Since its inception, people have felt compelled to talk about Lost. Like Star-Trek before it, Lost is a mainstream-popular show with an extremely loyal and rabid fanbase that loves to discuss the show and theorize about the mythology surrounding the show's setting, plot, and characters. Unlike Star-Trek, that rabid fanbase enjoyed an unprecedented opportunity to actively engage with each other in real time during the show's run. Lost-specific message boards and wikis were created by the dozens and in turn, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world were eager to use these media to dissect and expound upon the show on a daily basis.
Because all of this dissecting and expounding took place on the Internet, in public forums, for anyone to see, Lost's creators and writers enjoyed an unprecedented ability to receive feedback from their most loyal fans. This is significant. The writers were able to gauge exactly what their viewers thought about an episode immediately after that episode aired. Further, they were able to gauge their fans' expectations and theories for how the show would progress, which made it all the easier to subvert and confound those theories, which in turn fostered even more engagement with the show on the part of its fans.
This is how Lost became a show about itself. Since halfway through the first season, when it was clear that Lost had become both a mainstream and Internet phenomenon, the fans theorized and the writers responded. The writers were always reading the message boards. One member of the Lost staff, Gregg Nations (the so-called 'Continuity Czar') even contacted the creator of Lostpedia to inform him that the wiki had a detail wrong on one of its pages.
Of course, there is no concrete proof that the writers of Lost used message board theorizing to concoct plot arcs for their episodes, but it certainly seems likely. Many fans point to the season two episode "Dave" as the best example. The flashback features Hurley's time in the mental hospital where he is accompanied by his friend Dave, who is later revealed to be imaginary. The viewer learns of Dave's true nature when Libby, also a patient in the hospital, looks at Hurley talking to Dave, but sees only Hurley. Back on the island, Hurley interacts with Dave once again, but knows that Dave is not real. This convinces him that the plane crash and the island are equally unreal and that all of the events of the show are merely transpiring in his head. Libby once again steps in to save the day and convinces Hurley that everything is real by kissing him. Just as the viewer learned that Dave was fake by seeing him through Libby's perspective, the viewer once again relies on Libby's perspective to learn that the island is real (or at least real from all of the characters' perspectives and not just Hurley's).
Before this episode aired, a popular online theory was that since the numbers kept popping up in different places and Hurley was the only character with a connection to the numbers, then he must be the central character of the show and that all of the events of the show may have in fact been some sort of dream or vision that he was having. "Dave" directly refutes this theory. Thus, all of the proponents of the theory would now have to go back to their message boards and either subscribe to other pre-existing theories or concoct new ones of their own.
In addition to using plot lines to shoot down message board theories, there are many, many instances when the writers give voice to the audience through the Lost characters themselves, particularly Hurley. Frequently this is done by the characters questioning the general level of absurdity on the show, but there are other examples as well. I am not going to enumerate them here, because many other people online have already done so.
The writers' penchant for interaction with the thoughts and opinions of the viewers does not in and of itself prove that Lost is a show about watching Lost. Like its spiritual predecessor The X-Files, Lost is, at its core, a mystery show, but the mysteries that concern the two shows are very different. It is this difference that makes Lost unique in the mystery genre and highlights the fact that Lost is a show about itself.
The central mystery surrounding The X-Files was always who is the Cigarette Smoking Man and what does he know? Once we found out that he was a member of an organization called "The Syndicate" that had contact with the aliens, who were planning on executing all of the humans on Earth, that was pretty much it. Case closed. The central mystery surrounding Lost is much simpler: what is the show about? The X-Files was about two FBI agents investigating paranormal phenomena while slowly uncovering an alien-related government conspiracy. Nobody has any fucking idea what Lost is about. Sure, there are a lot of things you can point to: the lives of the characters, the connections between the characters, the conflict between Jacob and Smokey, the nature of the island, good vs. evil, faith vs. science, father/son relationships, free will vs. fate, physics, true love transcending time and space, second chances, the numbers, Walt's powers, Adam and Eve, the Hurley bird, what happens to you when you die? who makes the supply drops?, how did the island get submerged?, how did Jack get those cuts in the flash-sideways? how did Locke get paralyzed in the flash-sideways, who is the mother of Jack's son in the flash sideways?, and on and on and on.
All of these things are somewhat important, but none are crucially important in and of themselves. The only truly salient mystery on Lost is the mystery of what the show is about. Every single answer to a mystery ever given on the show either begot more questions or rendered the initial question irrelevant. Without exception. This is likely to continue throughout the remainder of the show's five episodes. As Carlton Cuse said in a recent interview,
"I don't think there's a right answer . . . . I think there's this essential human desire to have a unified field theory. Everyone is like, 'I want to unlock the single secret to Lost.' There isn't any one secret, There is not a unified field theory for Lost, nor do we think there should be, because philosophically we don't buy into that as a conceit."
