It was Wednesday, September 21, 2005. Having completed my first game test assignment on The Con for PSP the previous Saturday, I had just been reassigned to help out on NBA 06 for the PS2, which was in the midst of its final development push. Thus, with nary a break between gigs, I was back on crunch time. My shift began at 9 AM, and although I was technically free to leave at 5:30 PM, it was highly encouraged for a temp like me, hoping to get called back for future jobs, to work until 10 PM. I was dog-tired, however, and did not feel quite like going the distance that day. I decided on my own to strike a compromise by quietly stepping out at the 8:30 PM break, and then not heading back in. Since my responsibilities were minuscule at this stage, it was unlikely that anybody would notice my departure.
I made it home before 9 PM, in time for a late dinner. Since I was eating alone, I turned to the TV for company. Prime time programming is something that you largely give up when you work twelve-hour (minimum) days for weeks on end, so I didn't really know what was on. I rolled the dice and turned to ABC. During my final summer of unemployment, Wednesday nights on ABC had been home to Dancing with the Stars, which had captured my attention for a good few weeks. On that night, however, what I got was a scripted scene of a lone unidentified man waking to his alarm clock, to meet the day by working out and preparing a liquid breakfast to the diegetic sound of Mama Cass Elliot's vinyl recording of "Make Your Own Kind of Music."
How could I not be intrigued? This was obviously a very sick man--like, Silence of the Lambs crazy. The unnerving combination of upbeat oldies music with the mundane routine of a man whose face was strategically obscured in every shot told me as much, even before he started shooting up chemicals in what appeared increasingly like a 1960s fallout shelter. Things quickly got even crazier once an outside explosion set him scurrying to the gun rack. As he then peered through a telescope in anticipation of intruders, the camera traced the bounding path of his sight along a system of mirrors winding down an underground tunnel to arrive finally face-to-face with two recognizable men staring curiously down a hatch. The two men were the stars of Lost, and I was watching the second season opener, "Man of Science, Man of Faith." It would be the first full episode of Lost I ever saw.
Having heard a lot of hype already during the first season, I had once randomly tuned into the middle of an episode, and after about two minutes of some bald man trying to convince me that the island was destiny, I walked away without regret. Okay, so maybe I had made up my mind not to like it, having missed the phenomenon's emergence and consequently having felt some resentment at being left out.
It was some remarkably chance encounter that saw me caught by this season two premiere, however, and I could not avert my gaze--not for the duration of the episode, nor for the rest of the series. I thought this show was supposed to be a TV version of Cast Away. What then was the story behind this man in the hatch? It was a mind-bender all right, and the crazy man in the hatch was just the beginning. As it turned out, the bald guy was not being creepy just for the sake of it; he alone knew firsthand that the island was a place of miracles. Season two also included a hostile band of ninja-like "others," a terrifying smoke monster, and a button that had to be pushed every 108 minutes in order to "save the world." And it was a nail-biter--a tightly scripted thriller where the action had consequences. Ironically, the one thing I thought the show lacked at the time was appealing characters. I say it was ironic because, for a show with such a high body count, it was all along, at its perhaps surprisingly sappy core, the story of its characters.
Every week was about flashing backwards, forwards, or even sideways in a character's journey to the defining moments that made them who they were, ultimately presenting a life story in 121 episodes. At its very best, the show could even, within just a single episode, leave you feeling like you had spent years with a character. Indeed, it took one very specific such episode to convince me that the show was something special. For me, the pivotal episode was the season two finale, "Live Together, Die Alone." The two-hour event, instead of presenting the usual flashbacks to a main character's past, focused primarily on a theretofore undeveloped recurring guest star of seemingly minimal importance. For a serialized show so notoriously inaccessible to newbies, its greatest feat was probably how, with a single two-hour episode, it managed to convey the entire essence of this character, about whom I had known practically nothing going into the episode, but who, by the end of it, would become my favorite character, not just on Lost, but on any of the shows I was following at the time.
And the show would do it over and over again. Four seasons in, they had the gall to introduce an entire team of new characters into the established family, and these newcomers quickly became among my favorites. In season five, they managed, with just three scenes, to fully develop a romance that could not have felt any more natural and believable. The final season's best episodes were "Dr. Linus" and "Ab Aeterno." The former more than redeemed a character I never expected I could like. The latter finally gave fans the story of the island's most mysterious character, after most viewers had already guessed he was a red herring. By the episode's end, the character's insignificance in the grand scheme was only affirmed, and yet it was a success because it got me to care about the character's life and not his role.
Lord knows things didn't always go down this well. The writers themselves acknowledged that third season additions Nikki and Paulo were "universally despised." The aforementioned season four romance was all the more remarkable because the first three seasons had wasted so much time going nowhere with a love triangle that felt forced. The poorly-timed Jacob origin episode this season was one of the series's least effective. Bringing back some long-forgotten cast members for, essentially, fanservice moments at the end only reminded me how little I missed them and their lousy subplots that never rang true. And the show's professed center, Jack Shephard, was never an easy guy to like, and it took nearly all of six seasons of them forcing him on viewers before I finally warmed to him.
Yes, this was a show that had a master plan, yet things did not always go according to that plan. They cast a child actor without considering that he would grow up faster than time was supposed to be passing on the show. They cast a fat actor who never got thinner, even though his character should have been barely subsisting on an island diet. They had to deal with actors walking out on the show, leaving them high and dry on unresolved subplots. Sometimes they had actors exceed their expectations and earn larger roles than anticipated. They admirably committed themselves in advance to a strict end date, only to end up constricted by a final season that left no breathing room, resulting in a finale that needed to be a double-and-a-half length, and at least half of that had to be spent just on cleanup. And quite often the writers clearly could not keep track of the messes they made. Yet it is in fitting with the show's theme of destiny versus free will that even its own creators could not entirely dictate where the story would go, en route to an ending that gave the hardcore fanboys almost none of the meaningless answers they had been demanding for years (It was all midi-chlorians! Satisfied?), but was nevertheless a love letter to the viewers who had followed these characters over six years. It's a credit to the show that, at the end, that emptiness that I felt was not from any questions that I felt needed answering, but because I simply wanted more time with these characters to see how they lived.
What can I say? It's hard to let go.