Tuned In

Lost and Heroes: In Defense of Arrogance

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After May 23, Lost will be no more. And judging by the fan reactions to the “Across the Sea” and the waning days of season 6 generally, we’re seeing a lot of restlessness among the fans about how and whether Lost is answering questions, and whether it’s staying true to its vision and characters as it goes off the air.

I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s criticisms, having leveled plenty of my own at this week’s episode. But it’s instructive to remember a time not so long ago when people were talking about a new TV serial. One that had learned from the mistakes of Lost. That would not string fans along. That would provide closure. That would be unambiguous. That would give answers. It debuted, and for a shining period, its partisans said that it was succeeding at Lost’s game better than Lost.

That TV show was Heroes. And reports are coming out that it may have come to a quiet, largely unlamented end.

Now I will admit that I’m being a little reductive here. Heroes had plenty of problems that had nothing to do with trying to avoid the pitfalls of Lost. And while I was never the biggest fan, I don’t want to dance on its grave by recounting them all.

But I firmly believe that its original sin was in trying to objection-proof itself, and thereby setting a ceiling on how great it could ever be. Heroes was its own thing, yes, but by starting from the position of satisfying fans better and quicker than its serial competition, it started from a position of timidity.

It had a pretty good first season, and some great individual episodes. But in all it was testament to a theory I have about TV, and storytelling in general, which you may disagree with: you cannot suppress the worst tendencies of a show without suppressing its best, because they come from the same place. Put another way: you have to be willing to suck if you ever want to be great. “Awesome” and “awful” are actually closer to each other on the continuum of quality than either is to “meh.”

If your first priority is creating something amazing, you will make some mind-blowingly awful mistakes. If your first priority is avoiding mistakes, you will preclude the possibility of succeeding wildly (and you may end up making mistakes anyway).

Which is why, on the one hand, I stand by all the criticisms I made of “Across the Sea,” which, taken by itself, was a misstep to me. (I’ll see if my opinion changes in the context of the finale.) And yet on some level, I want Lost’s makers to be willing to tell me to go screw myself. Is that self-hating? Maybe. Enabling? Probably. Excuse-making? I suppose.

But I can’t agree with the criticism of fans who call a recent interview with Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof “arrogant.” Or rather, I can agree. I just can’t see “arrogant” as necessarily a bad thing. What is ambitious storytelling if not arrogance? If someone sets out to tell me a story at 100-odd episodes, about physics and metaphysics and time travel and life after death and smoke monsters and disappearing bunnies—they had freaking well better be arrogant.

I have a large-ish piece in the coming issue of TIME about the end of Lost, for which I interviewed Cuse and Lindelof. For my money, one of the most interesting parts of the interview never made it into the story, because it didn’t much touch on the final season. (I’ll try to get it online eventually.) It was about season three, and the Nikki and Paolo arc, which, I’ll admit, I liked. Or at least: I liked the idea of it—I liked that the show had enough daring and sense of play that it was willing to do such a crazy thing, even if it flopped so badly that Cuselof had to sacrifice the characters bodily in penance. Nikki and Paolo came along at just the time that people were saying Heroes had figured out what Lost had failed to. How are they each looking now?

I sort of hesitate to write this, because I know it may come of as excuse-making, and maybe rightfully so. (One benefit of the end of Lost is that, even if the public schools are not teaching Socrates, people are suddenly learning the definition of “apologist.”) But the whole discussion is starting to remind me if the ending days of The Sopranos, when people were basically arguing that David Chase did not understand his own show. David Chase, by definition, understood The Sopranos. He just didn’t necessarily understand the version of it that you wanted him to make.

Anyway, none of this is to say that you shouldn’t criticize the ending of Lost, or that I shouldn’t, or that all of us won’t anyway. If it sucks, it sucks, and you should say so. But it is to say that we couldn’t get this involved in a show that had not, at some level, decided long ago to be arrogant. The modern era of media is one of two-way communication, and Lost and its fan community make a great example of that. But there’s still something to be said for the power of not listening.