The Island Isn't Through With Us Yet

Even in death, "Lost" may still manage to confound fans, frustrate critics, obfuscate truths, and just generally flip us all the bird.

The Associated Press reports that a satellite known as Galaxy 15, recently damaged in a solar storm, is careening toward another satellite called AMC 11, which delivers programs for U.S. cable channels. If they get too close to each other, television signals could become scrambled.

If they hit each other, the fallout could be much more dramatic. Wreckage will rain down on a tiny uncharted island in the middle of nowhere with magical properties and polar bears. And back in civilization, there will be much rending of clothing and gnashing of teeth for the millions of members of Team Jack and Team Sawyer alike.

Expected satellite collision date? Sunday, May 23. The date of the "Lost" series finale.

You can't make this stuff up. Well, you can, but you certainly can't buy this kind of publicity. The biggest television event of the year may not actually happen. Fans are up in arms, and critics of the show are, as usual, nonplussed.

Because when it comes to "Lost," middle ground is as mythical as the island.

You either get it, love it, devour it--or you find it ridiculous, histrionic and overhyped.

There's not any question about where I fall. In my mind, "Lost" ranks among the greatest television dramas of all time. Top 20 or higher.

The series draws to its inexorable conclusion this weekend after six years, and if you're anything like me you're surprised to be experiencing a rather profound sense of melancholy, disorientation, even fear.

We die-hards may not exactly be in mourning. But the thought of the gaping hole this finale will create in our DVR queue definitely has us a little lost ourselves.

What adventure narrative will take its place? Do we really expect "FlashForward" to offer the same kind of epic fulfillment? Can we honestly look to "Human Target" to sustain us? "Battlestar" is over, and Joss Whedon is off the airwaves for the foreseeable future.

Who's going to ride Jacob's wild horses ... er, boars?

Haters will tell us to get over ourselves, and they're not without justification. As soon as a show as outsize and outlandish as "Lost" reaches critical mass, there's no escaping a backlash.

And top-20 TV rankings aren't to be doled out lightly.

Truth is, "Lost" is too pulpy to measure up to "The Wire," or even "The Sopranos." It has great characters, but "Mad Men" has great character studies. And even if you classify "Lost" as science fiction, there are at least 10 contenders ahead of it: "The X Files," "Twin Peaks," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Battlestar Galactica," to name a handful.

But those shows, while popular and important, never generated the kind of mass appeal, the conspiracy theories or the viewership numbers over time that "Lost" commands--partly because some of those shows aired on premium channels, partly because "Lost" came of age in the era of tweets and social networking, and partly because some were about aliens and vampires (pre-"Twilight" days).

But these were--and they remain--truly amazing shows.

What makes "Lost" amazing? That a dense, complex and multilayered TV show about time travel, alternate universes, electromagnetic fields, ghosts, smoke monsters, and the esoteric struggle between good and "the man in black" ever became a phenomenon at all.

And yet there have been phenomenal moments. Too many to number.

If you didn't shed a tear when Charlie drowned, sacrificing himself to protect his comrades, then you're a harder man than I am (Hurley's speech about Charlie was just as moving).

If you didn't get chills when Sayid walked into the hatch where he was holding Ben Linus and declared, "My name is Sayid Jarrah, and I am a torturer," then you must not be the type who scares easily.

And if, after Jack declared "We have to go back," your jaw wasn't hanging from its hinges as if you'd been punched in the face, then you're definitely smarter than I am.

This is what inventive, well-crafted, serialized drama looks like.

A pity, then, that the serialized drama as an art form has become so passe. Today, asking folks to patiently follow a narrative thread, week after week, over the course of several years is like asking them to switch back to dial-up Web access.

For those who rent entire seasons of television shows and consume them in three days, watching "Lost" in real time is a frustrating and vexing enterprise. The show's format is never going to work for them.

But even if some seasons of "Lost" were worse than others, those who complain about the show's sometimes plodding pacing are missing the point of great storytelling.

The era of instant digital gratification is awesome, and we praise Hulu, Netflix and YouTube for revolutionizing the way we consume media. But are we sure it's been a change that's entirely for the better?

To the critics, I readily admit that for all of "Lost's" high points, there have been equally colossal lows. The Nikki and Paulo debacle springs to mind, and this season's awful "Across the Sea" episode was not only a waste of Allison Janney's talents, but a waste of an entire weekly installment--an even greater sin for a show of its ilk.

But I'm an apologist, so let me be clear:

The fact is that no show on basic cable is even attempting to do the kinds of things "Lost" has done, week after week, season after season. The scope of the story is staggering, its thematic elements Shakespearean and timeless.

And this says nothing of its mere entertainment value. At least two of the show's season finales are already classics in their genre.

But perhaps the best measure of a story is how well it develops its characters. This is how we know that "Lost" is special, and it really is this simple--when a major character perishes, you stay up all night thinking about it.

On its best days, "Lost" showcases the heights that its oft-derided medium is capable of achieving when all the right elements are in place. Whether it can pull off a satisfying conclusion is to be determined.

But either way, the episode will represent a cultural touchstone for the small screen. Water coolers will be rippling the way they did after J.R. got shot, or once Big told Carrie she was the one, or when "Don't Stop Believin'" ushered out Tony Soprano and family.

It will be a don't-miss event. So make sure you catch it on Hulu.

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