Before we start, let's get a few things straightened out:
First, there will likely be a few groups of people I refer to. "The Survivors" are a group of 40-odd characters who survived the crash of a commercial flight from Sydney to Los Angeles and are now awaiting rescue on an as-yet-unnamed island somewhere in the Pacific. I might also call them "The Castaways," because "The Survivors" is probably going to get boring. "The Natives" are a mysterious group of people who were already on the island and who the survivors understand to be malevolent kidnappers. On the show, they are called "The Others," which has obvious sociological implications. There are other characters that may come up, but I can explain them as they come up, and with one exception, they are only significant in their relationship to the survivors and the natives.
I'm warning you up front: every entry in this series will contain spoilers. If you aren't caught up with the show and plan on watching it eventually, skip this. Seriously. I don't want to ruin the fun. We're on the honor system here.
Today's topic: The Fact That We're Four Seasons In And Still Don't Really Know What The Show Is About.
Whenever I talk with someone who isn't familiar with the show, the first question they always ask is something along the lines of, "How long can a show about people stuck on an island be interesting?" That's a hard question to answer, because LOST stopped being about people stuck on an island and whether or not they are going to get rescued less than halfway through the first season.
The scene: The camp's resident hunter (the mysterious, miraculous John Locke) and his inept acolyte (island prettyboy Boone) are walking through the jungle, looking for a survivor who has been kidnapped by a native. Locke tosses Boone a flashlight. Boone fumbles the catch, and the flashlight hits the ground with a loud, metallic clang that changes the premise of the show.
The two freeze, look at one another incredulously for a moment ("What was that?" Boone asks. "Steel," Locke replies.) and then start sweeping away the dirt and vines on the ground to reveal a hatch door, sealed and locked from the inside, with no handle. For the rest of the season, the two secretly work to excavate the hatch, and after they find that it is immense and must lead to some kind of underground facility, they begin to try to open it. While the rest of the survivors are hiding from the natives, building rafts, and overcoming their deep-set guilt, shame, fears, and neuroses as each hang-up is conveniently personified in events happening around them, the question the audience really has is no longer, "Will they get off the island?" but rather, "What's in the hatch?"
Over the course of the next three seasons, the show evolves (organically!) from a weekly morality play dressed up as a psychological thriller about surviving against the unknown into a domestic drama into a military story into a Grecian-style epic about industrial espionage and quantum physics in the face of the gods.
By the time we learn that some of the survivors do, in fact, get off the island, and start seeing what their off-island lives are like, not only do we not even care that they got off, but we are beginning to realize that our main characters aren't even significant to the real story driving the plot. In fact, the showrunners have said that while they have always known how the series would begin and how the series would end, they've given themselves leeway in the route the story will take to get there. This flexibility comes naturally from your audience not realizing how irrelevant the characters they are most invested in actually are.
The fact that the writers waited until the start of the third season to introduce the real central character, and then waited another year before beginning to reveal the important role he plays in the "real story" of the show, speaks incredibly well of their patience and of their trust in the audience's attention span. I know that there are people who will say that they were making it up as they went along, but it's easy to see that the seeds for everything--I mean everything--that has developed during seasons two, three, and four were planted during season one.
And it all started with a dropped flashlight.