It's a classic trope: A plane or boat crashes onto a deserted (or mysteriously populated) island, leaving one or more survivors to come to terms with their life, waiting for rescue. Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Black Stallion, Cast Away.
But when Oceanic Flight 815 crashed on Sept. 22, 2004, as part of the premise for a new series on ABC, viewers tuning in had no idea that the show they were watching was about to change the castaway story forever. Over the next six years, Lost would raise the often-told tale of the desert-island fantasy to the level of the sublime.
The show was fiction, but its story, its message, and the themes it explored over the next six seasons have been very, very real. On May 23, 2010, the series comes to an end, and the two-and-a-half-hour finale - preceded by a two-hour recap of the entire series - is one of the most anticipated of all time.
But how did it get here? And why does Lost matter?
Lost has transcended viewers' expectations of a television show, setting itself apart from most other series by refusing to pander to the lowest common denominator. It has been called difficult, complex, mind-blowing, complicated and baffling. If you can speak Latin, Korean, Japanese, Russian or ancient Egyptian, you'd be very popular in any online Lost discussion. And throughout its run, Lost has explored world religions, philosophy, political science, history, literature, psychology, quantum physics and biology.
By referencing those fields, sometimes by flashing the covers of books being read by the characters, the show encouraged fans to rush off and read up to gain a deeper understanding of the show. Viewers were exposed to the works of Stephen Hawking, James Joyce, B.F. Skinner, Flann O'Brien and David Hume, sometimes sending them into new areas of study they'd never dreamed of discovering.
And while Lost was engaging minds, it was also winning hearts, as the characters who were lost were fleshed out through flashbacks. We found out why they were emotionally tortured, or on the run, or wanted to fix things, or had a blind devotion to the island itself.
Stellar performances by one of the best ensembles on TV - among the strongest actors were Michael Emerson, Terry O'Quinn, Matthew Fox and, this season, Nestor Carbonell - brought the characters to life. And although no one was too important to be killed off, Lost gained lots of new islanders as its story unfolded.
Along the way, the characters were humanized, allowing us to see ourselves in them. The show's overriding theme is that of contrasts. In the pilot episode, John Locke (O'Quinn) holds up two backgammon pieces and says, "Two players. Two sides. One light, one dark." Over the next six years, the writers wove a story that explored the opposite theme - that the world is not so neatly divided into good and evil, black and white. Every person contains some of each. Even something called the smoke monster, which has eviscerated some of our favourite characters, was given a sympathetic past that made us want to understand it more fully, if not forgive it.
How were the writers able to pull off such a smart, tightly woven series in an age when viewers are becoming distrustful of investing their time in network shows? In the past few years, only a handful of shows have been allowed to bide their time and finish up in a satisfactory way before going off the air, and the vast majority of them - The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire - weren't on any of the mainstream broadcast networks.
Lost's show runners, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, had a story to tell and a mythology to unspool, and in 2007 they made the unusual move of asking ABC for a series end date, placing their devotion to their art before their desire to make endless amounts of money. The result has been three incredible seasons of storytelling, resulting in critical acclaim and a rise in viewership for a show whose finale has been in the works for years.
Like the end of M*A*S*H or Seinfeld, the finale of Lost represents the end of an era. It debuted at a time when the world seemed more disconnected and baffling than ever, and when people had lost faith in their leaders - themes that were reflected on the show and in its characters. Then, just as Barack Obama began campaigning on a platform of hope, those characters began learning to overcome their paranoia and live together.
Lost has left a legacy of smarter television, of more complicated storylines, of networks realizing that their viewers are more intelligent than they'd been given credit for. At the same time, it has made us look at who we are, as children, parents, siblings, friends. At what we project to others, and what we feel within ourselves. It is a show about connection to other people, whether that involves blood ties or merely those we pass on the street. It is about how the choices we make every day shape the tiniest, and largest, facets of our lives.
Ultimately, the characters on Lost discover that the only way to find redemption is to find it within themselves - and to make choices that reflect what they've learned. It is a show about hope, redemption, love, loss, birth, death, the world around us, and the world within ourselves. Lost is about all of us.
The Lost finale runs on CTV and ABC Sunday at 9 p.m., preceded by a full series recap at 7.
Nikki Stafford is the author of the Finding Lost companion guides to the show, and blogs about television at http://nikkistafford.blogspot.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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The very best episodes
Season 1: Walkabout The first John Locke flashback ended with the revelation that he'd been paralyzed from the waist down before the plane crash, moving Lost into a new realm of storytelling.
Season 2: Lockdown Locke is possibly paralyzed again, and the infamous blast-door map is revealed. A character claiming to be someone named Henry Gale changes the course of the show, testing the trust of Locke - and the viewers.
Season 3: Through the Looking Glass This episode brought us the heroic death of Charlie, the arrival of "rescuers," and a real game-changer: the flash-forward. This is the best of the always-incredible season finales.
Season 4: The Constant A mind-bending episode, it also engaged our hearts through the timeless love story of Desmond and Penny.
Season 5: The Incident Here, we got the appearance of the Man in Black and Jacob, and the detonation of a hydrogen bomb to bring two timelines together. When the screen faded to white, Lost fans everywhere screamed.
Season 6: Ab Aeterno An epic love story, answers to important questions, and a performance by Nestor Carbonell that made fans weep.