I agree with Cuse when he says that there is no right answer, but only because viewers are asking the wrong questions. They tend to make one of two mistakes: 1) They get bogged down in the individual plot-related mysteries like 'who or what are Jacob and Smokey' and expect to be satisfied and have some deeper understanding of the show as a whole once these mysteries are revealed (which is never the case), or 2) They seek to answer the fundamental mystery of 'what is Lost about' by myopically focusing on only one of the many themes (good v. evil, fate v. destiny, science v. faith) and expecting one side or the other to come out on top (which is not going to happen).
Take the 'Faith versus Science' theme for example.You could probably write a graduate thesis about how the traditional notions of faith and science and their inevitable struggle form the central theme of Lost and everything that happens on the show revolves around this. And you should. That's why Lost exists. That's what it's all about.
To me, the 'Faith versus Science' theme merely echoes the sentiments of people watching Lost. The 'science' of Lost is the Lostpedia-style endless compiling of character connections and unsolved mysteries, all with the hope that the viewer will be able to add everything up in his head and arrive at some meaningful conclusion. The 'faith' of Lost is throwing all of that aside and just trusting that the writers will deliver you an enjoyable show week in and week out.
The entire progression of Jack's character has been about him learning how to "let go." To stop trying to control things and understand everything that's going on (the p.o.v. of the science-oriented Lost viewer) and trust his intuition that the island (a metaphor for the show itself) will provide him with the answers he seeks in due time (the p.o.v. of the faith-oriented Lost viewer). At the beginning of "The Last Candidate," Jack and SmokeyLocke have the following exchange:
Jack: "John Locke was the only one of us that believed in this place. He did everything he could to keep us from leaving this island."
SmokeyLocke: "John Locke was not a believer, Jack. He was a sucker."
In this exchange, SmokeyLocke represents the people on the message boards who have lost faith in Lost. They believe that the writers do not know what they are doing and are just haphazardly coming up with nonsense on the fly to misdirect people and keep people interested (the fact that the show is willing to give voice to people who have given up on watching the show is even further proof that Lost is a show about the experience of watching itself). SmokeyLocke accuses Jacob of doing this very same thing to his followers time and again. Jack, who is now in the faith position that original Locke used to occupy continues to believe in the provenance of the island (again, a metaphor for the show, Lost) and proves it by jumping off the boat and swimming back to the island.
My opinion is that the show is about the traditional struggle between people who believe strongly in science and people who believe strongly in faith, but within the context of viewing the show. Lost is about how a science person watches and responds to the show versus how a faithful person watches and responds to the show. If the writers are God and the viewers are human beings, then the science inclined human beings try to make sense of God's creation through the collection of data and experimental trial and error (Lostpedia) while the faith inclined human beings trust that God will provide and all will make sense in the end ("letting go," "jumping in," and just watching and accepting what happens). It is important to note that as Cuse said, there is no right answer. The show will (hopefully) not result in the writers saying, "Yes, faith was right." They are just two different approaches to watching the show. Neither will be ultimately rewarded, but neither will be left feeling completely unfulfilled.
As I said before however, it is not necessary to get bogged down in any one theme. All of the themes of Lost add up to support this theory. The father/son relationship theme reflects the God/creation metaphor I used in the above paragraph. The free will/destiny theme reflects the viewers' uncertainty about whether the writers knew what was going to happen all along or if they are just making it up on the fly. The good/evil theme reflects the viewers' apprehension about whether we will be rewarded for our 6-year investment in the show at it's conclusion. The many plot-related mysteries give us something concrete to ponder within the context of the themes described above. And on and on it goes.
The answer to the mystery of Lost is that the show is about the act of discovering all of these themes and mysteries and theorizing about their import. This is what the characters spend all of their time doing on the show. They theorize about the island, but the island is just a metaphor for the show Lost and the characters are just stand ins for the viewers of the show. The final season has brought this idea of theorizing and discovery to the forefront as Charlie showed something deeper about life to Desmond and he is in turn passing on the thrilling discovery to the rest of the characters. This is what Lost is about; the experience of watching the show, talking about it with other people, and interfacing with the writers through the characters on the show. To put it simply, Lost is about the journey of intellectual discovery, it's not about the destination of receiving answers. Lost is about the experience of watching Lost, and that experience is unlike the experience of watching any other television show in the history of the medium.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that my interpretation of the meaning of Lost can be easily extrapolated to the meaning of life. If Lost is not about the answers at the end, but about the act of watching Lost and the things you discover about it along the way, and the relationships you forge as a result of these discoveries, then life itself is about the act of living. It is not about the answers you get when you die, but about the learning, debating, theorizing, communicating, and connecting that occurs while you are alive. This is perhaps the ultimate message of Lost. Rather than being continually confounded by the inability to receive concrete answers, you should instead revel in the intellectual journey and relationships that arise from the pursuit of those answers.
No matter what happens in the end, and no matter what answers that end gives you, the real value was in getting there. That's the point.
P.S. Special thanks to my buddy Mark Hayward for helping me see that the endless quest for answers is missing the point of the show entirely.