A decade after its debut, Lost seems ever more like a weird, collective dream we all had.
A complicated, character-driven sci-fi/fantasy hybrid with heavy elements of horror? And we all watched it? And it was on broadcast network television? When looking at the modern TV landscape, it's hard to find anything quite so ambitious, especially on the broadcast networks, which increasingly manage toward the margins in a dying business model.
"Even if you fail, people will appreciate you having attempted the harder trick and crashed than just kind of doing the easy stuff," said co-creator Damon Lindelof during a 90-minute interview about the show's first season. He said this wisdom was instilled in him by his fellow co-creator, J.J. Abrams. Abrams would leave the show seven episodes in, but leave an indelible mark upon it: the mark of going for broke, of trying anything, of never settling for the routine.
Lost was a massive hit. And no matter what you thought of it (or, notably, its ending), you have to grapple with the fact that for six years, a show with the soul of a cult sensation somehow became an obsession of the sorts of people who wouldn't have been into a show with such a heavy mythology, such bizarre symbolism, except for the fact that the show was so good at what it did that it essentially sucked them into caring about the sorts of stuff numerous other shows had tried and failed to interest viewers in.
Lost was special, and we're unlikely to see anything else like it
Yeah, there had been antecedents. Star Trek: The Next Generation brought science fiction to one of the largest audiences ever assembled for such a program (and in syndication, no less). Twin Peaks became a collective fixation for a few brief weeks in 1990. And The X-Files married weird storytelling to a police procedural format in a way that proved incredibly entertaining and durable.
But Lost stood, in some ways, alone. At the time, it (along with Desperate Housewives, which also debuted in the fall of 2004 on ABC) felt like a herald of network television's new fearlessness in trying new things to stand out from a crowd increasingly filled with cable series willing to play dark to win viewers. Now, however, it feels like the last gasp of a model that would soon realize its obsolescence.
No one is going to claim that Lost was perfect. Even I, someone who largely defends the much-derided finale, will admit that the series lost its way several times over the course of its run. Hell, even the show's co-showrunners, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, have publicly called out episodes they felt didn't live up to the show's standards of quality. That's inevitable, in some ways. Lost ran six seasons, and for three of those, it produced more than 20 episodes. Any show will produce some bum hours in that timeframe.
I'm not even going to try to convince you Lost was good, though I very much believe it was. It wasn't everybody's cup of tea, to be sure, and the audience shrank as the show catered more and more to the hardcore faithful. One person can learn that the show's mystical Island was the center of experiments with weird pseudoscience in the ‘70s and have their eyes fill with delight, while another will roll their eyes and flip over to something else. That's healthy. And thanks to Lost and others like it, that "something else" stood just as good a chance at being terrific as the show being turned away from.
No, what I'm trying to convince you of is that Lost was special, that we're unlikely to see anything else like it. The closest modern television comes is something like Game of Thrones, which similarly sprawls all over the place and incorporates more and more characters with every season. But even that show's considerable imagination seems paltry when stacked up against Lost's ability to be about seemingly everything under the sun. Mock Lost for its pretensions toward religious and philosophical profundity, if you will (and I certainly have before), but wasn't it fun to have a show that dared mix roughly an entire century's worth of thought and pulp fiction into something entirely new?
Yet Lost was about more than just the theorizing, flipping over to the internet after an episode ended, knee jittering with the possibility of it all, and leaping into comments sections to swap ideas about what was happening (though I miss that aspect as well). No, it was about a bunch of people who had, in one way or another, failed at being complete human beings, and a weird place that gave them a chance to complete themselves. If the mythology didn't always add up, the characters always did. They were all searching for pieces of themselves they had misplaced along the way, and on the Island, they were able to find them.
It's become a cliché to say that Lost succeeded where its many imitators failed because of its intense focus on characters, but it's also true. In rewatching the first season for this interview series, I was reminded anew of how arresting and exciting these figures were, how beautifully they were initially introduced as barely sketched-in archetypes, before subsequent episodes deepened them. Lovable rogue Sawyer. Estranged, yet still in love, couple Sun and Jin. Tortured torturer Sayid. Mystic pretender Locke. And even savior complex-hobbled Jack. As written by a top-notch writing staff and played by fantastic actors, these characters and others came to occupy an outsized place in our TV imagination. (And that doesn't even begin to touch on characters introduced in later seasons.)
To watch Lost now is to be a little bit sad about all of the ways television seems to be hemming itself in
And what ultimately made the show work was the way it kept circling the idea of loss — as exemplified in all of these characters — warily. They were all incomplete, but they were incomplete because they had made themselves so, because the pains of life caused them to shut off parts of themselves. This is natural, and this is human, but Lost also argued that was no way to confront the world. The way to go forward instead was to walk into a jungle that could contain anything and open yourself up to the idea that it might contain the things you were most scared to confront — even if you wouldn't admit as much to yourself.
The television landscape is more fractured now than it was in 2004, and it's possible for just about any network out there to produce something of staggering quality. But to watch Lost now is to also be just a little bit sad about all of the ways television seems to be hemming itself in. This was a show made in an era of big swings, when any network might launch a massive, era-defining hit out of nowhere. Now, we live in an era when even the biggest of swings feel safe somehow, because they're based on proven source material, or because they use characters and talent we already know well, or just because they don't have much going on beneath their beautifully preening surfaces.
Lost was different. Lost was special. It was one part mad scientist's concoction, one part blank slate for the characters (and audience) to project their anxieties upon. It dared to suggest that the most important thing in the whole world was not the mysteries in the uncharted areas of maps, but in the uncharted areas of ourselves.
What follows are interviews with Lindelof about 10 episodes from Lost's first season. Read on for his reflections on casting the show, developing the characters, and creating the mythology of the Island.
- Editor: Eleanor Barkhorn
- Designer: Tyson Whiting
- Developer: Yuri Victor
- Images: ABC