Lost in citation
Abandon all hope, ye who tune in to ABC on Wednesday nights: On February 7, the dense, allusion-packed sci-fi epic returns to prime time. And if you’re smugly congratulating yourself right now for catching the Dante reference above, wipe that smirk off your face.
There’s been a flurry of speculation and rumor about Lost during its months-long mid-season hiatus. Have the writers finally run out of ideas? Have they been flying by the seat of their pants all along? Matthew Fox, who plays primary character Dr. Jack Shephard, told the Herald that the show has been shooting episodes without him. Does that mean he’s been killed off? And more importantly, does anyone really care anymore? With a drop in the ratings and a growing ambivalence among the once-fevered internet fan base (in part due to the bevy of new Lost-inspired shows like Heroes), perhaps this exceptionally original television series is collapsing under the weight of its own strengths.
Up until now, chief among these strengths has been the series’ broad tapestry of allusion and its seamless stitching of high-minded philosophy into an action-adventure setting. In the same Herald interview, Fox cited exactly that as the reason the show intrigued him in the first place: “I saw in the pilot the possibility for really, really cool philosophical questions and dealing with those questions on the show.”
But now, some 50-plus episodes in, that joke just isn’t funny anymore.
The opening scene of the third season started with Elizabeth Mitchell’s character, Juliet, popping a CD in her stereo and playing "Downtown." This was a well-chosen bit of incidental music—it seemed like a simple tone piece to establish the scene. But anyone familiar with Lost knows there has to be more to it than that. In the peculiar tradition of expectations set up between the producers and the diehard audience of network television’s most dense, literary show, any reference’s connection with the character must be a clue to the island’s secrets. Soon after, Juliet holds up Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, sending the tens of thousands of Lost messageboard sleuths into online investigative hysterics.
But what if, sometimes, a book is just a prop and a song is just soundtrack?
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Lost, and it’s the most frustrating aspect of the show. Viewers hadn’t even reached the first commercial break in the season premiere, and the writers had already given out two pieces of homework. At first, the show’s keen eye for extra textual references was invigorating, but by this point, it’s become overkill. When nearly every scene references something—religions both Western (the Virgin Mary) and Eastern (Dharma), psychology (B.F. Skinner), philosophy (Locke’s “tabula rasa”), ancient history (hieroglyphics), comic books (Green Lantern), music (“Moonlight Sonata”), art (Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ), films (To Kill a Mockingbird), and vast troves of literature and science—the allusions cease to be meaningful and become red herrings.
An abridged list of the books that have appeared on, or are connected to, the show include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Brothers Karamazov, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Third Policeman, The Turn of the Screw, Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time and Of Mice and Men. In Episode 3 of the third season, we’re meant to linger over a biblical passage scratched onto a walking stick. What could it mean?
How about: Who cares? In its exponentially complex yet increasingly unsophisticated allusions, the show has begun to read more like multi-linked hypertext than compelling drama. “Allusion as character” works well in small doses, but what happens when every name calls to a mind a passage from the Bible or suggests a relevant historical or mythological precedent? Lost‘s allegorical character lineup includes philosophers Locke, Hume and Rousseau; Jack Shephard, (as the savior/Christ figure), baby Aaron (a nod to the Old Testament) and the anagrammatical Ethan Rom (“Other Man”), to name just a fraction.
But this sort of etymology can be applied almost universally. Juliet is so obviously serving as the “forbidden love interest from the rival faction” for Jack, one wonders what’s gained by giving her that most clichéd of allusive names. It’s just piling on—it ends up cheapening the clues we’re really supposed to pay attention to.
As the show itself works as a sort of Wikipedia of convergences, it’s appropriate that viewers turn to a host of fan sites where they can keep track of the symphony of citation—the show has even spawned its own wiki, Lostpedia. Truly, the simple joy of being “in” on a reference is one of the main reasons a show like Lost thrives.
And in the end, maybe that’s where the real problem lies—with you and me. We’ve been taken in by our own egos. The show tempts us with impressive-seeming but ultimately empty intellectualism, making us feel smarter than we really are. Perhaps what we have here is nothing but a prime-time science-fiction soap opera that’s serving as a multimillion-dollar version of an overcompensating grad student’s cluttered thesis. Or worse still, a case of a middlebrow showoff hammering his education down our throats.
Originally publishd in the Weekly Dig