To Lindelof, the Fine Brothers weren’t fans anymore. To me, their clear agitation and radical engagement with every element of the story meant that they were the most dedicated kind of fans: They cared enough to be pissed off. And who was to blame for that?
What made Lost fail? It’s possible Cuselof’s story was simply so Byzantine no one in the creative team could connect the dots, even with a two-year head start. It definitely didn’t help that the show shifted from a diverse cast to the repeated tableaux of white guys bickering about fate while the female characters were either shot or (worse) congealed into bland love interests. But to me, one central problem—which we had hints of early on, back when the show was still pulling off one masterful structural coup after another—was that the series had become obsessed, in both overt and unconscious ways, with manipulating its own relationship with its fans, alternately evading and reflecting their critiques, and then finally satisfying them in the most condescending possible way, with sentimental sleight-of-hand.
Built as it was from video-game aesthetics, comic-book plots, and science fiction, Lost had always included witty internal acknowledgments of its own geek appeal, including characters who acted as stand-ins for Lost fans. Hurley began the series as an actual character, but he quickly became our avatar: the sci-fi geek, full of Star Wars references, loyal and positive, like Cuselof’s ideal. In contrast, Arzt, the wicked fan, was a science teacher full of gripes, but he hilariously blew to bits in season one. Later, we got snarky Miles and Frank Lapidus, an outsider who made bemused remarks about the melodramas around him.
This was fun in the early seasons, when Darlton felt like they were in communion with their audience, but as the show began its final slide, these characters increasingly operated more as venting devices for fan frustrations—a way for the writers to let us know they heard us, but also to joke about logic problems or clichés instead of addressing them. The snarky chorus stood in contrast to the main ensemble, which, with a few exceptions, devolved from archetypal (but layered) characters into action figures, their aims narrowing, like video-game heroes, to a single goal: Find Sun, find Jin, find Claire, return to the island, get off the island.
Then, in the run-up to the final season, Cuselof suddenly inserted a shocking new framing device, a tactic that radically simplified their entire series: the twin dei ex machina of Jacob and the Man in Black. We’d gotten hints of Jacob’s existence earlier (who was that man in the cabin? Who??), but Cuselof’s reveal went beyond exposing the wizard. It redefined everything we’d watched as a game played by manipulative gods. Jacob smirked and wore Jesus robes. His brother, the Man in Black, was the evil Smoke Monster. While the pair were not named Cuse and Lindelof, it was hard to ignore the resemblance, since Lost’s characters—like its fans—had been revealed as the pawns of narrative overseers who spoke in riddles, were hard to trust, and continually reassured them to be patient, the end was near.
Within that endgame, Cuselof introduced the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins: a glowing pool of embarrassing special effects, unexplainable because, as we learned in another meta line, “every question will just lead to another question.”
The peculiar thing about all this was that throughout its seasons, one of Lost’s most appealing ambiguities had been that, for all those debates about science versus faith, the show had never been in the camp of credulous trust. It was an island full of con men and women, after all, emotional seducers (from Sawyer to Ben to Nikki and Paolo) who fleeced those who believed in them. John Locke, the show’s Man of Faith and its most original character, was wrong again and again, and, in the end, died confused and despairing. His was an uncompromising plot within a show that increasingly pulled its punches, giving once-complex characters sacrificial and heroic outcomes. Jacob himself turned out to be in thrall to a lying, manipulative parent. On Lost, saying “trust me” was a red flag.
And yet, we had to trust Cuselof: That’s what a good fan does.
Then came the finale, which amounted to a moving, luminous, tear-inducing, near-total bait-and-switch.
Now, I realize many people enjoyed the finale. The episode was visually lyrical. It was audacious, in its way. It was almost radically crowd-pleasing, designed to be viewed with the fan brain, not the critic brain. With its witty structure, it allowed the creators to download fusillades of old clips: montages that in the literal sense stood in for each character’s memories, but which also worked as sentimental flashbacks for fans, reminding us of how much fun it had been to watch Lost itself. Meanwhile, on the island, we endured a series of thrilling but nonsensical unpluggings and then pluggings of a Freudian sinkhole. When the plot and the island stopped shaking, Hurley, the Good Fan, was handed the keys to the donkey wheel, as if he were being trusted to protect the legacy of the show itself.