My son and daughter-in-law have been hooked on Lost for some time now, whereas Luddite me and the missus, who have no TV connection to the outside world, have missed it.
However, now that the first three seasons are out on DVD, the kids decided that they could not rest until they had introduced us to this strangely compelling world.
Mission accomplished. I am officially fascinated. And, just as much, I’m fascinated with the fascination.
For the uninitiated, Lost deals with the fortunes of an apparently random collection of people marooned on an uncharted island in the Pacific after a plane crash. These include a doctor, a young woman with a past, a fat guy, a snarky con man, a washed up musician and drug addict, a young pregnant woman, a Korean couple, a father and his son, a stepbrother and stepsister, a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard and a rather mysterious bald guy.
All this could be the formula for dorky comedy, as Gilligan showed us. But in the hands of Lost’s creators, it becomes absolutely gripping drama. And I keep coming back to the question of why? Several things occur to me, spurred by the Catholic faith.
The first thing is mystery. Lost is, like the universe, one vast mystery. It confronts us, as reality and revelation do, with a world that is itself not what we suppose, think or demand it should be. As the story unfolds, we come to realize that we are in a story that was, well, folded by somebody.
There’s some sort of system to it, it makes sense — albeit mysterious sense — and our task is to grasp the significance of the various connections that are being made.
This is certainly true in the lives of the characters, whose stories are only gradually revealed through flashbacks. By means of them, we discover the equally mysterious backdrop to their lives, a backdrop which allows us, like gods, to see what motivates them when their fellow castaways cannot comprehend their mysterious behavior.
We discover the epiphanies granted them alone — and we see their secret sins. Each person turns out to be a kind of revelation and a deformation of that revelation — which is just what the faith says we are.
The openness to mystery on the part of the show’s creators is — both refreshingly and frustratingly — an openness to spiritual mysteries, as well. The island is itself a sort of character, pregnant with mysteries and connections that are only half-glimpsed.
One of the characters (who is, to do him justice, a recipient of a miraculous healing) talks of the island in something like divine terms.
Other characters have also had various strange spiritual experiences, including visions of dead relatives, psychic premonitions and bizarre coincidences that look a lot like divine Providence.
One character seeks the sacrament of baptism. Another assumes, after a very garbled fashion, the role of a Catholic priest in an attempt at redemption.
The show exhibits just what our culture presently exhibits in its attitude toward the universe: a sort of high pagan sensibility that respects the unknown and numinous rather than pooh-poohing it.
As a cultural marker, I find that to be very hopeful, because it is just the sort of pagan sensibility Paul was addressing in his speech on the Areopagus regarding the “Unknown God.”
The denizens of Lost are lost in more than one sense. And unlike so much of our culture, they know it and can slowly begin to acknowledge it.
That, I think, is no small part of the power of the show. It speaks at a visceral level to themes that our civilization has lost a vocabulary to express. Every single character in Lost carries a guilty secret he or she is afraid to reveal.
Every single character is battling his way through a jungle of misconceptions, taboos, superstitions, personal trauma, temptations and confusion — all in search of redemption and a connection, not merely with another human being, but with the Ultimate.
And above all, every character is connected with the other seemingly random crowd members in myriad and mysterious ways.
Chesterton once remarked that the Gospels were riddles to which the Church was the answer.
Lost is alive to the fact that life is the riddle to which the Gospels are the answer.
It manages to convey this truth, not because it is made by good Catholics, but because it is made by good artists. Gimme more!
Mark Shea is senior content editor