won’t care if they push it or stop pushing it.

  12. I loved the characters. I loved seeing the personal growth and interactions. This is not about left and right brained. It’s about thoughtful and stupid. People who don’t care about logic, but only like pictures of kittens, liked the ending. People who can actually think about the implications of abstract thought, didn’t.

    They producers said multiple times that “island is a character”, yet they never told us what the island was. At all. Not even a little bit.

    I can let the small stuff go. That’s fine. Walt had powers. I get it. But to tell a story about a magic island and not explain why it was magic or what it was is a huge plot point that needs to be filled in. To have a flash sideways and not explain what it was? That’s not story telling. That’s the drunken rambling of an idiot.

    I get angrier every day about this. I was lied too. I was promised some answers and all I got were more questions. It’s fair to say that answers beget answers, but to not answer anything is just rude. You at least tell a 5 year old a couple answers, even if they are simple ones.

    I will never trust a TV show again.

  13. I didn’t watch “Lost” religiously, or even in an atheist fashion. My wife got into the show by watching the DVDs, and in addition to watching over her shoulder, occasionally I taped the show for work, and to stay up on pop culture. But I found that I could save mucho time by just fast-forwarding to the important bits, then reading the episode summaries on TV.com or Wikipedia. 5 minutes per week instead of 1 hour.

    I pegged it two seasons ago as a “Comic-book” show. Meaning if a major character died, there was a 50% chance he’d be back a few episodes later, in some fashion. And in Bendis-like style, occasionally reality would get changed, and you’d find out that everything you thought you knew was wrong. As a fan of comics (and “Twilight Zone”), I had a good track record of predicting what would happen.

    I think the final episode is ingenious, because it forces fans to get all the eps on DVD and re-watch, looking for clues. But once I found out what happened in the finale, I’m done and done.

    All in all, there was a lot of waiting around for stuff to happen. And a lot of walking – I bet each character walked across that island 17 times over…

  14. My impression is that the anger out there about “Lost” doesn’t really stem from there not being answers to the questions raised by the show (as there are few questions left without any answer at all, stated outright or implied). I think people are upset because they think either the answers given weren’t detailed enough or that the answers given were “wrong.”

    The first group can never be satisfied. (Dharma? The show lavished dozens of episodes and several summers of online experiences on that organization. They could have just said, “The Dharma people are scientists – investigating strange phenomena is what they DO” and left it at that, and it would have been a perfectly reasonable answer.) The second group can’t be satisfied either without making “Lost” a show that it wasn’t. “Lost” was deeply concerned with spiritual matters, and many people simply aren’t comfortable with ideas like a deity/life source and an afterlife. Those people are probably feeling like the rug was yanked out from under them – they thought they were watching “The X-Files” and discovered only at the last moment they were really watching “Touched By an Angel.” Now they feel embarrassed that they got so into it.

    I loved “Lost,” including its inspiring message, and I do think it’s worth the journey. Not everyone will feel the same. Watch it for character stories and themes of personal struggle, redemption, and love. Don’t bother if you want just a science fiction/fantasy adventure because these aren’t the episodes you’re looking for…

  15. Babylon 5 was fantastic. But honestly, I thought the Shadows explanation was a little disappointing. I expected something a bit more creepy and sinister.

    But it wasn’t all about the payoff. The buildup was very enjoyable and very satisfying, which (for me) was rarely the case on Lost.

  16. I hated the lost finale, but it had nothing to do with answering questions or lack thereof. I’ve long been used to the fact that the producers never intended to answer these things. They focused on character stories, but they somehow managed to ruin all the characters in the process. A friend described the flash-sideways reunion scenes as “emotional junk food” and that about sums it up. As for the ending, well – I never could’ve predict an ending that would be so intended to be uplifting while actually being completely depressing. Even killing off all the characters would be less depressing. Instead, we were completely alienated from them. The scene in the church was basically inhuman, everything from the way they interacted with each other to that kind of dreary uplifting slurry of music that had been playing for 3/4 of the episode. A single natural moment would have diffused the surreality, reminded us that these characters are still themselves. For a story about character development, they sure took great pains to strip their characters of everything that made them what they are at the end.

  17. I can understand why people got caught up with the mysteries of Lost, but the show was always about the characters and I was very happy with the ending.

    But now I’m sad because I have to look at my TV and wonder when another network show with great writing that doesn’t assume the audience is stupid (like FlashForward or V) will come along.

  18. Andy, as you admitted, it’s clear you haven’t watched the show in depth. The producers certainly did leave questions unanswered, but those were questions that weren’t really important to the story.

    Example: the Dharma Initiative had a clear purpose. They were brought to the island by Jacob, just as with the plane crash, to kill the man in black. Ben was corrupted and manipulated by man in black, and eventually led to the purging of their existence.

    That is a key to the entire story. It emphasizes the manipulative nature of the man in black. Those questions were certainly answered.

    We don’t know why/who is still organizing food drops to the island long after the Dharma were killed. But, who cares. It’s just not important to the characters they were developing.

    There is one giant hole though, Walts story. They just axed him from the show a couple of seasons ago. The actor says he shot some bonus material, but his story was just dropped altogether. That’s the only thing I’ve found to be disappointing.

    Josh

  19. Till: Not to drag this completely off topic, but remember what G’kar said to Catherine Sakai at the end of the episode “Mind War”: “Let me pass on to you the one thing I’ve learned about this place. No one here is exactly what he appears. Not Mollari, not Delenn, not Sinclair… and not me.” And, it would seem … not the Shadows either.

    That’s one of the things that made Babylon 5 so utterly brilliant – so much was laid out in advance, so much directly told to us – but it was only with proper context that we could finally see its true meaning and value. ;)

  20. Babylon 5 was best viewed along with The Lurker’s Guide to flesh out many of the topics that couldn’t fit into a 5 year show that got cancelled every year.

    Writer JMS proactively contributed to newsgroup discussions, knowing that the internet would enhance the relationship with fans. The Lurker’s Guide put the newsgroup content into a digest-able form, making it an integral part of deeper appreciation of the show.

    The writers on Lost admit they didn’t expect it to last more than a season and had no plan to answer any questions raised. Maybe they should have stuck with that formula. Alias was best left to itself, to keep winding mystery upon mystery. As soon as the writers tried to draw it all together into a conclusion, it totally sucked. X-Files was enjoyable because every time a question was answered, more questions were raised. The denouement of its alien story was at least a good-one, if you managed to find the secret track on the movie soundtrack CD.

    Andy, thanks for being yourself. Always a slice!

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