El Santo watches Siberia, or the sublime bliss of leaving a mystery unsolved

After Lost concluded and many people complained how unsatisfactory the ending was, one of the creators —- I’m not sure which, if it was Carlton Cuse or Damon Lindlehof —- mentioned that it wasn’t the mystery that was important to the show. It was the characters.

I’ve thought about that line a decade after the Lost finale, and I’ve concluded that it’s not true at all. I have all six seasons on DVD. While they were on constant replay while the show was still on the air, not once have I been tempted to rewatch the show since. If the characterizations were indeed so strong, I probably wouldn’t have minded the fact that the mysteries have no payoff. The X-Files similarly have an unsatisfactory theoughline through its mythos, and I don’t really have a problem revisiting that from time to time. Looking those Lost DVDs just fills me with dread. There’s just lurking there in my DVD hutch, hiding alphabetically behind The Life Aquatic and The Living Daylights, and taking up 205.88 cubic inches of space.

I imagine a huge part of that is that the show went on too long. Eventually, they ran out of things to say about these characters. Whatever appeal Jack had, we began to not care when they devoted an origin story to bis tattoo. The flashback twist and turns started becoming outlandish. Maybe this is the episode where we find out John Locke lost his legs? The more backstory they saddled these characters with, the less I started to care about them.

I get this same weird sense from all the shows trying to follow-up in Lost’s wake. Most had characters that had zero memorable characteristics. I for one could not tell you who was the lead of FlashForward. I have had enough distance now to have no patience for the J.J. Abrams style of mystery box storytelling. A story with a hollow nothing at the center of its machinations is an exercise in futility.

There was one show that I felt followed the formula effectively. I’ve revisited it a couple of times, knowing fully well that almost zero of the show’s mystery box twists would every be solved. Shoot, it only lasted 11 episodes. The writing was probably on the wall when the last episodes aired, and they were still introducing new twists.

So why watch this show again long after its imperceptible effect on pop culture was long forgotten? And knowing that none of the mysteries would ever have answers? Ironically… I came back for the characters.

NBC’s Siberia debuted in 2013. From the beginning, the show had some terrible luck. It debuted against another Lost-wannabe, Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It was once preempted by the birth of a royal baby.

Siberia has a high-concept premise that these days sound like it should go on Netflix, not network TV: a sort of reality show mockumentary. Sixteen contestants are deposited in a camp deep in the Russian wilderness, where they have to survive the bitter winter. The finalists will get to share a $500,000 prize. It’s clearly based on Survivor, though the premise reminds me a lot of a show that would debut a couple years later: Alone. In a touch I believe was a dig at Abrams, the show features an actual mystery box: a titanium cabinet named the “Revealer” that periodically dispenses clues and supplies, like matches or vodka. (Also, wasn’t Lost once described as what Survivor would look like if it were turned into a scripted adventure show?)

The first episode plays like a standard reality until the very end. The show’s host meets with the remaining contestants and tells them that one of the contestants has died. Most don’t take the option to quit the show. From that point on, every challenge is weighed with doubt. Is this a real threat… or is it something engineered for the show to generate drama? Is the show even still running… or have the contestants been abandoned to fend for themselves? (By the way, a reality show being abandoned with the contestants not being told is not a far-fetched scenario.)

Rotten Tomatoes gave it a whopping 55% freshness rating. One major criticism was that the characters who were paper-thin reality show cliches. You have the leader who bosses everyone around and can’t deal with people who don’t play by the rules. The bad boy who’s in it for himself. The reedy weakling who twists his ankle on the first episode. The contestants who use their excessive friendliness as a form of gamesmanship. There wasn’t much enthusiasm over having to spend time with these cartoon characters. We’re going to spend the entire show rooting for these guys to get offed, aren’t we?

Here’s the thing, though: the reviews for TV shows, especially one this under the radar, are written after screening only the first two episodes. Had those critics stuck around to the end, though, they would have realized that the real mystery box wasn’t the Revealer. It was the contestants themselves. It’s explicitly stated that this group of sixteen was chosen because the producers thought that they would make for good TV. (It also provides a built in rationale as to why this group of strangers are all so photogenic.) Faced with actual adversity and what may possibly be a mystery creature, they “reveal” their true personalities underneath. Not only that, it also provided an understated connection as to why they chose their initial reality show personas.

