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Believe it or not

‘Lost’ has embraced its over-the-top implausibility - and so have we

The most important character on 'Lost' in terms of the plot is Terry O'Quinn's John Locke, he of the bald pate and abandoned wheelchair. After 117 episodes, the series stars its sixth and final season on Feb. 2. The most important character on "Lost" in terms of the plot is Terry O'Quinn's John Locke, he of the bald pate and abandoned wheelchair. After 117 episodes, the series stars its sixth and final season on Feb. 2. (ABC)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 24, 2010

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“Lost’’ had me until almost the end of last season’s fifth episode.

That’s when Desmond shows up in Los Angeles to see Faraday’s mother at the exact same instant Ben, Jack, and Sun show up. Sayid and Kate had just been there, too - hail, hail, the gang’s all here - but then left in disgust when they figured out what was going on.

I knew how they felt. “Lost’’ is, among many other things, all about wallowing in an ocean of coincidence. By “Lost’’ standards this simultaneous group arrival was pretty ho-hum. But for me it was the serendipity that broke the camel’s back. This wasn’t wallowing. This was drowning.

People have a hard time coming up with a genre for “Lost,’’ which starts its sixth and final season on Feb. 2. Is it fantasy? Of course. Melodrama? Obviously. Adventure? Certainly. Science fiction? Sort of. Paranoid thriller? Hello, Charles Widmore! And so long as Hurley’s around or Sawyer’s coming up with a new nickname for somebody, it’s also a comedy.

Don’t forget romance: Jack and Kate, Jack and Juliet, Sawyer and Kate, Sawyer and Juliet, Sawyer and Ana Lucia (forgot about that one, didn’t you?), Jin and Sun, Sayid and Shannon, Desmond and Penny, Charlie and Claire, Daniel and Charlotte, Bernard and Rose . . . the list goes on. If a rescue ship ever does find the passengers of Oceanic 815, it’ll be the Love Boat.

But at that moment outside the door of Eloise Hawking (that’s Faraday’s mother), with all those characters independently rendezvousing simultaneously - Desmond from London, Sun from Seoul, Jack from the depths of his drug addiction, Ben from a Schemers Anonymous meeting - I realized what genre “Lost’’ most fully belongs to, the genre it defines: something one might call implausibility porn.

Like “Lost,’’ this will take some explaining.

“Pornography,’’ which is derived from the Greek words for prostitute and writing, is most commonly taken to mean the representation of extremely graphic sexuality. More generally, it might be understood to describe any rendering of the dissociation between act and emotion: not just intercourse without love, but violence without anger, worship without faith, even achievement without effort. Martha Stewart is the queen of domestic porn. The Food Network traffics in kitchen porn, and so on.

What I consider the single most pornographic thing I’ve ever seen - not that I’m (ahem) any expert - is the lobby shoot-’em-up in the first “Matrix’’ movie. Why? The Wachowski brothers take what would be an act of horrific violence in real life and lavish on it such fond, lingering attention as to make it visually irresistible. It’s a poem to conspicuous destruction, the ultimate statement of an irrefutable aesthetic equation: blazing guns + flying debris + dying bodies = optical orgasm.

So implausibility porn, to return to our proposed genre, takes human beings’ all-but-hard-wired hunger for story (and coincidence, which to some degree story almost always requires in order to function), and revels in it to an unconscionable degree. That is, when implausibility porn succeeds. When it goes overboard, the genre loses itself (gets . . . lost?) in a kudzu-choke of coincidence. Now since almost any narrative fiction, whether on page, stage, or screen, relies on coincidence, it takes some serious indulgence in implausibility to attain the status of implausibility porn. “Lost’’ is in a league of its own.

The roots of the genre run deep. Its patron saint is no less than William Shakespeare - the man who assigned Bohemia a seacoast and got out of a tight theatrical corner by writing the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.’’ And the genre’s foremost precursor is Charles Dickens.

With his perfervid imagination, Dickens didn’t need any encouragement creating dots simply for the sake of connecting them. Even so, two additional factors abetted his reliance on coincidence. The Victorian novel required a lot of story to fill it. And Dickens’s novels first reached the public in the form of serial publication, which made cliffhanger endings (and subsequent implausible resolutions) not so much gratuitous as unavoidable.

Having to come up with a lot of story has been the burden of network television for more than a half century. It was to avoid that burden that variety shows and anthologies originally predominated in prime time. But the same things that drew readers to fat novels in the previous century - narrative drive and vivid, attractive characters - drew viewers to hourlong dramas like “Perry Mason’’ and “Bonanza.’’ They soon became the backbone of network television.

Discrete plots were the rule for such prime-time dramas until the 1980s. Just before the final credits rolled, Marcus Welby or Jim Rockford would explain all, like Eric Sevareid with a Screen Actors Guild card. There’d be no loose ends left, and that would be that until the next episode a week later.

This began to change with shows like “Hill Street Blues’’ and “St. Elsewhere,’’ which offered story arcs that might extend over multiple episodes. Things really began to change in 1990 with “Twin Peaks,’’ which turned arc into corkscrew. Now we watch in an era when stories spill out over an entire season. In the case of “24,’’ it’s an entire day that’s an entire season. And then there’s “Lost,’’ with its six-season-long arc. We’ve come a long way from “Hill Street’’ - though did you notice that the actress who played Jack’s mother in two episodes was Veronica Hamel?

The great, if inadvertent, diagnostician of narrative implausibility is the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge earned this title when he wrote in his “Biographia Literaria’’ of “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith’’ (for “poetic’’ we’d now substitute “imaginative’’).

