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How Does The Lost Finale Measure Up?

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Half a sentence overheard on the train: "That Lost finale was the best thing since…"

Since what? Obviously, spoilers commence.

It's been a week. The dust has settled on the Oceanic 815 crash, the TV pundits have weighed in and the Lost message boards have reached capacity. Among the many questions Lost left its faithful audience with is a large one, a question that will be debated: where does this finale fall within the spectrum of great television finales?

The fervency going into the finale was reminiscent of the last days of that infamous HBO crime family drama. When The Sopranos ended and viewers recovered from the shock of that now notorious push to black, the analytic discourse became more favorable. What began as a hostile reaction to "David Chase's last joke on his audience," as Alessandra Stanley from the New York Times described it, eventually mellowed in time. Soon everyone was in on the joke. The fade to white ending of Lost's season five finale was an obvious homage to The Sopranos' spectacular end, an ending that guaranteed the series its place in television history.

A twisted end helps place a finale in the television critics' top ten. If it's talked about, then it must be important. Case in point, the ending to St. Elsewhere which was invoked many times in advent articles to the Lost finale (and may be more apropos than is obvious at first). That ending gave itself to an adjective; to Tommy Westphall a show.

At the end of St. Elsewhere, the hospital and all its dramas and melodramas were revealed to be the daydream of saintly Dr. Westphall's son. Within the prior plotline of the show, Tommy Westphall was autistic (in view of the current prevalent diagnosis, St. Elsewhere was a front runner in bringing the issue of the syndrome and its impact on the family to public consciousness). The last few seconds of the series that launched a thousand actors revealed that Tommy Westphall was not autistic, his father was not a doctor, and most importantly, Dr. Auschlander was alive and well. The only hospital on St. Elsewhere was in the snow globe.

The "it was all a dream" ending isn't just in Tommy Westphall's paradigm. It is also the ending of Newhart, Bob Newhart's third series, bringing the discussion to a whole different place: the sitcom world. The dream ending of the Newhart show deserves to be on anyone's desert island list: after eight years of running an inn in rural Vermont with eccentric characters and a lovely wife with an infinite number of sweaters, comedian Bob Newhart wakes up from a dream to find his wife and his life from his previous series, The Bob Newhart Show. It is a classic ending to which all future sitcom endings would be compared. Ironically enough, the ending of The Bob Newhart Show was itself a twist on another classic ending: the group hug and good cry to the close of the The Mary Tyler Moore Show's newsroom of 1977.

Compared to the end of Newhart, the last episode of M*A*S*H was more conventional. The most viewed program in television history up until this past year's Super Bowl, the last episode brought the end of the Korean War because the war had to end sometime, but who could have predicted that Corporal Klinger, who spent the whole series trying to avoid being there, would willingly stay behind?

M*A*S*H, Newhart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers were all bittersweet endings to beloved series whose characters felt like family to the viewers who tuned in every week. The conclusion of popular shows in the new dawn of DVR and on-demand made final episodes of shows like Seinfeld, The Wire, and 24, while anticipated, not so "can't be missed." At a recent press visit to USA channel's Royal Pains, a couple of writers had not seen the end of Lost, and so the group of 12 were forbidden to discuss. Opinions were held in check, and that may have been a good thing to keep "keep quiet on the set," but it would have been interesting to find out if anyone else agreed that Lost may have taken a Tommy Westphall turn, borrowing from Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge" and all six years of Lost were a fleeting thought as Doctor Shephard lay dying, and if not, would the series been better off if it had.

The more time that elapses after the show concludes helps give perspective. The Sopranos ending felt better a week later. The snow globe now doesn't seem like the disaster it first felt like when we first found out that Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandell) and Philip Chandler (Denzel Washington) never existed. Will Lost's finale stand up to time or will the emotional onslaught of those last 15 minutes fade away and leave misgivings? Lost lived by recurring action and mystery, and perhaps it is inevitable that its resolution will be ultimately unsatisfactory.

After all, once Laura Palmer's murder was solved, who cared?