Take the character of Johnny, for example. He enters the show immediately pissing everyone off. “I don’t trust him,” declares Neeko, the most reliable contestant of the bunch. Everything about him says he’s going to butt heads with everyone on the show. He glowers at anyone who tries to make him do anything. When confronted whether he stole anything from camp, he flashes a wide shit-eating grin.

So it’s an amazing bit of character development when, halfway through the show, Johnny find himself in the uncomfortable position as a leader… the sort that the other characters ask what they should do next. It’s here where we discover why he was so aloof in the beginning, and it’s nothing like a heart-wrenching flashback to a past trauma (though to be fair… some of the characters are saddled with those). In an episode, he unloads on an older guy named Sam that they should have left him for dead. He shouldn’t have come back for him when he was dying of frostbite. And here’s where you realize, from Johnny’s too strong insistence to Sam’s understanding patience, that Johnny’s biggest fear was losing people under his watch. He never would have made the call to sacrifice Sam for the good of the rest of the team, and that’s what bothers him.

“Listen to me,” Sam says sympathetically. “You’re the leader. And you’re going to do the right thing.”

Could his initial standoffishness have been a reluctance to take on such a burden? And what does it say about him that he was perfectly fine to stay in that role when only money was one the line, but when people started dying he couldn’t stay on the sidelines any longer? Whatever it is, it’s an interesting deconstruction of that reality show trope.

It’s not all heroic character development, either. An outwardly friendly persona could mask a dangerously controlling personality. Or a desire to be leader could be an excuse to be in a position where you can blame others for your own shortcomings. That’s the real fun of Siberia: connecting where the characters were at the beginning of the show and seeing where they ended up at the end.

That’s why the mysteries end up not mattering much at all. In one episode, Israeli survivalist Sabine encounters a skeleton in the woods. She searches the remains and finds a horrifying discovery: the skeleton is wearing the exact same locket as the one she wears around her neck. It’s a cool touch of weirdness that never gets resolved. But then I wondered: would I ever want that to get resolved? Or are we going to ultimately be disappointed… ugh like the reveal of similar skeletons on Lost was met with a shrug?

Besides, the few answers we are given to some of the show’s mysteries turn out to be pretty goofy. I am totally OK with this, as the concept of a reality show gone wrong is already a pulpy one and should be treated as such.

More than anything, the mysteries on Siberia are more a set-up on how the characters will react to them. How do character dynamics change? Is it consistent with the personas these characters have revealed of themselves in their mandatory video confessionals? A Siberian tiger wanders near the encampment, and it freaks out the two women who saw it. The exchange leads to some of the other contestants wondering if this was a scare tactic by the producers. Others wonder if the women are trying to scare them into quitting. The dismissal of the entire group of a threat that the women saw with their own eyes affects how much they trust their own teammates. And so on. The puzzle of who trusts who is far more of an interesting dilemma than trying to figure out why the skeleton.

Fun side note, by the way: as a nod to its reality show conceit, all the contestants are referred to by the actors’ real names. There’s actually a spoiler in there. One of the character’s names is not the same as the actor’s name, which leads to one of the show’s big twists. It could also be a callback to the Blair Witch Project. A lot of Siberia involves people getting lost in the woods. The show owes a great debt to its predecessor’s shaky footage of heavily wooded areas.

It would’ve been great to have more. The character development was fun to watch, and there were more avenues to explore. In the end though, maybe it was a blessing that it ended when it did. I have a feeling that series creator Matthew Arnold knew where that show was going… but once upon a time, I would have said the same of Cuse and Lindelhof, so who knows? There’s even odds that the creator of Emerald City couldn’t stick the landing, either.

Credit to him, though, for recognizing the mysteries to be what they are: challenges for a bunch of contestants to tackle, with no more deeper meaning than Survivor‘s immunity idol. So when Siberia gets to that final twist in the last second of its final episode, it feels like a statement on these Lost-alikes. Why do you even want a resolution?

Don’t you want the mystery to continue, even after the show has gone off the air?

Siberia can be currently viewed for free on Tubi.