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Joanna Weiss

The art of ‘Lost’

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / May 23, 2010

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FOR THE PAST few weeks, I’ve been in a state of pre-withdrawal, anticipating the hole in my life when ABC’s “Lost’’ comes to an end. After tonight’s mega-super-extended finale and a few days of what I expect will be deep thinking and mild cranial pain, the “Lost’’ experience will be over. The thought makes me twitchy and preemptively bored.

For those who don’t know this series, it’s about a plane crash on an island that looks strikingly like Hawaii, except it’s not an island so much as a source of good and evil and massive pockets of electromagnetism, able to move through time and haunted by a monster made of smoke. The plane crash survivors, an interesting bunch, have spent the past six seasons trying to figure out just what is going on.

So have the viewers, but we’ve also been enjoying the beautifully realized ride. With its rich characters and sumptous score and ingenius plot turns, “Lost’’ is a triumphant work of art — yes, anti-TV snobs, I did say “art.’’ That’s why the ending of “Lost’’ raises age-old artistic questions. Most directly: What do creators owe their audience? And how much of the journey depends on how it ends?

Millions of “Lost’’ fans believe the answer to both questions is “a lot,’’ and they’ll be watching TV tonight with pitchforks ready, just in case. On message boards and blogs, they’ve declared that if the finale isn’t inventive, surprising, and completely satisfying, we’ll all have wasted a good portion of the past decade. To which the creators have, as politely as possible, replied: But it’s our show.

Ordinarily, I’d come to the creators’ defense. Executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse and their small band of writers have spent the better part of the past six years in a room in Burbank, making things up. They’re the ones who deserve credit for coming up with Ben Linus and John Locke and the Dharma Initiative, and if they want to conclude with tired platitudes about bright light and peace and happiness, that’s their right.

But when it comes to “Lost,’’ the equation isn’t so easy. The beauty and innovation of the show is the way it coexists with its audience, which goes online after every episode, asking and answering questions, analyzing screen shots, sharing theories that are sometimes more intriguing than anything that aired on TV. “Lost’’ is a collective experience, which is why catching up on DVDs will be possible, but unsatisfying — like watching the Super Bowl a week later, alone.

Cuse and Lindelof understand this symbiosis. They’ve admitted that they’ve changed some minor details of the show because of fan response. They know that people who feel engaged are more likely to watch. That’s part of the reason they talk so much to the press.

It’s also part of the reason, I suspect, that in their final episodes, certain characters have been urged to “let go.’’ That’s a message to viewers, too: Stop thinking so much. Just trust us to end things right.

But what does “right’’ mean? Happily? Wrapped up in a neat and perfect bow? Or ended in a way that leaves us unsettled and even a little bit mad? Artists have a history, maybe even an obligation, to provoke. Think of Martin Creed’s prize-winning gallery installation, “Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off,’’ which was precisely what the title suggested, and set off more emotions than most visual art ever does.

The best TV artists know how to do that, too; the brilliant “Sopranos’’ finale in 2007, which cut to black without telling us Tony Soprano’s fate, was a nifty meta-message about the limits of TV. It’s also an ending that still feels fresh and frustrating, and in a strange way, keeps the show alive. Contrast that to last year’s much-anticipated “Battlestar Galactica’’ finale, which explained the entire history of the universe. Now it’s done.

That’s why I’m hoping tonight’s “Lost’’ ending, rather than giving me all of the answers, leaves me twitchy, in a good way — cursing my TV set, thinking deep thoughts. Cuse and Lindelof’s final obligation is to be my artists, not my friends. And art doesn’t answer questions; it raises them.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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