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The Lessons of ‘Lost’: Understanding the Most Important Network Show of the Past 10 Years «

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I agree with him that the first episode of LOST is spectacular.

What I remember most about the night Lost premiered was the sheer magnitude of the spectacle: a man sucked into a dying 747 turbine, an explosion of smoke and fire, the (unseen!) smoke monster smashing Greg Grunberg like a grape. But what lingers now is the attention and care given to the quieter scenes: Jack gazing into the impossibly blue Pacific just before the screaming of his fellow survivors reaches his ears; Charlie karaokeinghis own hit song; a petrified Kate counting to five. The brilliance of the series lay in these moments, the ellipses between the exclamation marks. Even as entire palm trees gave way to what sounded like a Godzilla-size taxi meter, the most intriguing aspects of Lost were right in front of us. Where did all these survivors come from? What was the deal with the angry Korean couple, the gentle giant, the creep with the citrus smile? I didn’t just want to know where they were. I wanted to know who they were. It’s a seemingly simple distinction, but it’s one that TV producers have been getting wrong with staggering consistency ever since.

I do love the characterization of LOST as shared madness.

It created a world that was ready for Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. 

Thanks to this voraciousness, Lost bridged the Internet divide between the time Before Twitter (B.T.) and After Twitter (F.M.L.). It helped to normalize the idea that television can be watched intimately with millions of people not currently seated on your couch and that episodes don’t end when the credits roll — they stretch and bleed into the rest of the week through a dizzying scrim of chat windows, status updates, and ill-advised Googling. Over at Entertainment Weekly, critic Jeff Jensen gave in to the vapors so entirely that he single-handedly changed my understanding of what a TV review could be. Sure, Alan Sepinwall and others were already recapping. But Jensen used each episode as a trampoline for his wildest theories and infectious, boundless enthusiasm. In his virtuosic morning-after ramblings, Doc Jensen wasn’t just commenting on what the show was. He was delighting in all the incredible things it could be. The truth is, Lost diehards — and I count myself among them — would never have been satisfied with the show’s ending, no matter what form it took, because it pulled the plug on our endless, joyous speculating. If we’re being honest, none of us ever wanted to be found.

Lost was more than a TV show. It was a sort of shared madness, a delirium that ranged far beyond Wednesday nights at 10. And, as such, it should have heralded a new golden age for the graying networks. During Lost’s reign, cable channels were still focused on the highbrow character dramas that had earned them buckets full of press and prestige — not to mention ratings that threatened to catapult them into the biggest of leagues. (The Walking Dead premiered five months after Lost went dark. Game of Thrones arrived the following April. Together, they would push cable into an entirely different sport.) Then, as now, networks needed to operate on a larger playing field both to differentiate themselves from their more nimble cable competitors and to sustain their far more demanding revenue model.4 A wholly original multimedia supernova like Lost isn’t easily replicated. But what’s most disheartening today is to see how little the big four seem inclined to try. After a few years packed with soulless cover versions like The Event and The Nine (more on those below), network executives threw up their hands and moved on: Lost was sui generis. Like the wreckage of Oceanic 815, its particular blend of wild art and savvy commerce could never be located again. To look at the broadcast grid in the fall of 2014 is to see abject surrender; outside of a few hardy survivors,5 every network’s drama slate is a vast and exhausting sea of tired procedurals, preexisting properties, and unambiguous crap. Unless they’re plotting musicals, no one thinks big anymore. Honestly, there’s little evidence anyone is thinking at all. How could it be that such a hugely important show cast no shadow?6 

Lost was meant to be an antidote to network TV’s slow descent into redundancy. 

Instead, it helped hasten the patient’s demise.

3. Don’t Self-Segregate

Here’s the beauty of Lost: There are polar bears, flashbacks, bursts of electromagnetism, and a giant, tree-crashing, human-smashing monster in the pilot. Within a year, there would be a hippie cult, a torture room, and a set of magical numbers that appears to control the universe. By the end of Season 5, a time-traveling fertility doctor used a giant stone to bash a hydrogen bomb until it exploded. The end of the show hinged on a pair of godlike brothers squabbling over an immortal deckhand and which one of them Allison Janney loved more.

And yet during all of this, Lost carried itself like a fully mainstream entertainment. Even midway through the third season, after the show secured its end date and committed more fully to the genre looniness that had been lurking beneath the surface, Lindelof and his fellow showrunner, Cuse, never stopped projecting to the furthest reaches of the peanut gallery.Lost was a big, bold show that always sought the largest possible audience. Its most extreme Arthur C. Clarke indulgences were always leavened by a generous dash of Danielle Steel. I’m tired of geek-minded shows self-exiling themselves to the margins as does this year’s Constantine, which will air Friday nights, where its audience of exactly who you’d expect will be waiting to embrace it with open arms. Lost proved that there were viewers out there willing to accept all kinds of extreme stories as long as they were well told. Unlike the highly specialized series on cable, broadcast shows should always aim for the biggest possible tent. And creators should remember that tents that large require equally enormous stakes.

4. Don’t Rush

Here’s the beauty of the first hour of Lost: We catch a glimpse of every single major cast member. But we really meet only three of them: Jack, Kate, and Charlie. That’s it. Everyone else is forced to wait their turn.

What a luxury it is to bask in the not-knowing! And, also, what an anachronism. Every pilot I saw this fall felt the need to present every single character in the first few minutes, often in the most honking, unsubtle way possible. Forever’s chatty protagonist introduces himself through clunky voice-over. State of Affairs’s heroine does the same by womansplaining herself to a shrink (“Total slob in my personal life, total sniper in my professional one”). On Madam Secretary, the president of the United States drives to a horse farm to tell Téa Leoni that she doesn’t just think outside the box, she doesn’t even know there is a box. (Tell that to John Locke!) Networks are so fearful that a viewer might become confused that they’ve encouraged writers to spend their time connecting dots, not developing story. The truth is, it’s always far better to reveal personality through behavior — in the pilot, Jack doesn’t tell us who he is, he shows us by rushing silently from casualty to casualty while fiery debris rains down all around him — and to unveil people gradually. Episodes can be binged but great characters ought to be savored.

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