Entry updated 20 June 2020. Tagged: TV.
US tv series (2004-2010). Bad Robot for ABC. Created by J J Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Producers include Abrams, Lindelof, Cuse and Bryan Burk. Directors include Abrams, Jack Bender, Stephen Williams and Paul A Edwards. Writers include Abrams, Lindelof, Cuse, Jeffrey Lieber, Elizabeth Sarnoff, Drew Goddard, Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Brian K Vaughan. Cast includes Matthew Fox as Jack Shephard, Evangeline Lilly as Kate Austen, Josh Holloway as James "Sawyer" Ford, Terry O'Quinn as John Locke, Jorge Garcia as Hugo "Hurley" Reyes, Naveen Andrews as Sayid Jarrah, Daniel Dae Kim as Jin Kwon, Yunjin Kim as Sun Kwon, Michael Emerson as Benjamin Linus, Elizabeth Mitchell as Juliet Burke, Emilie de Ravin as Claire Littleton, Dominic Monaghan as Charlie Pace, Henry Ian Cusick as Desmond Hume, and Harold Perrineau as Michael Dawson. 114 one-hour episodes.
Along with the new Battlestar Galactica, one of the two most important genre series of the 2000s, and one of the most influential series of the decade in any genre. A risky experiment in a landscape dominated by cop, doctor and lawyer shows, Lost started with a bang as it depicted the immediate aftermath of a plane crash – at the time, one of the most expensive sequences shot for television, and still one of the most thrilling. The survivors, marooned on an Island in the middle of the Pacific (the show was filmed in Hawaii and made good use of its lush, verdant scenery), soon discover that the rigours of survival pale in comparison to the island's mysteries. They find evidence of previous castaways stretching back at least to the Age of Sail, discover a mysterious concrete hatch incongruously planted in the middle of the jungle, and run afoul of the island's inhabitants, a little-seen but brutal group known only as The Others. At the same time as the show explored these mysteries, it delved into the characters' pasts. Each episode interspersed events on the island with flashbacks to the past of one of the main characters (of which there were a large number, and quickly added to), revealing how they came to be on the fateful flight while continuing to obscure the defining events of their lives – what crime caused Kate to spend years as a fugitive? How did Locke lose the use of his legs? Though the characters themselves remain mostly ignorant of each other's secrets, to the audience the flashbacks revealed an intricate network of connections and coincidences that had, unbeknownst to them, tied the characters to one another, and to the island, long before any of them boarded the doomed plane.
Skillfully crafted so as to constantly suggest that a grand resolution tying together all of the show's mysteries and answering all the questions it raised was only a few plot points away, Lost quickly soared to commercial and critical success. Fans delighted in spotting hidden details and connections, and in discussing their significance and formulating answers to the show's core questions: what is the island? Why have the characters been brought to it? What manner of power is responsible for the seemingly supernatural events that occur on it? (The producers indulged these tendencies by releasing ancillary information online, for example a fake website for the crashed plane's fictitious airline which contained hidden clues to the show's events.) Though genre series like Babylon 5 (1993-1998), Farscape (1999-2003, 2005) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) had been experimenting with serialized storytelling for nearly a decade, mainstream audiences were still unaccustomed to the device, and Lost electrified its viewers with the suggestion that every weird occurrence it depicted could and would be tied together into a single, coherent and satisfying story. For a surprisingly large portion of the show's run it seemed at least plausible – so long as one didn't think too hard about the events already depicted – that this might happen. As early as the latter half of the first season, however, dissenting voices within the show's fandom began to suggest that the writers might have no plan and no end in sight, and these grew in volume as the second season stalled both the island-set story and the exploration of the characters' pasts (in what quickly came to seem like a deliberate and unfunny joke, Locke's flashbacks repeatedly showed him risking potentially serious injury, only for him to escape unharmed at the last minute). It was around this time that Heroes (2006-2010) aired its first season, which seemed to pick up the torch that Lost had dropped, advancing its plots in leaps and bounds and satisfying its audience's curiosity.
