The last season of Lost is upon us, and it gives writers of every medium an opportunity to watch masters of the craft push the television medium to places it has never gone. Lost is the first example of video game story structure transposed to TV, and the results have revolutionized the medium.
The old model of television involved the stand-alone episode, best exemplified in a crime or detective show. A murder was committed at the beginning of the episode, and then the cop uncovered the criminal and brought him to justice by the end. The next week a new crime was committed and solved. So plot was limited to what could be unraveled in 45 minutes.
With shows like Hill Street Blues and ER, the technique of the serial was added to TV. The cops, lawyers or doctors now had ongoing personal problems that extended over many episodes while retaining the stand-alone elements where a crime or medical emergency was solved by the end of the episode.
The creators of Lost had a big realization: the TV medium has not been used to its full potential, especially in the area of plot. So they shifted their focus from the single episode to the entire season. If you multiply 45 minutes per week by the 24 weeks of a network season, you have a story that is 9 times the length of a movie!
That’s Dickens’ territory. But the model the Lost creators used to construct this mega-canvas was not the 19th century novel, because that doesn’t take advantage of the crosscutting power of film and TV. Instead they cross-pollinated TV structure with video game structure, potentially the most plot intensive of all story forms. This meant three things above all:
1. the huge importance of the story world
2. an almost infinite number of characters
3. tremendous plot, because you can keep going deeper into the same world and find more reveals.
Like all multi-main character stories, the storytelling in Lost is all about juxtaposition and story weave. In the first three seasons, the writers were funneling out, adding layers and layers of plot, increasing the story’s scope by increasing the number of characters. But by the end of the third season the writers had reached the limit of plot: first, there were so many characters that they seemed like pawns and not people, and second, plot came to feel like a huge stall where further complications were just pointless.
That’s why, in the last two seasons, the writers have been funneling down, concentrating on the six “survivors” as well as John, Jack and Ben. This speeded up the plot by giving the many strands a convergent point, and switched the emphasis from the puzzle of plot to the emotional satisfaction of character.
In the first four seasons, the conflict focused on characters in space. Last season Lost shifted to conflict in time. In other words, time travel. Time travel is always a fun plot device. But what does it really mean? The ultimate thematic point of time travel is to compress into one view a character’s moral failings vs. the final moral judgment against him or her. Through the crosscut, the viewer can suddenly see in one view a single character’s life span, and the choices that make all the difference in the quality of a human life.
Sure enough, in the middle of season five, we saw a series of episodes in which each of the main characters had their own show. Instead of strictly plot reveals for a mass of characters within the world, time travel allowed the writers to create strong emotional character payoffs for each of the nine major characters. At the same time the plot reveals for the entire show continued to come over the course of the whole season, which satisfied the plot cravings of the die-hard viewer.
If last season was about time travel, this season the writers are using the story technique of alternative history, contrasting actions on the island with an alternative present for each of the major characters back in the real world. The purpose of the alternative history technique is the same as it is for time travel. Both contrast the moral choices that caused these characters to come to the island in the first place. Each episode gives a character a chance at two paths, the island that tests their great flaw and real life where each person can finally make things right.
Besides being a lot of fun to watch, Lost gives writers a chance to see some of the best storytellers in the world, in the middle of their creative process, working the craft and pushing the magnificent medium of television. I’ve been saying for years that the best writers in America are working in TV. Even if you’ve never watched this show, you owe yourself the pleasure of seeing what great writing can do before Lost is gone forever.