The key phrase for our purposes is “for the moment.’’ It’s a universally accepted convention that black marks on a white page - or two-dimensional images on a screen - are understood to be realistic, if also fictitious, renderings of the flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional world in which we live.

Within that convention, we’ll further accept for the moment certain excessive, if limited, implausibilities - that something called “Rosebud’’ had overwhelming significance for a character named Charles Foster Kane, say, or that Charlie Sheen is wildly attractive to women - with the understanding that before the two-hour movie or half-hour sitcom is over, some acceptable explanation, however far-fetched, will be offered. (It’s a sled! Compared to Jon Cryer, he is!)

What happens when “for the moment’’ becomes more than 80 hours? That’s how much time 117 episodes of “Lost’’ works out to at 42 minutes per episode, minus commercials. And that’s not counting the Lostapalooza of books, games, websites, and other tie-ins. (You will be wearing your Dharma Initiative T-shirt on Feb. 2, won’t you?) We all like a dollop, or more, of implausibility. Otherwise why bother with superheroes and infallible private eyes and Jedi knights. But even in a galaxy far, far away, the basic rules of cause and effect are expected to apply.

Not on “the island,’’ they don’t. It’s been widely noted that several characters bear the names of Enlightenment figures: Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Linus (a corruption of Linnaeus), Austen, Hume. The most important character in terms of the plot is, of course, Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke, he of the bald pate and abandoned wheelchair. In terms of the metaphysics of the series, though, it’s Desmond Hume. His 18th-century namesake, David Hume, demonstrated that causality cannot be proven. The philosopher thus joins Shakespeare and Dickens as the Three Holy Ancestors of implausibility porn. That which cannot be proven, need not be disbelieved.

The island - note that it takes a definite article and stays lower case, just like “the universe’’ - is where “Lost’’ usually takes place, though there have been excursions to every continent except South America and Antarctica. The initiating premise of the series is preposterous enough: that an airliner could crash on an unknown island in the South Pacific and dozens of passengers not only survive but manage to set up a kind of community. But through skillful use of flashbacks (distracting viewers from the fundamental implausibility of what’s going on in the present) and an equally skillful forest-for-the-trees focus on detail, it was easy to suspend disbelief for considerably more than just the moment.

Then once “Lost’’ had viewers sucked in . . . well, where to begin? Seeing is believing, as we know. Perhaps gaping is believing, too. A healed paraplegic. Tropical polar bears. A smoke monster (don’t ask). Beer that stays drinkable for three decades. A global conspiracy and coverup. Commuting by submarine. A relocated island. Time travel. H-bomb detonation. Even better, the H-bomb is detonated by having a beautiful blonde bang a rock against it.

Confronted with this (partial) list of whoppers, those who have never watched “Lost’’ might find themselves muttering the words “jumping the shark.’’ That phrase describes the situation where a long-running series has left its writers so desperate for ideas they start coming up with plots that throw believability out the window.

The beauty of “Lost,’’ and the essence of implausibility porn, is that it’s never had walls - let alone windows. The writers were setting us up for wild implausibility right from the get-go, and the wondrously tight weave of the various strands making up this coat of many, many colors (some previously not known to narrative nature) only added to the effect. A series can be said to have jumped the shark only if it had never previously done more than get its narrative feet wet. “Lost’’ dove in headfirst and has yet to reach for a towel. Jumping the shark? “Lost’’ swims with sharks - narratively speaking.

The obvious question is at what point does swimming with sharks produce a case of the bends. For me, it was that simultaneous rendezvous outside Eloise Hawking’s door. For someone else it might have been the handy presence of that H-bomb on the island (they’re harder to come by than you might think). Or the discovery that Jack is Claire’s half-brother. Or Locke’s father turning up on the island (bound and gagged, no less). Or . . . well, you get the idea.

The more interesting question is why do we keep watching? And make no mistake, I did indeed stick with the rest of season five and, however great my misgivings, eagerly await season six. The answer, I think, is character. The immediate attraction of implausibility porn is plot-twist overload - getting to gorge on the interlocking of events. The writers string together the popcorn - and we get to eat it. But what sustains the attraction, what keeps overload from becoming overdone, is the light the genre can cast on human nature. The wilder the torrent of events, the more fiercely revealed are the strengths (and weaknesses) of the characters forced to endure them.

Dickens supremely understood that plot without character is merely so much machinery - however well-oiled, however imposing - and worthless without people who both operate and are operated upon by it. What we remember from his fiction isn’t his roller-coaster plotting but the characters he created - Scrooge, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber, Miss Havisham, so many others - and how some of them can seem more alive on the page than many people we know in real life.

There’s no one in “Lost’’ worthy of Dickens (though you can bet he would have doted on Michael Emerson’s ongoing tour de force as Ben Linus). Yet along with “what happens next,’’ the hold the series has on viewers owes as much to “which characters grow most.’’ Sawyer’s glorious surliness has slowly evolved into something like sullen nobility. Hurley has gone from buffoon, a big-bellied Jeff Spicoli, to the closest thing the series has to a moral center. Miles’s discovery that Dr. Chang is his father has turned him from relentlessly snide weasel into something approximating an actual human being (and, oh, the look on his face when he learns Dad is a country-and-western fan).

Sayid and Kate shouldn’t have been so quick to flee from Eloise Hawking’s door. If they’d stuck around and gone inside they might have learned more than just that they had to go back to the island. They could have found out something about the series they’re part of. “Oh, stop thinking how ridiculous it is,’’ Hawking says. “And start asking yourself whether or not you believe it’s going to work.’’ There you have implausibility porn. Of course we believe it’s going to work. Gaping is believing, right?

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.