Is ABC’s Lost a vision of Purgatory? That has been a topic of passionate discussion on Internet bulletin boards relating to the new hit drama, currently airing Wednesday evenings. To be sure, it’s not the only theory that obsessed viewers have advanced about the series, a tantalizing portrait of survivors coping with life on a mysterious island after their plane has crashed. The characters-who include an ethereal-looking female bank robber; a former Iraqi soldier; a sulky African-American child who may have telekinetic abilities; and a paraplegic who has just miraculously regained the use of his legs-may be stuck in a time warp, some fans argue. Or they may just be dead. Or perhaps there’s a rational explanation for the freakish goings on in this isolated tropical spot, which is apparently the home to rampaging polar bears and to an even more lethal monster, whose nature has not yet been revealed.

What does seem evident is that the show’s creators intend to tease out the mystification in a leisurely way, flashing back methodically to the characters’ melodramatic pasts-and they all have melodramatic pasts-then tossing in the occasional hint at dark conspiracies or supernatural elements. It’s a sort of Lord of the Flies-meets-Survivor-in-The Twilight Zone piece of entertainment, and it’s been one of two programs that have radically improved the fortunes of ABC-the other, of course, being the overhyped soap opera Desperate Housewives.

The creation of J. J. Abrams (also the mastermind behind Alias) and Damon Lindelof, Lost quickly won a following of fervent devotees given to speculating about the wacky plotline on the Web. Critics, meanwhile, marveled at the preposterousness of the concept (A monster in a jungle in prime time? Come on!) and at the wide range of principal roles: a full fourteen of them, the demographics shamelessly designed to pull in viewers of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Here we have the enigmatic Korean couple (Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim), fulfilling the Asian quota; there we have Sawyer, the icky Southern flirt (Josh Holloway), who is either a con man or a con-man wannabe, but whose drawl may especially appeal to those south of the Mason-Dixon line. And so on.

Whether or not this ragtag bunch is meant to be literally in Purgatory, Lost has certainly focused intently on exploring its characters’ sinful pasts, and has suggested that those pasts are haunting the story’s eerie present. Take the case of Jack, the soulful doctor (Matthew Fox), who glimpses his dead father stalking through the tropical forest. Given that Jack and his father had quarreled violently before the latter’s demise, is the vision a guilt-fueled hallucination? Or-cue the creepy music here-does the fact that the father’s coffin has turned up on the island intact but empty mean that a resurrection has occurred? Either way, the story implies, Jack will have to defuse his own fury at Dad before this particular enigma is laid to rest.

If this sounds like glib psychologizing-another symptom of our “I’m O.K.-You’re O.K.” culture-it is. The flashbacks in Lost are sensational but facile, pegging the characters’ emotional realities onto one or two high-concept problems: Boone and Shannon (Ian Somerhalder and Maggie Grace), the step-siblings with supermodel good looks, have a dysfunctional rapport because he has fallen quasi-incestuously in love with her. Charlie, the heroin-addicted Irish rock star (Dominic Monaghan), is still atoning for his decadent show-biz lifestyle, which contravened his Catholic principles. The hypercompetent Sayid (Naveen Andrews) feels guilty because he did a stint as a torturer in Iraq. And so on.

But then, just as this paint-by-numbers storytelling threatens to obliterate the horizon of possibility, the writers throw in a twist that’s uncanny or unnerving: the inexplicable cure of the paraplegic, Locke (Terry O’Quinn), or the fact that a ghostly radio distress signal has been playing nonstop for sixteen years. These eldritch moments pack a greater wallop because they interrupt cascades of naturalism-not just the flashbacks, but also the nitty-gritty details about surviving in this exotic backwater: hunting wild boars for food, finding natural remedies for asthma, and so on.

Although all the characters share the postcrash privations, one gets the sense that the island is delivering to each one of them a personal revelation. “I feel like I’m in confession,” Charlie says to Jack in one episode, when the two are briefly trapped in an underground cavern, and in a sense, the remark applies to the whole crew of castaways: the environment forces each of them to face their past failings and to contemplate moving beyond them.

How long Lost can sustain its metaphysics-tinged suspense is another question; already some of the dramatic momentum has dissipated. The weird narrative developments are beginning to feel less like clues and more like red herrings. The fact that a recent subplot involved setting up a golf course on the island is, perhaps, not a good sign. A purgatory with vicious polar bears seems entirely credible. A purgatory with five-irons and a greenskeeper-that seems ridiculous.

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2005-02-25 issue: View Contents
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