LOST Is a Soap Opera

Denis McGrath prints a letter from a reader who makes a pretty good point about Lost: following the show can be frustrating once you realize that not only do the writers have no idea where it’s going (which is common to most shows), but they have no idea what the point of the show is supposed to be.

Nah, the problem is the realization that when the show is over, *nothing will have happened*. LOST is all about its own mechanisms, how ‘fun’ it is to get swept up in a conspiracy-shaped thing…and you look at shows like DEADWOOD and THE SOPRANOS and THE WIRE and, Christ, even BUFFY, and realize that they left you with something to think about, a series of plot movements that summed to something more than themselves.
The herky-jerky plotting, illogic, and navel-gazing isn’t just irritating in itself, it breaks the illusion that the show *means something*. Which is only bothersome at the craft level but, like, existentially crushing when you turn off the TV. All those hours for a show with nothing to say. I turn off THE OFFICE on Thursday night and I’m disturbed and ambivalent and hopeful. I’d turn off LOST admiring the writers’ labours. It’s like praising seam placement and not noticing the pants look stupid, y’know?
The show’s a cheat. Not because of how it’s written but *what it’s saying*. The latter opens you up to anxiety about the former. The end, baby.

The point, as I said, is a fair one, but it may also be unfair in that it expects Lost to be something it isn’t. It’s not a Deadwood or a Battlestar Galactica, shows where the writers are on some level trying to make each new development fit in with some kind of theme. The producers don’t really have a plan for the entire series when they start out, but when they come up with new stories, an important step in writing them is to figure out how these stories fit in with the themes of the show. (So if the story is “man gets run over by a truck,” and the theme of the show is The American Dream, the writer’s next job is to give someone a speech about how getting run over a truck is symbolic of the American Dream.) Lost is more like a soap opera, where the purpose of each new plot development is to make us wonder what the next plot development will be.

Because it’s an expensive prime-time show, and because it sometimes appears to have thematic weight to it, it looks like it should be placed in the category with more serious, ambitious dramas. But in a lot of ways, its main ambition is the same as a soap opera’s: to make us care what happens next. Like a soap opera, it will not resolve anything without raising a bunch of new unresolved issues in the process. Like a soap opera, characters can rotate in and out because the important thing is to produce conflict and tension, not to explore the life of a few characters in particular. And like a soap opera, it’s not really built for a satisfying ending, because it’s built to build up to something, but not to actually deliver anything. It’s a perpetual motion plot machine. (This was the Heroes problem, and the problem of Buffy in its final season: when your season is based on promising the audience that you are building up to the most awesomest final battle or final revelation ever, it will inevitably be a disappointment when it finally arrives.) But that’s not a bad thing; when we talk “soap opera,” we’re talking about a venerable and underrated genre. But the job of a soap opera is not to have a point; it’s almost the opposite. Making a point would be the equivalent of clearly resolving something, full-stop, and the purpose of a soap opera is to keep us perpetually interested and eternally unsatisfied.

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