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Jim McDermottSeptember 12, 2005

A commercial plane traveling from Sydney to Los Angeles has communication problems six hours into the flight. The pilots detour toward Fiji. A thousand miles off their original course, things go bad. Turbulence tears off the tail section, then the nose. The middle section crash lands on the beach of a deserted island. Forty-eight passengers survive.

Such is the premise of last year’s television phenom, Lost, the ABC show that begins a second season this month (Sept. 21, 9 p.m.): four dozen people from different walks of life, thrown together in desperate circumstances and asked to survive. Among them are Jack Shepherd, M.D., who races around the island in a semi-manic state, desperate to save lives; Kate, the tough-as-nails heroine caught between Jack and the simmering Southern bad boy Sawyer; Shannon, the pouty rich girl who sunbathes amid the wreckage, and her demanding stepbrother, Boone; Charlie, the rock star with a drug problem; a Korean couple who don’t speak English; a fat kid, an old man, a pregnant girl, a spiritual African-American woman and a sniping father and son (and dog). There’s even a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard. As the show is filled with these shiny stereotypes bumping overdramatically up against one another, one wonders at first whether this isn’t the new season of "Survivor."

Except that 40 minutes into the first episode, the characters hear an eerie howl. Before their eyes, distant trees are pulled down by...something. Soon after, the same unseen creature rips the pilot of the plane from the cockpit. Suddenly it’s clear: Toto, we’re not on NBC anymore.

But where are we? And what are we to make of what we are watching?

Seeking Sinners

Some characters on "Lost" are so obvious (or bland) in the early episodes as to seem unworthy of our interest. Sawyer spends his time strutting around, stealing from the dead. Likewise, Shannon and Boone pursue prettiness and solipsism as if they were Olympic events. They make daytime dramas look weighty.

Yet each week these seemingly superficial personalities and their intrigues are deepened by flashbacks, in which characters remember significant moments from their lives. And gradually these back stories develop the shiny and the shallow into compelling three-dimensional persons. The ridiculously naive, put-upon Korean woman, Sun, is struggling between care for her husband and a desire for freedom from his controlling ways. Our heroine, Kate, is actually a fugitive from the law. And the community’s hunter/tracker, the middle-aged John Locke, was in the real world not only the lowly assistant manager of a box company but paralyzed from the waist down. "Lost" makes a habit of drawing viewers up short, playing upon our own expectations and stereotypes to reveal their inadequacy. It is the show’s clear conviction that no one is as simple as initially surmised.

The survivors of Oceania Flight 815 are a tormented bunch, burdened by shame over past actions: loved ones betrayed, harm caused to strangers and friends and the degradation of self. The same big questions recur: Is it possible to get a fresh start? Can we ever be free of the forces and decisions that constrain us? And especially: Is there any hope of forgiveness and redemption?

Faced with the seriousness of their histories, most on "Lost" have their doubts. But for the writers the island, and in particular the jungle, wonderfully serves as an archetypal realm in which these damaged characters can face their dead fathers, harmful relationships and previous crimes, and take steps toward letting the past go. It all looks a bit neat on the surface. Yet the show is determined to resist easy answers. Kate wants to start over, but is persistently unable to trust people. John Locke leads the way, but sometimes has trouble walking; and, wouldn’t you know it, in the season finale, the recovering addict comes across a crashed plane filled with heroin. Redemption may come, but working it out will not be easy. It’s going to take further choices, a lot of dying and a lot of time.

It will also require the help of others. On "Lost," to be free of your demons, you have to let others in. If you cannot trust, you cannot be saved. So Sawyer, who early on situates himself as a sort of villain in the community, is opened to new possibilities when he shares moments of his history. John Locke, on the other hand, though he acts as a sort of spiritual guide to many of the others, keeps many secrets, at great peril to the community. Played by Terry O’Quinn with a combination of plain-spoken wisdom and evangelical fervor, Locke is George W. Bush with a dash of Kurtz, a man of conviction and faith whose conclusions, made in isolation, are consequently dangerous. "Lost" insists that no one can go it alone. Freedom and life are the fruit of trust and community.

Living in the Ruins

But then there’s that monster, as well as strange voices whispering in the jungle, a child with psychic powers, a metallic hatch buried in the ground, curses, predictions...and others on the island. By season’s end, "Lost" has set up a dozen strange science fiction twists and subplots, with not a single clue that might help us comprehend what is going on. The whole scenario grows so mysterious that many online commentators, seizing upon redemption as the one recurring theme of the show, have begun to speculate that perhaps the characters are dead. The island is Purgatory, to which the characters have come to confront their past lives.

Lacking sufficient evidence, though, thus far the show leaves us simply with its vision of the world as a scary, unpredictable place over which the characters can exert almost no control. Unlike "The X-Files," that similarly spooky program of the 1990’s with looming mysteries likewise grounded in human relationships, the characters on "Lost" have no purchase at all on the bigger forces at play. With the exception perhaps of Locke, their quest is not to find "the truth," nor to battle enemies. They just want to survive. When the monster approaches, they don’t fight, they don’t theorize, they don’t even try to catch a glimpse. They run like hell.

"Lost" proves to be a 21st-century descendant of "The Twilight Zone," expressing for contemporary viewers similar social anxieties of threat and powerlessness. Like the group on "Lost," the people of our world also find themselves the victims of a plane crash. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have all been thrown together as a human community in a new way, set upon by forces beyond both our control and imagination. We grapple with possibilities that we cannot adequately predict, leaders who sometimes seem untrustworthy, enemies we cannot see and forces we do not understand. Our world is the island, and no one is coming to rescue us.

Yet the insight of "Lost" is that our existence is not therefore hopeless or futile. As one character asserts, "It’s all about making choices." Our lives are not in our hands; yet our quest for redemption surely is.

Part melodrama, part passion play and part sci-fi medley, "Lost" is unexpected and at times deeply provocative. It can be engrossing simply as a twist-of-the-week popcorn serial. But what makes it worthy of attention is its presentation of our human condition. We are not in control, today or any day. Lost together in this violent and mysterious world, we may well wonder, are we being punished? Is this our purgatory? Will we ever be free?

The show’s wise answer thus far is both yes and no. We will never be free of the waves of sin that beat upon our shores and within our hearts. Yet in our actions, we offer the possibility of redemption to others, and therein may find it for ourselves. In the land of "Lost," we are finally as Paul imagines, a human community, "work[ing] out our own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12-13).

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