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Lost’s Creators Promised a Self-Contained TV Drama (They Lied)


Lost’s showrunners took a risk to get their daring premise on the air: they lied, promising a self-contained drama and delivering a complex meta-plot.

Lost became an overnight sensation when it premiered on ABC in September of 2004. Its intriguing premise and endearing ensemble of characters promised all manner of wonderful surprises for those who tuned in, and in an era when television was exploding with possibilities, it stood out as something entirely different. For the first few seasons, it looked to be a classic in the making.

Then things started to go wrong. The story became more convoluted and byzantine, with each answered question producing a dozen new ones leading in all directions. Its habit of jumping back and forth in time muddled its already complicated structure, and diminishing returns ultimately set in. By the time the show ended its run in 2010, Lost‘s fan base had turned against it, and its once groundbreaking potential felt utterly squandered. As it turns out, there was more to that feeling than fans initially knew. Though it clearly told a complex and overarching story, its creators sold it – and ABC marketed it – as something much more self-contained.

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Complex arcs are common in television these days, where streaming and binge-watching make them compelling ways to keep viewers tuned in. The landscape was much different when Lost first appeared, though. Television was just moving past the era of syndication – when standalone episodes made it easier for viewers to jump into a series – and towards longer and more involved arcs. The widescale availability of TV shows on DVD, coupled with breakout cable hits like The Sopranos and The Wire, prompted network television to green light increasingly ambitious projects, including Lost.

ABC, however, wasn’t ready to bet it all on the show’s creators, Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams. Their previous show, Alias, had become a big hit too, but when the pair proposed a new show, it had begun to spin its wheels. As Lindelof revealed to Slashfilm, ABC believed that Alias‘ serialized plot and ongoing storyline contributed to its perceived stagnation. And it the only show to have done so. The X-Files – a similarly trendsetting show with a complicated metaplot – had reached the end of its run in 2002, with much of its fanbase tired of its constantly confounding nature. That, coupled with Lost‘s already ambitious concept, led the two showrunners into significant headwinds as they made their pitch.

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According to a leaked series bible, Abrams and Lindleof simply lied. Although the show was built with a lengthy plot and a thousand tiny mysteries in mind, the pair wrote a 20-page document that assured the network it would be just the opposite. It claimed that plotlines would be limited to a few episodes, the mysteries would have ready answers, and the show would center more around the background of the passengers than the apparently supernatural goings-on on the island. They even hired a group of writers to come up with more plotlines to help convince the network, even as they themselves shot the series pilot in Hawaii.

It worked, and as Slashfilm notes, ABC stopped caring about the convoluted plotline and elaborate story once high ratings were assured. That leaves the memo in a curious position. Obviously, the showrunners lied to the network to get the show on the air. It’s not the first time artists have taken such risks in order to create material that might not otherwise see the light of day. On the other hand, by proceeding without a clear vision of where the series would go, they ended up fulfilling the network’s fears, as fans turned against its frustrating lack of closure just as fans of those earlier shows had.

Whether they did right or wrong by the act depends on how well or poorly one regards Lost. Certainly, it did new things in a bold way, and helped shaped the course of what television became. It was part of a period of tremendous growth for the medium, and the lessons learned have been applied to subsequent – and more successful – shows. But in the midst of getting ABC to agree, they needed to give more thought to where…


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