Can you get Lost?

Enlightenment philosophers, polar bears and pirate ships all feature in "Lost." But if the series is about anything, it's about contemporary America
May 19, 2006

When executives at ABC commissioned the pilot episode of Lost, they requested an alternative ending in which the survivors of the plane crash would emerge from the jungle to find that the island on which they thought they were stranded was in fact the coast of Florida. This would have given the studio a neat little television film to screen if the pilot had bombed; but it would also have given the game away. Not that Lost is really set in Florida—but anyone who thinks that this series is about anything other than contemporary America is looking the wrong way.

Episode one of Lost opened with Jack Shephard, a young doctor in an Armani suit, lying on his back in a bamboo grove. Shephard, it turned out, had just fallen 40,000 feet out of the sky; he slowly discovered that he was surrounded by an assortment of fellow survivors of his plane's mid-air breakup over the Pacific.

By the end of that pilot episode, after the survivors had witnessed some kind of monster trampling down the forest, after the injured pilot had suffered an unpleasant death, and after Jack had seemingly brought at least two casualties back to life, Charlie—the unlikely English rock star who arrives on the island complete with several grams of heroin—saw fit to ask, with stoned clarity: "Guys, where are we?"

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Twenty-two episodes later, Lost's large and appreciative audience (peaking at 23m in the US and 6m in Britain) is still waiting for an answer. The first series ended with Jack and three other principals blowing open a man-made hatch they had found in the forest, only to find themselves, like Alice, peering down a bottomless hole into an even deeper mystery. In almost 20 hours of television, the plot had progressed from page one of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to page two.

So what does series two hold? Lost sets out to be intriguing, and it works. With a reality television setting, the mood of a graphic novel and the plot twists of a leftfield thriller, it has inspired cacaphonous internet chatter. Is it an island at all? Is it a Truman Show-style stage? Are the characters alive or dead? Have they been brought here to fulfil a divine purpose? Is this purgatory (between them the main characters seem to have broken all ten commandments)?

These ontological questions are fuelled by a series of smaller puzzles at episode level. There appear to be polar bears on this subtropical island; a pirate ship called The Black Rock lies washed up on one of the island's highest points; the island seems to be inhabited by a predatory group called "the others"; a 16-year-old radio signal is still sending out a distress call from somewhere on the island.

Lost was originally circulated under the title Nowhere, and some of the utopian flavour remains. Two of the founding fathers of the British novel, Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, mark the rival paths that the utopian tradition could take, into philosophical satire or ripping traveller's tale. Lost harnesses both traditions into something rich and strange. For a popular television series, this island is peculiarly rich in Enlightenment philosophers. There is a wild-eyed Frenchwoman called Danielle Rousseau, who was already on the island when the plane crashed, and the survivors include a character called John Locke. For Locke the island really is a tabula rasa, giving him a second chance to walk, having spent many years in a wheelchair. He rewrites himself as a hunter, tracker and shaman. He is the most morally ambiguous character on the island, a hero to some, villain to others. But Locke becomes increasingly powerful, and in the second series he is set to challenge Jack for leadership of the island. He is the settler who sets out to lose his past, to immerse himself in a new world, and whose morality is shaken by the encounter.

Rousseau is the sole survivor of a French scientific expedition and author of the 16-year-old mayday signal. She believes that the island is the home of a band of noble savages she calls "the others," who whisper to her from the depths of the jungle.

Lost's tired, huddled survivors can adapt to life in their new world in a number of different ways. They can begin from the beginning, like Locke, with a wide-eyed amorality. They can obsess about their predecessors on the island, and yearn, like Rousseau, to share their secrets. They can apply scientific reason and become temporary messiahs, like Jack, the "Shephard," whose flock straggle around him. Or they can establish themselves in business, like Sawyer, the conman who hoards debris, and sets up a trading station on the fringe of the beach.

If Lost is about anything, it's about nation-building; and the utopia towards which the whole series gestures is the US. The flight was bound for America when it broke up in mid-air, and the image of settlers hovering on the fringe of an immeasurable wilderness is written into the heart of American mythography.

So where do we go from here? JJ Abrams, the show's creator, promises that there is a story arc to encompass the seven scheduled series. If Lost is an allegory for the birth of America, that would mean we are now around the middle of the 17th century. Independence, the race west, civil war and industrial expansion are still to come. Meanwhile, idealism does daily battle with pragmatism. We have already seen some conflict between the settlers who headed inland and those who stayed on the beach—those who want to embed themselves in the new world, and those who continued to look back to their origins.

What's interesting about Lost is not what lies waiting in the plot, but what has already been revealed in the structure of the series. The survivors of the plane crash may not be in America, but they are lost deep inside a Hollywood liberal version of the American dream.

The second season of "Lost" starts on 2nd May on C4