How Lost bends the rules

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America, for which he is currently on book tour. He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site outside.in.

A show as complicated as "Lost" deserves an equally complicated spoiler alert: if you have never seen an episode of "Lost" past, say, Season Two, and plan on immersing yourself in the show sometime soon, you might want to bookmark this post and revisit sometime in the future, once you've gotten up to speed. Otherwise I will keep this relatively vague, so that hardcore fans (for whom there will be no surprises) and Lost-dabblers can both read with no worries.

I posted yesterday about the often insurmountable complexity of seasons 1-4 of "Lost," but the first episode of season five held out the distinct possibility that that complexity might well be conquered by the end of the series. Not just because all the questions would be dutifully answered in some kind of contrived, ad-hoc fashion, but because the events in last night's episode suggest--in a way that earlier episodes have only delicately hinted-- that all the madness of the last four years, all the implausible speeches, connections, surprises, and attacks, have at their root one small change in the core bylaws of Reality As We Know It.

This is a formal innovation worth noting, though of course it's unclear from just a single episode whether the innovation has long-term significance or whether it turns out to be just another distraction. But I'm rooting for the former: "Lost" has the unique opportunity of proving you can build a narrative of mesmerizing implausibility that ultimately turns out to be entirely plausible simply by changing one elemental rule of the universe--and then not telling your audience about the rule change until the third act. Mainstream entertainment toys with the conventions of reality constantly (see Back to the Future, or pretty much every Jim Carrey movie) but invariably it lets the audience in on the rule changes early in the story. "Lost," not surprisingly, is playing hard-to-get with its revelations: not just in the backstory and mythology of its characters, but the basic laws of the genre.

That a mass audience is willing to embrace this kind of storytelling innovation is truly remarkable, and has a kind of sign-of-the-times quality to it. (The ultra-complex serial narrative show is to our own moment what the concept album was to the late sixties culture.) In a small way, "Lost" was actually an inspiration for The Invention of Air: I had a moment early in trying to figure out what the book would be like when I imagined that I would write a founding fathers history book that would be structured like a season of "Lost." (There's a middle chapter, for instance, that jumps back 300 million years, to the Carboniferous Era, before zooming back to the late 18th-century.) It's probably good that I didn't fully try to emulate "Lost" in the end, but just the fact that one could look to a prime time network mega-hit for inspiration in writing a book of science history is a sign that something has changed -- most of what I was watching as a kid in the seventies would not have been quite as inspirational.

I'm sure there are plenty of strong opinions about last night's episode: I hereby declare the comments thread below open to all spoilers. If you haven't seen the show yet, you are duly warned.