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June 2, 2010

Don’t tell me how the story ends

My friend called me Saturday morning, May 22, in a panic. He had plans for that Sunday night that would prevent him from seeing the final episode of “Lost,” and he knew I’d probably save it on my DVR and bump it down to a CDR, which I would probably be happy to lend it to him.

Problem solved. Crisis averted. He could safely spend his Sunday night with friends and watch “Lost” later. The only danger was that someone might ruin it for him by smacking him with a spoiler. Who would do that? Hee hee.

He needn’t have worried, as it turns out “Lost” left us with a bit of a fizzle. And just in case you weren’t paying attention, David Letterman was right; the late-night comedy genius had said repeatedly over the last several months that the only possible explanation is they’re all dead. This resolution was, of course, confirmed, laid out as plainly as possible, when one dead character (Christian Shephard, played by John Terry) said to another dead character (Jack Shephard, played by Matthew Fox), “Everybody dies, kiddo.”

On Monday, May 24, Letterman appended his previous prediction, saying, “Turns out they were all dead, and it was just a TV show.”

There is a grand tradition in American film of stories told from the perspective of the dead refusing to accept their condition. The great “Outward Bound” (1930) featured a disparate collection of passengers (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Leslie Howard, among others) on a fog-enshrouded ocean liner, unsure of their destination. It was remade in 1944, as “Between Two Worlds,” with John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Sidney Greenstreet and Eleanor Parker.

More recently, “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990), “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Donnie Darko” (2001) and “Vanilla Sky” (2001) have all featured protagonists whose stories continue after they have died, with them eventually discovering they have been deceiving themselves. Oops, spoiler alert … times four. Regardless of tradition, this reveal is almost always marked by a unique disappointment. On the other hand, most of these films tend to be more interesting after you know they are told from this perspective, because they tend to have something to say about the experience of living.

To its credit, “Lost” got this right all along. The island storyline was presented as a new beginning, a fresh start, offered in contrast to the various characters’ flashbacks. Further, the show was offered as a new approach toward mainstream entertainment, one that didn’t demean its fans with the same old same.

Meanwhile, it seems the central characters were designed to appeal to us for the same reason Jacob “chose” them; in the penultimate episode, “What They Died For,” he explained, “I chose you because you were like me. You were all alone. You were all looking for something that you couldn’t find out there. I chose you because you needed this place as much as it needed you.” This also is a decent metaphor for the show’s diehard fans and their affinity for this groundbreaking entertainment. We needed this “relationship.”

The gathering of the castaways at the church in the end reminded me of a ritual my theater professor, Tom Evans, used to perform at the end of production: After striking the set, before adjourning to the cast party, he would gather the assembled work force in the darkened and empty theater and summon our gaze upon the gaping maw of the proscenium arch and suggest that we were looking into the womb of our next production. It was an ending and beginning at the same time. It was ordinarily anti-climactic, and the promise of new enthusiasm for an as yet unknown effort was little consolation for the feeling that our current project was over and done, but it remains one of the most tangible experiences in my theater education, that oft-repeated, still, almost prayerful moment sitting with friends who had shared the creative experience.

So, while we could complain about our various disappointments (and nothing is perfect, certainly), we might recognize that it’s time to give up on the concept of a “good death” (at least in pop culture) and move on. Over the last few months, while talking about “Lost,” I’ve actually discovered that some of my friends don’t even have televisions.

Assignment for next week: Oh, crap. I forgot my lesson plan. Um, how about go on a picnic?