What Viewers Don't Care About in 'Lost'

In a matter of hours, it will all be over. The series finale of "Lost" is upon us.

Since Jack woke up on this godforsaken island in his well-tailored suit six years ago, viewers have been subjected to unadulterated awesomeness and utter triviality, to unanswered questions and bitter frustrations. If you're a fan of the show, chances are you have at some point thought to yourself: I'm sick of this. These writers have nothing. Nothing. There are only more questions, none of which will ever have satisfying answers.

Indeed the central question for fans of "Lost" is, "Why do I care about what happens in this show? Why have I given years of my life to it, and, at this point, what can the writers do that will make me happy?"

The writers of "Lost" have faced these criticisms since early on.

The string of answerless mysteries has long been the prime knock on the show, and when and how to wrap it all up has been an important business decision for ABC. In 2007, network executives had decided that an end date must be picked, as a way for the creative team "to figure out where everything goes," realizing they might lose viewers in the byzantine maze of significances. At ABC headquarters, numbers were entered into a computer and names placed in a lighthouse; a six-season deadline was hatched.

But we do care about what happens in "Lost"--and the reason why separates this show from the other movies and TV shows of the sci-fi/thriller genre. In leading us down its mysterious path, "Lost" has achieved something artistically significant, whether by design or coincidence.

"Lost" has made us completely apathetic about the fate of the world, as it exists within the show.

In most sci-fi/thrillers, it's up to the characters to save humanity. The looming threat--aliens, a meteor, what have you--is the overt source of dramatic tension. The world has to be saved, and we know this up front.

But "Lost" has managed to invert that dynamic completely.

After six years of watching, we finally learned a few episodes ago that humanity is at stake in "Lost," too. The island evidently contains some sort of yellow light that, if it goes out here, "it goes out everywhere," as Allison Janney told us, and everyone in the world dies. (*As a reader points out, we're not completely certain about this. If the light goes out, something bad happens, everywhere. We do know that.)

The problem is this: viewers don't care about this yellow light. They don't care about it at all. By the time it was presented, we had developed our own reasons for caring about what happens in the show. We care about it mostly because of the characters. It doesn't really matter whether or not the world gets saved. We could care less whether or not it does, as long as justice and poetry are done for the characters.

The yellow light, thrown in at end of the show's long plot, was flimsy and immaterial. The first time we saw it, it looked really, really fake. Though it seems clear that the show's writers believe this light is of consequence, we had no real reason to believe Allison Janney, who had just shown up and proven herself to be a generally deceitful and unreliable person, when she told us about it. Now that the characters are dealing with it, it appears to be just one more ordeal they must reluctantly go through, hoping simply to come out on the other side.

That ridiculous yellow light was just an excuse for the show to keep going. Viewers had attached so many hopes to "Lost" that they needed this reason, and the writers had to give it to them. Which is the opposite of how most sci-fi/thrillers work, where the reason is given at the beginning, and the viewer's interest follows from it. The premise of "Lost," it turns out, was born of need.

So that's the artistic achievement of "Lost." It has managed to turn the fate of the entire world into a MacGuffin, and one that's not even supplied until the end. In doing so, it has reminded us of a fundamental truth of drama--that it's really all about the characters--and it gives us everything good about a sci-fi, except with a big, gaping hole in the middle. It has given us all the character-driven side-dramas we could possibly want, freed from the constraint of anything at the center of it all that actually matters.

When the series finale happens tonight, I'm not going to worry in the least bit about that yellow light, and maybe even what the island really was all along. I want justice, and I want the characters I care about to finally make it out of this luscious, beautiful, godforsaken hole.