After all this time — through the polar bears, a monster made of smoke, time travel, a nuclear explosion, candidates and calamities — it turns out we were asking the wrong question about tonight's Lost finale. • When the show's masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse saved network TV's most adventurous series by declaring a definite end point years ago, those of us who spent long hours debating the merits of Controlling Jack versus Faithful Locke had just one question: How will they possibly end this in a way that satisfies us?
That's the dark flip side of developing a fan base so obsessive, they follow you across Internet message boards, podcasts, e-mail chains and blogs. As Losties, we are proud to devote our free brain space to pondering whether the Smoke Monster Who Looks Like John Locke is alive or dead, passionately arguing that the island is a redemption machine for lost souls and a battleground for two demigods.
We've seen what happened to other shows we loved.
We watched in horror as The Sopranos' abrupt, pugnaciously ambiguous ending overshadowed eight years of amazing drama. We cringed as the clumsily unfunny Seinfeld finale drained every ounce of admiration we once had for a quirky, urbane collection of oddballs, requiring 12 years' distance and a Larry David showcase on HBO to finally get it right.
So we can be forgiven for looking at this the wrong way. As tonight's 5 1/2-hour finale unfolds, there's a much better question for those of us who know the difference between a candidate, an Other and Dharma people.
How do you say goodbye to a series that has kept you mesmerized for so long?
"I wish I could stop time so the finale never happens," gushed Nikki Stafford, author of Finding Lost, several unofficial guides to the show. "We're almost scared of it ending. It's going to be like the day after Christmas — whether you like the presents you got or not, it's still going to be over."
Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff "Doc" Jensen, known as one of the country's premiere Lostologists, plans to spend his days after tonight's finale helping build a home through Habitat for Humanity, consciously taking on a new ritual to commemorate the end of a years-long obsession.
"I'm looking forward to Sunday with anticipation and great dread," said Jensen, who insisted he didn't know how the show would end, despite being allowed to watch the last day of filming for the magazine's exhaustive, 40-page viewer's guide. "I think a lot of Lost is about making meaning. I am choosing to invest that day after with meaning that says a major moment in my life has ended."
In fact, when fans ask what to expect in the finale, Jensen's response is a serious version of Star Trek legend William Shatner's classic "get a life" gag on Saturday Night Live.
"My recommendation for people is to remember the fun you had while dissecting it all," he said. "If you have honestly been watching this show for three to six years and everything hinges on this episode . . . you have been wasting your life."
A finale with ambition
Perhaps. But this is also the conundrum every complex, plot-driven TV show faces when the time comes to wrap it all up.
If you expect fans to gobble every clue and dissect every plot twist, don't be surprised when they expect you to make it all matter when finale time comes.
"If the finale was not ambitious, it would not be in keeping with the show," said Lost executive producer Cuse in an interview with Time magazine. "There are going to be some people who will be dissatisfied. . . . The fans have broken into camps. There are (those who say) the show is about the journey and not about the destination and that's how you should watch it. And then there are people who are getting really, really anxious and p----- off that their particular questions that they've sort of nurtured for many seasons, they're starting to realize, 'Oh my God, that question that I have, that I care about, is not going to get answered.' "
That makes perfect sense to Jensen. "News flash for everyone: They've never written this story for the fans," he said. "This show was a unique animal unto itself telling its own story. I've always wanted to know where the story wants to end — not where I want it to end."
On Tuesday, we saw eternally conflicted hero Jack Shephard installed as the replacement for slain island caretaker Jacob — a supernatural being hundreds of years old who touched most of the show's main characters at some point in their lives, drawing them to the island as candidates to succeed him.
The week before, we learned the island houses a mysterious light that shines in all mankind, which Jacob and his adoptive mother before him have guarded from the destructive impulses of evil men for centuries. Jacob learned how destructive that force could be when he flung his brother into the light more than 150 years ago, creating the shape-shifting Smoke Monster that seemed to be his polluted, unchained spirit.
And that's just in the last two episodes.
It's a singular moment: The show that began as a story of people marooned on a tropical island has exploded into a sprawling tale about life choices, redemption, time travel, unrequited and requited love, the nature of spirituality versus reason and the existence of alternate realities.
Even Star Wars creator George Lucas tipped his hat to the show, in a letter to the producers published by the Hollywood Reporter. "Don't tell anyone, but when Star Wars first came out, I didn't know where it was going, either," Lucas wrote. "The trick is to pretend you've planned out the whole thing in advance."
The TV legacy?
As you might expect from a show as deliberately ambivalent as Lost, the question of its legacy is complicated.
On one level, Lost helped inspire TV producers to take chances; at one time, it seemed every other new series pilot had a story that jumped back and forth through time. The lesson: Viewers can handle complicated stories with lots of detail playing out over a show's life.
As Lost and television's other great serialized drama 24 end their series runs within a day of each other, though, it's obvious that network TV's graveyard is littered with shows that tried hopping on a similar trend, including FlashForward, Daybreak, Surface, Pushing Daisies, Kidnapped, Six Degrees, The Nine and Big Day.
The fact is, like Twin Peaks and the X-Files before it, Lost may be the exception that highlights just how formulaic the rest of network TV really is.
"Six years ago, we were talking about the advent of a new kind of television, the mainstreaming of science fiction and a market for these mythology shows," said Entertainment Weekly's Jensen. "Six years later, (network) TV is a medium that can't support a show like Lost. The audience said, 'I don't have the time to invest,' and the networks said, 'Then, we can't afford to do them.' "
But Michael Purcell, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Global Cash Card company, said Lost has created a legion of interconnected, super-obsessive fans who now demand more from network television. And as an old high school classmate of co-creator J.J. Abrams, Purcell is a longtime fan who has put his money where his passion is, sponsoring one of the longest Lost-related podcasts on the Internet (the Lost Podcast with Jay and Jack) and creating the largest finale party in the country.
"We've graduated from the sitcom era; we really want to watch smart television," said Purcell, who has spent $75,000 on his Lost finale party at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, featuring an appearance from actor Michael Emerson. "(The party) is really a thank-you to the show. It's a cry out to say, 'If you guys put out great content, we will follow.' "
Indeed, Jay Glatfelter, who has co-hosted the Jay and Jack podcast with his father, Jack, from Raleigh, N.C., since 2005, doesn't expect to fold up shop after tonight. Instead, they'll spend weeks dissecting the finale and then start talking about the show again from the very first episode — looking back with the knowledge of how it all ends.
"The best part about what happens on Lost is what happens after Lost, when the discussions start," he said. "If you answer every single question (in the finale), you lose that."
Finding Lost author Stafford agreed. "One thing that has Lost fans unsettled is that the discussion now happens without any speculation; the discussion has to completely change," she said. "People take this show on as a personal thing. They see themselves in the characters, (pondering) 'If I had made different choices, how different would my life be now?' What they want more than anything now is to simply start a new discussion."
So, how do these experts think it all ends?
Stafford predicts the characters land in the sideways world, a seemingly more fulfilling version of the Lost universe created by a hydrogen bomb explosion at the season's start "because we want the happy ending." Purcell expects the castaways to sacrifice themselves and perhaps move the island to the sideways universe, but warns "every time my predictions are 100 percent wrong."
Jensen thinks it will come down to choice, somehow.
"It was always a show that said our world is a fundamentally spiritual place and we can use reason to understand it," he said. "It's about balance. And we're going to find out (the characters) have a lot more control than we thought they did."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or [email protected]