The slow burn versus the really slow burn — Evaluating responses to the distribution of answers in Lost and Fringe

For fans of serialized television, nothing is more important than answers. Though some might claim they love the characters or individual episodes, gun to head, most fans of Lost would probably say they’re watching because they want answers to the questions that have been posed.

What I’ve noticed this season by watching two serialized programs — Lost and Fringe — is that fans have different responses to the distribution of answers. What seemingly works for one series’ fans doesn’t work for the other, but the Fringe and Lost have approached the revealing of answers differently enough that each process is worth evaluating and discussing. So here we are.As we all know, Lost is just about to finish its final season after six years of mystery creation with the occasional answer sprinkled in to wet our pallets. However, it seems as though there have been two major responses to how the writers and producers have handled the answers this final season: A.) they’re not giving us enough answers or B.) the answers that are coming just aren’t that impressive for a number of reasons.

Obviously there has always been a level of disappointment with the lack of “answers” in Lost, even from the very beginning, but it seems as though there were large amounts of people who thought that’s all season six would be — one answer after another. Clearly, Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof and the whole Lost team had other plans. And yet, even when answers have been given to major questions fans have been theorizing about for more than half a decade, the response from the fans hasn’t been overwhelmingly positive as far as I can tell. The whispers reveal, the Jacob wine bottle analogy and all of the stuff related to candidates and Smokey have all been major information downloads in season six, and the reactions have been mixed on all of that.

And why? Time.

Though I’m not tracking new ground here, it’s apparent that certain Lost mysteries have been discussed, theorized and analyzed so often for so long by so many people that there’s no way to sufficiently satisfy most of the fanbase. Lost fans want it both ways in S6: they want the answers to finally come and they expect that the answers will completely blow them away, introducing things they never could have thought of themselves. The fans also want the answers to make sense and fall into place with everything that came before it. And so when we are given a fairly straightforward answer about what the whispers are, an answer that a number of fans have already suspected for a long time, it’s somehow hollow and not as impressive, even if it falls in line with the story told previously.

Thus, the writers have Lost are completely stuck in a no-win situation with the fans. If the answers are exactly what the fans have suspected they are, then the writers look less impressive because they can’t outsmart a group of trolls on the internet. And if the answers are something completely new and outside the realm of fan thinking, they run the risk of pissing off fans who wanted the Smoke Monster to be X.

Really in the end, what the Lost fans really care about is the mystery, the question itself, not the answer. Because as J.J. Abrams has talked about in a number of interviews, the answers or reveals can never, ever live up to the possibilities created in our minds. This is especially true for Lost, which introduced so many complexities and intriguing elements early on — perhaps just for the sake of doing so. Although questions have kept the fans actively engaged over time, the extended period between the introduction of the question and the answer officially appearing in the series allowed imaginations to run wild, creating possibilities that were way beyond even the expansive universe of Lost. And so when the writers give us an answer that fits in line with what a lot of fans already expected, it doesn’t feel as weighty — and there’s no way it ever could have.

For Fringe, both the distribution of answers themselves and the fan response has been markedly different, and surprising to a certain degree. The minds behind Fringe have obviously learned lessons from the Lost experience and the fans of the newer series have apparently done the same.

Fringe is purposely not as complex as Lost — what series isn’t? — and there has been a forceful attempt to keep more procedural elements within the storytelling structure of Fringe, something that was never built-in to the framework of Lost. But even within the structure of its overarching mythology, Fringe has dealt with answers in a much different way than its Bad Robot cousin, especially in season two.

I don’t want to necessarily disregard the series’ first season, but there was so much world building that once the alternate reality reveal came, it was more like a switch into another gear than a specific answer to a question. So for the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on how answers have been distributed in season two, most specifically with the content found in “Peter” and this past week’s “Northwest Passage.”

In both of those episodes, major questions were answered, but the answers were generally exactly what fans of the series had been guessing since the questions were posed. There were a few blanks filled in, but most of us expected the events of “Peter” played out just as they did; same goes for Walternate being the Secretary, which was revealed in “Passage.”

And yet, no one seems upset about those answers whatsoever. In fact, they are being celebrated among the fandom. “Peter” is regarded as a high watermark for the series and despite some issues with the episode and the steps that led to the Walternate reveal, fans are excited about an evil Walter facing off with our Walter.

In my recaps for both of those episodes, I talked about how it was perfectly fine that the answers to the questions were what most of us expected because the execution was there, especially as far as “Peter” is concerned. Other recaps mentioned similar feelings. So what gives?

Again, I think it all boils down to time and expectations.

Because Fringe has smartly compressed the time frame between posed question and delivered answer, the fans have had less time to get all up in a tizzy about what that answer could be. And because less time has gone by, that’s also curbed expectations. It also doesn’t hurt that the questions posed here aren’t as heavy or out there as those on Lost.

There is really no way to evaluate the effectiveness of each series’ ability to answer questions because those events don’t occur in a vacuum, but it’s obvious that fans of Fringe are seemingly okay with answers that fit in exactly where we all assumed, while Lost fans are not. From personal experience, I know people who are fans of both that apply different analysis to each series, and it all seems to be based on time and expectations. If Fringe would have waited two more seasons to explain the events found in “Peter,” perhaps the layering of the story leading up to those reveals would have pushed the fans into new directions, insomuch that they would have been at least partially disappointed with them. And if Lost would have answered the whispers question in season four — something that would have been possible, considering they’ve mostly dropped it from the story — fans could have been more welcoming to the result we received just a few weeks ago. But in the context of ‘THE FINAL SEASON,” fans can’t help but get hyped.

For the writers, the question then becomes what is more important? Providing sufficient answers to questions or keeping the audience engaged by only wetting their appetites with half-answers and more questions? For Lost, they’ve been more invested in the latter and it’s worked for them in terms of keeping the most active audience, well, active. The Fringe team has leaned toward the former with more of a balance between both options in season two, and some might suggest it’s been a more fulfilling option. But neither are wrong, technically.

Thus, it doesn’t matter which series has “better” questions to their answers, it’s all about how and when they’re delivered. Despite its fantastic storytelling and major success, Lost is the exception not the rule, and future serialized television programs might be wise to follow the Fringe model for success.

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3 thoughts on “The slow burn versus the really slow burn — Evaluating responses to the distribution of answers in Lost and Fringe

  1. I have to agree with your comments on Lost. Unfortunately, the writers have led themselves to this point. Before the season started I thought there was a chance for me to be satisfied – but at this point I think there are too many gaps to fill and as you mentioned, too many ways to fill them. The writers don’t stand a chance.

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