I’ll admit it: I have trouble understanding what happened on Lost last night, even after it’s explained to me and recapped in detail. That’s the pact Lost makes with the viewers: if you follow us throughout the season, we will deliver some big thrills in the finale (and big ratings, though less big than they used to be) but if you don’t watch regularly, and just tune in not entirely sure of who’s doing what and where and when and why, then you will be confused. That’s not actually true of all serialized shows. 24 is a serial, but if you drift in and out during the season, it will still sort of make sense, because while it has a lot of twists, the actual plot is not that complicated and the episodes will usually find some way to remind us of what the basic conflicts are. The situations are clear. Lost is a serialized show where the situations are not supposed to be clear, where we’re supposed to argue about what’s going on.
In a way the impact of Lost is more comparable to reality shows than most other serialized scripted shows. (Which makes sense, because Lost was in part an attempt to bring some of the techniques of reality TV to scripted television.) The way people talk about Lost in comment threads like the one linked above is similar to the way they talk about the people on their favourite reality shows: every episode is less about the plot (or the tasks that reality-show contestants have to do) than questions about individual motivations, hidden agendas, alliances and allegiances. The reason reality TV threatened to eclipse scripted TV is that it put people before plot; because these were real people we were seeing, we focused on them instead of the tired storytelling mechanics of television. And Lost has done something similar: adventure dramas had a tendency to emphasize plot over character, but Lost has grabbed a devoted fan base that isn’t so much concerned with plot per se (what’s going to happen) as its effect on the characters (what are they going to do to each other, and what are they hiding?). It’s an odd type of show because it depends so heavily on gimmicks, and the characters aren’t exactly fully-developed people — there are too many of them, for one thing, and their lives are too mysterious for us to really understand them, for another thing — but it’s really the audience’s interest in the people that keeps it going.