Photo: 20th Century Fox/Everett

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About Kate Shea Kennon

  • sHx

    Well, Kate, most of the series finales you discuss happened well before our time to witness and judge such matters. I mean I can understand why you want to discuss the ending to St. Elsewhere because it is somewhat unique and relevant, but M*A*S*H? The Bob Newhart Show? The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Cheers? Twin Peaks? Come on, Kate! Who remembers those shows now? Who still watches them? Why not discuss the finale for Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Get Smart, Charlie’s Angels, The Fugitive, Star Trek TNG, Dallas, Famly Ties and so on? The last three series stretched into early 90s so their finales at least might still be somewhat fresh in the mind of those who are now under the age of 35. Anything earlier, and the discussion becomes relevant to a very narrow demographic.

    How come you never mentioned the series finale for Battlestar Galactica (2009) or Stargate SG1 (2007)? Perhaps these shows didn’t capture the imagination of a vast number of people, but then again neither did The Wire.

    In my view, the best finale ever for a TV series came from an otherwise average sci-fi show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The final episode, “All the Good Things”, truly rewarded ST:TNG’s loyal fans with a flawlessly conceived and executed time travel story that brought three time-lines to a single point in space. The TNG finale is still considered one of the best episodes of the whole series. I wish Lost writers and producers could give only half the satisfaction and sense of closure that the TNG finale offered.

    Last year, Battlestar Galactica ended in a finale that gave plenty of grief to many of its fans, including yours truly. But upon reflection, the BG finale no longer feels contrived; in fact, it couldn’t have ended otherwise than it did, considering the show’s preference for cyclic history, eg, “all this happened before and it will happen again”. The BG people’s rather odd choices in the finale were meant to break that cycle. Apart from a big question that was deliberately left unanswered, all other mysteries in BG were resolved both in a timely fashion and to audience satisfaction. BG creators never appeared to be losing control of the main theme, the plot elements, character evolution, etc. Compared to Battlestar Galactica, Lost was so spread out that the show-runners just couldn’t pull it together again through the entire Season 6.

    Will I be merciful to Lost finale next week, next month, or next year? I don’t think so. Within two days of the BG finale, I was back to viewing several old episodes of BG. But to me the desire to re-watch old Lost episodes have suddenly become elusive.

    Anyways…. enough rant from me :) May I finish by saying that “An Occurrence at Eloise Hawking’s Church” is the most succinct description of not just the finale, but of the entire series? Thanks for the quote. I think that’s precisely how I’ll be describing the show forever from now on.

  • Kate

    Hi sHx,

    Well, you caught me out. I’m old. But to answer your question, I brought up those particular series not because of my age but because they are considered influential classics to which contemporary television is compared. As popular as some of the television shows you cite facetiously (Gunsmoke, etc), their endings are not particularly noteworthy, with the exception perhaps of The Fugitive.

    As per BSG, I regret to say I didn’t recognize that series for what it was at the time. I’m actually watching it now while in Berlin and in danger of not leaving my hotel room for my entire holiday.

    Thank you for your rant. It’s quite what I had in mind when I wrote the piece. Btw, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was published in 1890, making it very old indeed.

    Kate

  • sHx

    Hi Kate,

    One of the reasons that I’ll be describing Lost (the whole series) as “An Occurrence at Eloise Hawking’s Church” from now on is in the hope that they’ll read Bierce’s short story and/or watch the short film. Don’t worry, I won’t forget to add that it was Kate from blogcritic who said it:)

    I hope you are enjoying BSG. I watched it mostly on DVD too and didn’t really get hooked on until the very end of the first season (just like Lost). BSG gets better with every season. The fourth season is really, really good. Why it didn’t make a big splash in entertainment pages is mystery. I am not about to give up on Stargate-SG1 as the best sci-fi TV ever yet, but BSG came close to dethroning it. I wish I was in Berlin watching it with you :) Hopefully, we’ll read something here you when you finish the series.

    BTW, women never get old; they get more mature.