It’s fitting that both Lost and 24 should come to a close within 24 hours of each other at the dawn of new decade. Both summed up what it felt like to be an American in the George W. Bush era of post-9/11 existential dread. But they came at that feeling from opposite angles.
I’ve tried to make sense of the ‘Lost finale in this post at AOL’s TV Squad. Of all the other ‘Lost’ post-mortems I’ve seen, this one by the Washington Post‘s Hank Steuver is the one that has best addressed what 24 and Lost said about America. Of course, each show seemed to be speaking to a different America, which itself says plenty about our conflicted age.
As Steuver notes, 24 was for people who crave moral certainty. It suggests that America is in constant peril from threats within as well as without, but that in a nation subject to repeated betrayal by swarthy foreigners and fifth-columnists within our own government, you can always rely on Jack Bauer’s gut. Paranoia is always warranted, torture is always justified, and warriors are to be trusted over bureaucrats.
24 was just as much a fantasy as Lost, though Lost was for people willing to accept ambiguity and irresolution. On Lost, the scary “others” turned out to be just one more in a long series of immigrant groups that had arrived on the island throughout history, each believing itself to be the rightful keeper of the true flame. Torture (as represented by an Iraqi, who learned the practice from Americans) only served to dehumanize the torturer. And the landscape was strewn with paradoxes and puzzles that neither overzealous science nor blind faith could answer definitively.
Which show spoke to you more? 24, which launched with its own plane crash, just weeks after 9/11, seemed throughout its first few seasons to have its finger on the pulse of the times. But after a few years, its scare-mongering became tired, repetitive, and unconvincing, much like (in real life) the ever-shifting rationales for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the orange alerts at home. At the same time audiences grew weary of 24‘s false certainty, however, they also lost interest in Lost‘s unsolvable mysteries. Lost, which debuted just before the 2004 election with its own horrific plane crash, seemed tailor made for a grief-stricken, frightened, confused nation, desperately in need of answers and reasons to believe in something, generally skeptical of science, and eager for closure — which Lost, up until its finale, refused to provide.
The closure that did come with Lost‘s finale seemed to side mostly with faith over science and to suggest that reality is a collectively agreed-upon delusion. Of course, in a nation where plenty of people trust Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh as authoritative news sources, and where plenty of people do not, reality may be a group delusion, but we can’t agree on which delusion to believe in. Still, sometimes, as on 24, swift action seems preferable to endless theorizing. And sometimes, as Jack showed in the Lost finale, leadership means sacrificing your own future to do the right thing for the benefit of everyone else. (When was the last time we saw a real-life leader willing to do that?) And sometimes, whatever delusion we’re all laboring under (The unregulated free market can solve all our problems! We don’t have to worry about the future of an economy built on fossil-fuel consumption! Bipartisanship and civility are more important than results!), there comes a time when we need to wake up and let go of the past in order to move forward.