Imagination is the most powerful force in the universe. It is infinite in its possibilities and unlimited in the things it can create. A child’s imagination is perhaps the most powerful of all, because a child does not have the knowledge to limit that imagination. A child knows nothing of physics, mathematics, politics, or societal norms. These limitations are not imposed on a child’s imagination, and thus to a child, anything is still possible. The world is one giant mystery to be explored.
Why is any of this relevant? Last week, I was trying to convince a friend who had never seen “Lost” to start watching it. “Lost” had its 10 year anniversary a couple weeks ago, so the show was once again at the forefront of people’s minds. Whatever your personal feelings about the show are, there is no denying that it transformed the way we watch and the way networks create television. My friend said he didn’t think he could get into “Lost” because of all the negative press that surrounded the series finale. He had heard everyone was really disappointed that many of the questions were left unanswered, but to be disappointed in “Lost” because of the finale is to completely misunderstand what made the show great in the first place. “Lost” was not a great television program because of its mysteries, but rather because of its characters and the relationships between those characters. Did I stay up until 4 a.m. watching “Lost” because I needed to find out what happened in the next episode? Yes. Did I invest six years in the show to find out exactly what that smoke monster was? No. And if you did, then you deserved to be disappointed by the finale and you should have spent your time watching something else.
The conversation with my friend reminded me of an amazing video I saw a few years back of J.J. Abrams (coincidentally the creator of “Lost”) giving a talk at TED. Abrams’ talk comes from 2007, which was post-“Alias” (another one of his shows) and right in the midst of the “Lost” run. You can see it here. Abrams touches on a number of interesting ideas in his talk, but the thesis for his talk is this idea of the mystery box. Mystery, as Abrams points out, represents infinite possibility. The problem with mystery, though, is that reality is often much less satisfying than what your imagination had previously conjured up. “Lost” was never going to satisfy viewers because they had spent hundreds of thousands of hours in internet forums coming up with crazy theories and dissecting every scene of the show. It was imagination at its finest. The reality was always going to be less satisfying. It is similar to when a great book gets turned into a movie–before the movie, you create your own images of the characters, the locations, and the action. Two perfect examples are “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” Before the movies, Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter looked like whatever I wanted them to look like. Now, I can’t even remember what I had imagined. In my mind, Elijah Wood will always be Frodo Baggins and Daniel Radcliffe will always be Harry Potter. Both actors represent the characters well, but a little bit of the books died when the movies were released. There were no longer infinite possibilities, just a reality.
Mystery shouldn’t just be about answers, and it should never be the basis for an art. Since “Lost” finished its run on television, there have been numerous shows that tried to fill its shoes. Spoiler alert: none of them were renewed for second seasons. The reason they didn’t work is because they copied the wrong parts of “Lost.” Abrams mentions this in his talk. He says that the reason sequels, spinoffs, and ripoffs usually fail is because they copy the wrong parts of the originals. He points out that “Jaws” is not a movie about a shark, but one about a man trying to find himself. “E.T.” is a movie about divorce, not an alien. The shows that premiered (and ended) right after “Lost,” such as “FlashForward,” “Rubicon,” and “The Event,” tried to create mystery-suspense thrillers that had a larger mythology driving the show, but they put the mystery ahead of the characters. “Lost” was never a show about an island. It was a show about a group of people brought together under extraordinary circumstances and the relationships that were formed. You may not have realized it as you sat there wondering what the hell a polar bear was doing in the middle of the desert, but it was always about the characters.
That’s not to say every mystery should go unsolved. There is nothing I love more than a good mystery book. I have read almost every Agatha Christie book ever written. Those are stories with mysteries that need to be solved. Someone murdered the butler in the dining room with the candlestick, and by the time I read the last page, I better damn well know who did it. There is an expectation with a mystery book that an answer will be given, but even those books are predicated first on the characters, such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. They are the ones who carry the book, not the mystery.
A great example of a mystery that needed to be solved in television is the show “The Killing.” The show was billed as a mystery book told in 13 episodes. The main tagline was “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” No one involved with the show ever said that an answer would be given by the end of the first season, but fans came to expect it. So when the season finale ended and there was no answer, outrage ensued. The show became a 26-hour episode of “Law and Order.” But, I bet fans would not have cared if, by episode three, they had not completely lost interest in the characters. The characters became stiff and uninteresting, so the only thing carrying the show was the mystery, and when that mystery was not solved, there was no longer a reason for the show to have existed in the first place. I recently watched “The Killing” on Netflix, having never seen it before. I knew they didn’t solve the mystery at the end of the first season, and therefore, I was actually able to enjoy the show more than others probably did. I didn’t have the expectation of the mystery being solved, and because of that, I was able to enjoy the journey.
It would be easy to blame the failure of shows such as “FlashForward” and others on the writers, but that would be partially misguided. There is no excuse for creating art without interesting characters, but the writers were only trying to give audiences what we wanted, or rather, what we thought we wanted. The writers of these shows closely monitored the finale of “Lost” and saw the outrage that ensued when enough answers were not given to the show’s many mysteries. So what was their takeaway? Give the fans lots of mysteries and just as many answers. So they did. “FlashForward” and “The Event” did a fairly decent job of keeping the answers coming as they continued to introduce new mysteries. The writers gave fans exactly what they clamored for, and yet, the fans did not support the shows enough for them to get renewed for second seasons.
The bigger problem was not the writers, but the viewers. Americans have such quick access to information these days with the ubiquity of Google, smartphones, tablets, and computers, that we are often seconds away from getting answers to any question. We expect answers, and we like to think that there is no question that we cannot answer. In the old days, a question as simple as “How tall is Michael Jordan?” could have sparked a 30-minute discussion. Today, that conversation does not even happen. The problem is, we no longer have to think. We just search. The same could be said for television and movies. We watch television shows and movies and we want answers. It’s no longer about the journey, it’s about the ending. So, rather than taking time to develop strong characters, writers became way too focused on plot. They lost sight of what makes a show so great: the characters. Just look at this season’s slate of new network television shows. It’s cookie-cutter. No one is taking risks. The networks got burned by the poor decisions made in the wake of “Lost.”
There is a way to fix all of this, but it’s not easy. Networks, writers, and viewers need to band together, but it starts with the viewers. As we get older, we lose that childhood sense of imagination. We learn about Einstein’s theory of relativity and discover that time travel is not possible. We learn about the laws of gravity and discover that we cannot actually fly. The mysteries of the world are quickly solved by science and Google. We need to get back to our childhood roots. We need to keep the mystery box closed and start looking at mystery as infinite possibility, not a question that needs an answer. Because more often than not, what our minds create is so much more interesting than what reality gives us..