Damon Lindelof and the Mysteries of Television Mystery


I just read an excellent New York Times Magazine profile of Damon Lindelof, and I have a few thoughts about it.

1. The profile describes Lindelof’s tumultuous experience with the fans of Lost, the show he co-created and ran for all of its much-scrutinized run. For years, Lindelof endured outraged cries from devoted fans of the show who felt that the series finale failed to wrap up the mysteries the show had allegedly set out to solve. The feedback turned so sour that Lindelof deleted his Twitter account with a flourish on October 14th, 2013, explaining later that the resurgence of negativity that followed the polarizing Breaking Bad series finale left him feeling psychologically battered.

I never watched Lost to solve the mysteries. I was certainly interested in finding answers, and I enjoyed delving into Jeff Jensen’s exhaustive analyses for Entertainment Weekly, but when it came time to watch the finale, I was far more invested in where the characters would find themselves at the end of the episode, and how the journeys we’d watched unfold for six years would conclude. I realize I’m in the minority, and that the frustrating banality of the Smoke Monster, the Whispers and the Magic Cork left people frustrated to the point of dismissing the entire show. I think that’s an unfair response, given that the show always cared about people as much as it did smoke and mirrors. I was glad I’d spent six years with Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke, Hurley, Ben, Juliet and the dozens of other characters who popped in and out. It’s not wrong to want more from a show famous for its mysteries, but it’s also not right to condemn the creator for having other ideas about how he wanted his show to end. There’s no use crucifying Lindelof for “wasting our time.” That we were invested in the first place means that he was doing his job right for quite a while, and that counts for something.

2. The Leftovers has massive potential, and I’m really curious to see how it adheres to and departs from the Lindelof conventions Brodesser-Akner describes in her piece. I’m intrigued by the idea that the pilot establishes the mystery and future episodes explore the ramifications of that mystery, providing a distraction from the pressing desire to answer the questions. Again, though, Lost at its best pulled off the same trick. The first season of Lost had exquisitely strange moments of mysterious wonder, but it also had extraordinary explorations of character and theme in episodes like “Walkabout” and “Solidarity.” The show at its worst got bogged down in circumvention after circumvention, at the expense of logical character development and legitimate suspense. I sincerely hope that The Leftovers, unburdened by the same fervent audience of 15 million viewers (network TV circa 2004, people!) that analyzed every frame of Lost, will have time to tell stories about people, so that the mysteries are in support of something larger and more meaningful.

3. Brodesser-Akner spends much of the piece linking Lindelof’s family background with the themes and characters in his shows, as with his explicit similarity to Jack Shepard, the Man of Science on Lost. This section got me thinking about an increasingly prevalent television equivalent of the auteur theory in film. This theory essentially credits the successes and failures of a movie to its director, who conjures his singular vision onscreen with the help of the cast and crew. On television, the writer is held up as the analogous authority figure, asserting his vision over the rest of the creative team and influencing the TV landscape with his characters and words.

Based on Lindelof’s conflicted feelings about being a celebrity at the center of a controversial television show, perhaps television criticism should strive more energetically to spread the credit to the directors who execute the vision from page to screen, the cinematographers who capture the look and feel of the show, the editors who shape a show’s rhythms, the composers who use music to define a show’s personality, and all of the other creative people whose input and technical expertise contributes to our appreciation of a show’s merits. It’s not that these people never get credit, but they probably don’t get enough, and a systematic critical shift might persuade some viewers to criticize shows in a way that won’t do psychological damage to the people behind the shows we love, like and even hate. If the ultimate purpose of television criticism is to think more deeply about the things we do to enrich our lives when we’re not working, perhaps we ought to pay more attention to the people who view television as a job, not a pastime.

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