Getting Lost

Given the title and what I often write about here, you might think this post is about either losing one’s way, or becoming hopelessly mired in the documentation for some arcane class library. It’s about neither of those things, nor is it concerned with any other variation on the theme of not knowing where you are. Rather, it’s about writing, and the title reflects that I got to thinking about writing while watching a billion episodes of ABC’s drama “Lost.” Well, perhaps not a billion. Anyway, let me explain.

I hardly watch television. I have an HDHomerun on our network and can get 120+ channels at my desktop, but frankly it’s 99% crap. Pick a channel at random and you have a 75% chance of hitting a commercial. Wait the commercial through and you have an 85% chance of finding yourself watching Cops. The remaining 15% of the time is split between informercials and a show on the “History Channel” entitled “Mega-awesome Disasters III: The Earth is Overwhelmed by Ice and then Explodes!” Most of the time I turn it on after work and fall asleep waiting for dinner to be ready.

So I missed the whole “Lost” phenomenon. I was aware of it like a distant cultural carrier-wave, but up until two weeks ago I hadn’t watched a single episode. Then my wife got a Netflix account and I discovered their on-demand streaming library and Windows 7 Media Center integration. If you have a job and responsibility do not sign up for this service. It should be a schedule II controlled substance. Once you start watching there is no reason to stop. An intervention will require physically removing you from your couch with a large putty knife. The service is fast, the quality of the video and audio excellent, and if the library isn’t massive yet, there is still enough to keep you supine for a year. It should be illegal.

One of the titles in the Netflix streaming library is all of “Lost.” I always wondered what the buzz was all about, so I decided to watch a few episodes. I’ve now watched about 35 of them, and will probably watch the remainder of Season 2, at least. But as I have watched it an interesting thing has happened: I’ve transitioned from watching to see where the story goes, to waiting for the next completely absurd plot twist to unfold so I can laugh and launch derisive comments at the monitor. What prompted me to write this post is not that I have been watching “Lost” devolve into a comedy of writing horror, but rather that it seems to me like so much writing these days has succumbed to the same fate.

Making a good story is very hard. I know because I keep trying and failing. Aside from all the other well-cataloged elements a good story requires, its events must be constructed on a foundation of plausibility. You have to get the little things right in order to make the world feel believable and real. Not to say that a good story cannot contain the incredible. The incredible and otherworldly make great story elements. But the incredible has to spring from the credible. When the big incredible thing happens, it has to happen in the context of a world that is wholly credible in all the small details. That’s what allows the reader to disregard reason and leap that small gap from the mundane to the wonderful.

The problem with “Lost” is that virtually nothing about it is plausible. It could have been. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t have been. The big incredible things that happen work very well. It’s just that they happen in a world that is itself absurd. It falls apart the minute you start to think about it. Yet the show is hugely popular and won an Emmy. It makes me wonder if most of the audience ever does think about it. Clearly some get it, and the evident absurdities and incongruities have even led fans to speculate that all the characters actually died on the plane and that they are in purgatory. I don’t think they are, but the viewers might be.

Start with the basic premise of the show. The writers needed to get a group of people into an exotic, isolated location without hope of rescue or recourse to any of the normal amenties of civilization. How did they choose to do that? They had an airliner break up at altitude and dump its three sections onto a mountainous island in the South Pacific, relatively intact and with a substantial number of living humans aboard. Every single aspect of this series of events is implausible in the extreme.

The pilots were on their way to Los Angeles from Sydney when they “lost all communication” and “turned back toward Fiji.” First, airliners don’t lose all communication unless they lose all power. The average airliner has something like four independent radios, as well as satellite communication with the fleet home office. Second, when an airliner breaks up at altitude at full cruise speed (the airliner in Lost was actually in a dive and would have been exceeding cruise speed) it doesn’t come down gently, or in very large pieces. People don’t live through that, or at least not often. There is one case I am aware of where a stewardess was tossed into the tail section of an aircraft after it was split by a bomb. The tail impacted on a forested slope and bounced to a stop and she lived, although very seriously injured. Everyone else on the aircraft was killed. In “Lost” some of the passengers are tossed into the water, some into the jungle, but at least 60-80 of them get up and walk away.

Yeah, right. Was that really the best the writers could come up with? There was no other way to get this group of people into the situation they wanted? I can think of at least three. “Lost” doesn’t really get any better after the passengers are deposited at the edge of the jungle and struggling to survive. One of my favorite chuckle-inducing scenes was when Sayid turns on a handheld VHF radio and exclaims breathlessly “We have a bar!” It’s as if all the writers are 20 year-olds who think every communications device works like an IPhone. Later he takes that same, single transceiver and by setting up some aluminum antennas in various places he uses that same, single transceiver to attempt to triangulate the position of a radio signal they intercepted. The producers should have hired some of the team that created MacGiver. At least some of the science would be sound.

The silliness just continues to multiply the longer you keep punching up that next episode, from hunting wild boar with a knife, to making use of dynamite that has been sitting in a humid jungle for 90 years. We don’t even have to get into the illogical, irrational way most of the characters behave. And yet I keep watching those episodes on Netflix, and from this and the series persistent popularity the writers might conclude that they have done a bang-up job. And so, from a business perspective, I guess they have. But in terms of quality there is quite a large difference between watching something out of appreciation for its merits, and watching something else out of the morbid fascination of witnessing a trainwreck.

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