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How Lost Changed TV for Better or Worse
It started out with a simple enough concept.
After struck with inspiration during a family vacation to Hawaii during the summer of 2003, then-ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun returned to the Burbank, Calif. offices of the network that had slid to fourth place in the ratings under his watch and not posted a profit in seven years with a nugget of an idea: a show that was a cross between the Tom Hanks film Cast Away and the recent game-changing reality show Survivor.
Its name? Even simpler: Lost.
When Braun shared his idea at a corporate retreat at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel a few weeks later, the gathered network executives weren’t exactly sold. “Deafening silence,” he recalled of the reaction to Entertainment Weekly in 2010. “I felt like I was the only Jewish guy at a Ku Klux Klan rally.”
“A lot of people sort of laughed at the idea,” Thom Sherman, then a senior vice president at the network, now the senior executive vice president of programming at CBS Entertainment, told Chicago Magazine in 2007 of his boss’s pitch, which, at that point, had come to include parts of Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies, as well.
Though no one at Disney, ABC’s parent company, expressed any faith in the project, Bruan told Sherman to “quietly” begin developing it. A call to Spelling Television (as in Aaron Spelling, and yes, really) saw screenwriter Jeffrey Lieber tasked with taking the first crack at turning Braun’s idea into something worth putting on the network’s fall schedule. After pitching, penning, and subsequently re-writing Nowhere, Braun turned to Alias creator J.J. Abrams for a fresh approach.
“I’m pleading with him to consider it,” he told EW. “He starts to joke about how completely ridiculous this scenario is, but I get him to go home and think about it.”
Abrams added, “I called him back and said, ‘Look, I have a version of this, but you are not going to like it. It’s more Michael Crichton than it is Cast Away. There would be a hatch on this island. And you would start to learn truths about these people that aren’t immediately obvious. It’s a weirder version than you want to do.’ And he said, ‘No, I love that version.'”
Braun’s only stipulation? The title would remain Lost.
At Abrams’ request for a writing partner, Damon Lindelof was brought aboard and the two got to work on crafting the show’s characters, style and mythology. (Lieber received a story credit and retained a shared “Created By” credit with Abrams and Lindelof for the show’s six-season run thanks to a request for arbitration by the Writers Guild of America, earning pay for every episode aired despite not performing a second of work on any of them.) A two-hour pilot with a budget reportedly between $ 10-14 million, the most expensive in the network’s history, was produced based on the strength of the initial outline alone. And despite the fact that sci-fi shows, not to mention heavily serialized shows of any nature, had fallen out of favor long before then, with procedurals like CSI ruling the day, Lost made its grand debut on the network on September 22, 2004.
And then everything changed.
With a diverse cast comprised mostly of fresh faces (Evangeline Lilly, Josh Holloway, Yunjin Kim, Naveen Andrews, Jorge Garcia and Ian Somerhalder, to name a select few), with a few industry veterans in the mix (Party of Five‘s Matthew Fox, Oz‘s Harold Perrineau, Alias’ Terry O’Quinn), Lost premiered to 18.7 million viewers, delivering the network’s best drama debut in nearly a decade. It, along with Desperate Housewives (which debuted 11 days later, topping Lost‘s premiere ratings by three million) and Grey’s Anatomy (which bowed midseason), completely revitalized ABC, raising it up to No. 2 just behind Fox and its American Idol behemoth.
And while Braun wasn’t around to bask in the glory of the winning schedule he’d put into place—Disney had canned him before Lost even premiered, in part, because of how much money he’d thrown at a pilot both Michael Eisner and Bob Iger had absolutely no faith in—the effects of Lost‘s success on the television landscape were both immediate and far-reaching.
While the show Abrams and Lindelof created (with Carlton Cuse stepping in midway through season one to replace an outgoing Abrams, who was due to direct Mission: Impossible III) certainly followed in the footsteps of shows like The Prisoner and Twin Peaks, there had never been anything as ambitious and involved as Lost on television. Certainly nothing that would manage to play out over six increasingly complex seasons full of flashbacks, flash-forwards, flash-sideways (a plot device we’re certain Lost invented in its final season), polar bears where they don’t belong, smoke monsters, and fringe science research projects.
Seeing that a show as complicated as Lost could be such a zeitgeist-y hit, TV execs across Hollywood did what they do best and began desperate searches for the show that might be “the next Lost,” beginning a trend that, though it’s certainly slowed over the years, persists to this day. Between Threshold, Surface, Invasion, Jericho, Happy Town, Flash Forward, The Event, Revolution, Terra Nova, Fringe, Alcatraz, The Crossing, Manifest, and The I-Land, all of them tried to replicate the show’s somewhat unquantifiable alchemy. Nearly all failed, diving far too deep into the complex mystery end of things, never devoting enough time to developing characters worth caring about. ABC’s next stab at it? This fall’s Emergence, starring Allison Tolman.
Lost’s popularity also helped give rise to a sort of fan theorizing that no other TV show had ever warranted. After all, David Lynch may have inspired armchair detectives in the early ’90s, but Twin Peaks only asked one question: Who killed Laura Palmer? Lost, on the other hand? With each new answer parceled out by the creative masterminds penning the scripts, 10 more questions would pop up in the one answered’s place. Encouraged by Lindelof and Cuse to view even the most minute detail as potential clues to just what was going on, everyone had their own intricate theories to argue and recaps of individual episodes would often take more time to read than was spent watching the content they were supposed to be explaining.
As such, a sort of unearned sense of ownership over the show’s ending was cultivated in the extremely engaged fanbase, and by the time the show wrapped up with season six in 2010, there was a great number of people who felt owed answers to every question they’d ever had about the show. And when Lindelof and Cuse failed to do so, choosing instead to focus on delivering some sort of closure to the characters we’d come to love rather than just having some all-knowing being explain away every last detail, well, there was hell to pay.
Sure, there had been finales that left fans feeling disappointed before, with Seinfeld and The Sopranos chief among them. But the level of vitriol the show’s final season and series finale received, with those merely watching at home assuming they might’ve been better suited to end the show than, you know, the guys who created the thing, was unprecedented. And, if we’re being totally honest, just the beginning. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from the way Lost‘s finale was treated to the treatment of Game of Thrones‘ final season earlier this year.
While it seems as though we’re just a year or two away from an inevitable attempt to reboot Lost—ABC’s new president Karey Burke told reporters earlier this year, “That is a reboot I would be interested in seeing—it should go without saying that there will probably never be another like it. TV’s wasteland of failed pretenders to the throne are more than proof of that. And while Jack may have infamously told Kate in the season three finale, “We have to go back,” there’s no good reason (outside of a craven cash grab) that we should try and replicate a magic that, much like the many questions left unanswered by series’ end, remains ineffable to this day.
Lost seasons one through six are available to stream on Hulu now.