Lost. Perhaps a more polarizing television show hasn’t existed since the 1960s. The series about the fate of the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 was fascinating and maddening at the same time… often to the same viewers at the same time. It weaved a strange story about a strange island that tormented its occupants, and ended on a bittersweet note that left the viewer wondering exactly how long they had been watching a bunch of dead men walking.
But Lost had most viewers fooled, for it was never a show about its plot. Lost was a show about personal journeys and life-affirming moments. It taught us about what motivates people, as individuals and as groups, in a world that is no more comprehensible than it is controllable.
And in this way, it provides a bookend to a 1960s TV show that equally fascinated and maddened audiences, that gave viewers an ending that really wasn’t, while presenting revelations about the main character that were really comments about ourselves: The Prisoner.
Stop and read comments by TV viewers about the original The Prisoner (yes, we’re ignoring that more recent fiasco by the same name) and Lost, and you start to find many parallels. In both series, the actual story—the overall plot that carried the viewer from episode to episode—was thin. And at times, patently ridiculous. At best, the episodes had an allegorical point to them (more in The Prisoner than in Lost), but they often presented as many questions as they answered. The characters, as well, tended to be types, not so much well-developed individuals, and fairly single-minded in their desire to reach their own personal goals.
In both series, audiences demanded answers at the end; and in most cases, audiences weren’t satisfied with the answers they received. To be sure, both series ended on notes that were very Twilight-Zone-ish in their tone and delivery, and resulted in lively debates as to the meaning of the endings.
In The Prisoner‘s case, the ending presented the audience with the truth that they, themselves, are the ultimate controller of their own lives… and that the Village is the World in microcosm, their world, in which they will never truly escape. Lost had a similar message, but took it a step further in saying that you will continue along your path, chosen or given, until you die… possibly sooner than you expect.
In both cases, the point to the series wasn’t the stories; it was the people. The Prisoner was one man adamant about maintaining his own sense of self-worth and independence against a world working hard to reduce him to the status of non-entity among non-entities. His battle against a ruthless authority determined to render him meaningless, and a population who had swallowed the kool-aid and continually tried to coerce him into falling in step with them, was nothing short of an epic struggle.
Lost, in contrast, gave us many character arcs, and each one gave us something different. But in most cases, those arcs were presented as a series of defining moments, events that shaped the character’s personalities, and specifically dictated their reactions to the events happening around them on the island. The arcs of individuals worked in aggregate to describe a mini-society of people, thrown together and left to their own devices to navigate a world not of their making, that often made no sense except what they could tease out of it.
The Prisoner‘s battle was emblematic of the late 1960s: The idea that a monolithic Society was so busy trying to make everyone conform, mostly for the benefit of some uber-organization (like a government, a religion or a conglomeration), that it was killing the individual’s spirit. Many a viewer (like myself) took away the message that individuality is all that is important, and that society is designed to serve individuals… not the other way around. Viewers also learned that ultimately there was no escape from that society; only a continuation of the struggle to be recognized within it. In the end, the character named Number 6 was alone, as he was in the beginning.
Lost did not recognize a coherent, monolithic Society; it registered life as Chaos Incarnate, a largely (and ultimately) pointless exercise in survival. Lost taught viewers that life was more likely to simply grind you under its impartial wheels if you stood by and let it, and even if you didn’t… and it was up to you to find and cultivate the allies you needed to circumvent the dangers intact. Lost was about understanding and accepting the different people around you, finding a common ground for cooperation, and tackling unpredictable life arm-in-arm with allies. At the end of Lost, the characters were reunited, their journey over at last.
It is mainly the people who never caught on to the real messages of these shows who criticize them today. For those of us who got the messages, it’s interesting that the two shows share so many similarities, yet deliver such opposing messages about individuals in society. It forces the viewer to wonder if the world has changed so much that, where individuality was once the most important thing to cherish, now your place in community against the irrational mysteries of the world is paramount.
As time goes on, I expect these shows to become interlinked in popular lore, shows that complement each other in their lessons of our place in the world. And what will be really interesting is the show, some time in our future, that will teach us the next lessons about our place in the ever-changing world… just imagine how fascinating and maddening that show will be.