Perhaps galvanized by the new competitor, Lost's writers managed to revitalize their show. Realizing, presumably, that the show's overstuffed mythology and tangled plotlines were long past the point where they could be woven into a coherent whole, the writers wisely decided not to try. Instead they delivered set-pieces and mini-arcs so well crafted as to obscure the contradictions, inconsistencies and plain silliness that contributed to the show's cumulative story. One story sees several powerful factions scrambling to control the island so that they can study the force that resides on it, while the main characters, caught in the middle, activate a God-machine that shifts the island's location. Another involves several characters travelling to, and living for several years in, the 1970s. (Despite these elements, and despite the determination of several characters to understand the island as a scientific phenomenon, Lost is science-fictional in only the most tangential way, ultimately opting for a magical, not to say spiritual, attitude towards its central McGuffin.) The character of Ben, the Others' cunning and duplicitous leader, was bulked up and he was given his own storylines and flashbacks, quickly becoming one of the show's main draws. The flashback device was retired and replaced with flash-forwards, to a period several years in the future when some of the characters had managed to leave the island. When time travel was introduced, episodes shifted between the 1970s and the 2000s, and the show's final season seemed to alternate between the present and an alternate timeline in which the plane crash never occurred. Though the series finale was justly derided in some quarters for being insipid and pointless – the resolution it offers to the island's mysteries is but a turn of the screw on a theory that most fans had formulated halfway into the first season and it relies on melodramatic moments, such as the reunion of star-crossed lovers or the deaths of beloved characters, for its effect – it appears to have satisfied most of the show's fans, and unlike Battlestar Galactica, Lost is considered to have gone out on a high note.
Lost's success has changed the definition of good television writing, not always in positive ways. That serialized storytelling has become so widely accepted, and folded even into the most formulaic procedural, is largely due to Lost's influence, and unwieldily large casts spread across several disparate plotlines have similarly become de rigueur, no matter how ill-suited the premise or writers are to handling them. The success of Lost's flashback structure, which transformed the show's characters into vehicles for mysteries no less engaging than that of the island, has taught television writers that a character's past matters more than their present. The exploration of that past and the secrets it holds is often allowed to supersede the development of relationships between characters in the present. An emphasis on mystery, its creation and successful resolution, has permeated television writing in general, and genre shows in particular, and been allowed to sideline the development of character and theme – goals that make much better use of a television series' open-endedness and its more intimate format.
In addition to these subtle influences, the show's stratospheric success has spawned a raft of would-be imitators. One or two such attempts have aired with every new television season in the latter half of the 2000s: see Flashforward (2009-2010), the new "V", and The Event (2010-2011). With the not-too-honourable exception of Heroes, whose stellar first season was followed by three abysmal ones that sent disappointed Lost fans straight back to their first love, few of these survived past their first season, and none have been as celebrated, by either critics or audiences, as Lost. To a certain extent this is a validation of Lost's writers. For all that Lost was justly criticized for nonsensical plotting and overwrought characterization, it takes some skill to craft a watchable and compelling stew out of humble ingredients, and most of Lost's imitators failed to do so, creating dull, convoluted series that failed to grab even a fraction of Lost's audience. A major reason for this failure, however, was that many of Lost's imitators tried to solve the problem that the show itself never seriously addressed. Convinced by loud fan complaints that Lost's haphazard and, in all likelihood, directionless plotting was a point against the show – and failing, perhaps, to notice that despite these complaints the show's ratings continued to hold strong – creators of would-be successors to the show put all their eggs in the plot basket. They crowed about carefully constructed plotlines, fully conceived endgames, and multi-season story arcs. The resulting series were smothered under the weight of their stories, neglecting characters and making unreasonable demands of viewers' indulgence as they set up their intricate plots. None demonstrated the showmanship that was, ultimately, Lost's greatest asset and the reason for its success – the ability to create a mystery, rather than the revelation of its solution – though it is possible that even as it enraptured viewers Lost taught them to recognize and distrust its tricks, which, when deployed by series which had not yet gained the audience's goodwill, fell flat. With Lost's story wrapped up and its latest imitator, The Event, already dying on the vine, it is possible that show's influence on the medium will wane, leaving it as the sole successful representative of the subgenre – the serialized, multi-threaded, vaguely-science-fictional soap – that it created. [AN]
- Orson Scott Card, editor. Getting Lost: Survival, Baggage, and Starting over in J J Abrams' Lost (Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books, 2006) [nonfiction: anth: pb/]
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