Theories About Lost: First in a Series

“Lie to them…If you do it half as well as you lie to yourself, they’ll believe you.” -John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), Lost

“How many times do I have to tell you, John? I always have a plan.”
-Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), Lost

I am ashamed to like Lost.

Even though it doesn’t consume too much of my mental energy or time. Even though it’s a major popular hit. Even though it’s groundbreaking in a lot of ways. Even though the production values are impossibly good. None of this matters– I’m still ashamed of liking the show.

Why? Two words: bad writing.

Despite the fact that it’s densely plotted and organized on the macro level, Lost has line writing that makes the English major in me curl up into a tiny cringe-ball. It perplexes me that the writers of a show can be this smart (at plotting) and this stupid (at line writing) at the same time.

Even if I’m willing to forget the much-ballyhooed Lost fact that none of the characters ever ask the right questions, the problem is that they just don’t talk like real people a lot of the time. Except when they do. Simply taken line by line, Lost is a mindfuck in terms of tone. My ex-boyfriend and I actually used to play a game about this when we watched the show: we’d yell at the screen each time someone said something patently unrealistic or obvious. Suffice it to say that our neighbors did not like us very much.

One of the oldest tropes in marketing (the discipline in which both of my parents work, and in which they’ve taught me the basics) is this line: “If you can’t fix it, feature it.” This basically means that if there’s something so inextricably attached to your product (or TV show) that you can’t unlink the two, it’s better just to call it out upfront. For example, when Oldsmobile set out to rebrand itself in the 90’s, it had to deal with the perception that it made cars for old people. So they featured this flaw in their ads by immediately disarming that argument: their motto became “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” (This same trope was recently done even more awesomely in a series of ads for Canadian Club.)

What Lost can’t fix is genre writing, and all the bad dialogue it entails. Some shows can break through the writing trap when it comes to genre– but let’s face it, Lost ain’t never gonna be BSG. So it features it. It proudly proclaims, “This is like all those other genre shows that you watched as a kid. This is gonna have robots and kissing and awesome stuff always going on. Even if the writing sucks.”

So this is good for Lost, good for fans of genre shows who really enjoy Lost, and bad for people who aren’t really into genre shows precisely because of the writing (i.e. me).

Until I realized the best part about this fix-turned-feature.

The most essential goal of Lost from the writers’ perspective is that you don’t guess the mystery. The second you figure out what’s going on, you get bored and stop tuning in, and they stop making money. So the writers do plenty on the plot level to prevent that from happening. The show has a sizable share of red herrings: characters die before they should, often for no reason, or because the actors get DUIs (the show is three for three in this respect). Nikki and Paulo, Charlie’s impromptu baptism, Claire’s psychic…Lost is full of stubbornly loose ends. And don’t even get me started on Mr. Eko.

But what if I told you that bad dialogue is exactly the key to why Lost works?

This is why. The average Lost viewer is young, white, educated, and pop-culture savvy. (No problem if you’re not– this is merely the law of averages, mind you.) These are the people who, like me, have seen a lot of stuff, and if something gets predictable, they can call the outcome before it happens. In other words: The Lost viewership is Lost‘s kryptonite.

Bad line writing, however, confuses the best guessing instinct of all these people. If the show is action and comedy and sci-fi and romance and character drama and soap opera all in one episode, and moves between all these genres without much skill, no one is going to be able to figure out what it’s about– even the most educated guessers. The writing is cringeworthy on a micro level, but its essential randomness serves the big picture. And if that’s the case, maybe fans of great dialogue don’t have to be so ashamed of the show after all.

What’s even more insane is that if this is true, the show has lost viewers– a lot of viewers, added up over the past four years– precisely because of this ruse. But that ruse is still better than no ruse, because if the secret’s done, so is the show.

Granted, I could be making up this entire theory. A lot of Lost fans assign more cleverness and credibility to the show’s plot than it actually possesses. But it does solve the smart-stupid quandary. Plus, if it’s true, this means that the writers of Lost are so badass that they’re willing to write knowingly awful dialogue and lose tons of viewers for the purpose of preserving their mystery. And if that’s the case, it’s probably gonna be one awesome mystery.


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6 responses to “Theories About Lost: First in a Series

  1. YOU ARE SO GOOD AT THIS. I never realized before why Lost bugs me so much. It’s because it fucks with my plotdar! I hate that.

  2. Good stuff, I still worship the show, but you bring up some mighty relevant points.
    I think the biggest reason why they have such terrible lines is that the crazy one-liners are easy to sell. You can have a commercial full of split second, unrelated scenes, then end with one of their crazy one-liners like “Guys, Where are we?’, or “We have to move the island”, or “he changed the rules”. The one-liners on this show are coming at a comic book level, every scene seems to end with one.
    BTW if you thought Lost writing was awful you should have watched Alias, that was painful. And yet I liked that show too, apparently I’m not too critical about scripts.
    I’m going to link here from my blog.

  3. biggestmirror

    Thanks, izikavazo. I’ll have to check out your blog some more and brush up on my theorizing. If it makes you feel better, I too loved Alias, and often cringed at that one as well. After season three it became too much and I just had to stop watching. Little did I know that JJ Abrams would still be stringing me along five years later.

    I have to agree that Lost does love one-liners. Some of them are genuinely funny, like “Do you know those crackers are fifteen years old?” But more often, they’re just totally incongruous within the context of the scene, or weird little mystery-placeholders. Obviously, we, the Internet fandom, are going to be spending a lot more time debating a line like “He changed the rules” than “OH CHRIST HE KILLED MY KID” or even “Widmore violated our agreement.” The mystery is still preserved, the writing is still sloppy, and everyone wins…kind of.

  4. Honestly, I don’t know what you mean by bad writing. You seem to be complaining about a few cheesy one-liners. I’m a pretty big Lost apologist, I’ll admit that, but aside from the occasional clunker line and the They Don’t Ask The Right Questions complaint, I’ve always thought the dialogue was pretty sharp. (And by the way, dialogue is part of writing, but writing doesn’t only consist of the lines. Plotting requires a heck of a lot of writing too.)

    You say they don’t talk like real people. Listen closely to the dialogue in…anything, including BSG, which has its share of clunkers as well. Dialogue is a slightly disguised method of moving the plot forward and making you care about the characters – it never, ever sounds like real life. Write down a real conversation you have with someone sometime to notice the difference.

  5. Pingback: A Writing critique on Lost « Not Confused Just Lost

  6. I know I’m posting a month after you originally posted this, but I have to strongly disagree. I admit that this past season’s (Season 4) dialogue existed only to move the characters into place for the execution of the plot, and contained less of the character flourishes that I loved the early seasons for. And yes, the characters do avoid asking the right questions.

    But you can’t fault the show for not having characters talk like real people. No show does that (or shouldn’t, anyway). If they talked like real people, they never would’ve discovered the hatch, saved Walt from the Others, or even gotten off the Island. Fictional dialogue should be a twisted mirror of the real world: similar to our own thought processes and patterns, but different enough to keep our interest.

    Then the next question becomes whether this fictional dialogue is any good. But I can’t really fight you on this point, other than telling you that I think the writing is sharp, because you haven’t shown any examples. Other than those two lines up top, which I think are good ones, you haven’t specifically mentioned any instances on the show where you “cringed” at the lines.

    Yes, Lost does have loose ends, but isn’t that inevitable with a show this big? And the actors with DUIs getting killed…that’s pure speculation, and two of them are set to return on the show.

    Lost has a lot more layers than you think, and I for one cannot be happier it is nothing like how real people talk.

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