A love of good television, like academia, requires both an intensely specific knowledge and an investment of time and effort beyond what is strictly necessary or merely entertaining. Of course, this sort of effort has its own rewards; if someone laughs merrily when you say “I’ve made a huge mistake” or tears up when you discuss the fate of Bodie Broadus, it’s enough to make you want to hug them. But unless you have a dedicated viewing partner or your entire blocking group develops an addiction, these rewards are few and far between. No wonder so many people prefer discussing movies; it’s simpler on a scale of time, if nothing else.
Which brings me to “Lost.” Entering its fourth season, the island-castaway head-scratcher offers no greater puzzle than this: Why do I continue to watch it? “Lost” is like an abusive boyfriend: every time you think you’ve had enough, it offers its hand and promises to do better in the future. “Lost” is also like a Zen monk: it answers every question with three more. And like an abusive boyfriend or a Zen monk, it’s more or less impossible to resist.
What initially appeared to be a creepy survival-in-the-face-of-monsters thrill ride has morphed into a “Twilight Zone” version of Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice.” It’s a universe in which Locke literally faces off against Rousseau and people have started time-traveling and talking to ghosts for no apparent reason. “Lost” fanatics sustain their much-abused curiosity with a fervent belief that all of the show’s questions will ultimately be answered. The labyrinthine lostpedia.org offers insight, however misplaced, into every cast-off detail of the show, and if there’s any way to make some random number from the show add or multiply to 815 (the number of the doomed Oceanic flight), these people have found it.
Yet my relationship to the world of “Lost” has become not unlike my relationship to the world of religion: I’m a pretty confirmed agnostic. Don’t get me wrong; if executive producers Damon Lindelof and A. Carlton Cuse ’81manage to pull off a grand unifying scheme that makes all of this nonsense line up, they will be nothing less than the gods of television, and I’ll correspondingly pay my tithe in DVD sets. The show’s ambition is staggering, and even its little rewards feel like a fortune compared to the meager returns of a show like “24.” ABC has even given “Lost” the unique honor of working with a set conclusion in 2010. This gives the writers a rare upper hand in planning the rest of their machinations. Despite this development, I wonder if the story’s web has already spun out of control; with four new characters added just this week and three more promised for the episode yesterday, I’m not sure what kind of mystery can satisfyingly encompass all of these pasts, futures, and conflicting desires.
In the meantime, like any good agnostic, I try not to think too hard. The stellar new season has been compelling enough on its own, making it easier just to sit back and watch the plot take off. When an episode is good, it’s hard to resist the temptation to read the scores of analysis that litter the Web. When one is bad, I can’t help but wonder if I’m better off saving the sixty hours of “Lost” that await me and getting a full recap come 2010.
For now, I’ll wait. When I wake up in the middle of the night wondering who the hell Jacob is or how on earth a tropical island can have polar bears, I’ll try to think of my thesis instead. Besides, how would I sum up this outrageous piece of work to anyone who’s not similarly under its spell? For the time being, I’m going with “It’s about Jack and his dad.”
—Columnist Allie T. Pape can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.