On Sept. 22, 2004, six years ago today, ABC aired the pilot for Lost. Perhaps you heard of it. We wrote about it once or twice here at the website. The basic gist: serialized TV series, filled with mystery but committed to a strong emphasis on character, about plane crash survivors marooned on a tropical island pocked with remnants of a horrible history, patrolled by a tree-tromping monster, and prowled by a poorly-mannered polar bear. (In defense of the polar bear: Fishbiscuits; mate-deprived; sunny paradise overload. I’d be pissy and petulant, too.) Lost was an instant hit, and was soon declared a pop culture phenomenon. The only thing hotter during the 2004-2005 TV season was another ABC rookie: Desperate Housewives.
What made Lost so compelling to so many people? Take a moment before answering–it’s a trickier question than you realize. It always has been. The Lost fan community has never been a homogenous culture. It has always been a confederation of distinctly different tribes, and from the very beginning, they have often clashed with each other over what Lost was and what it should be. There were the fans that loved the show for its mysteries, and wanted Lost to be all about them. They resented the flashback device from the start and called for its disposal, deeming it a gimmick whose only purpose was to produce filler content that could delay mystery-resolution for as long as possible. But then there were the fans that loved the flashback device because it nourished the part of the show they loved the most: the characters. These fans actually worried that giving too much time to The Monster and The Numbers and The Others would produce too much weirdness, too much backstory to remember and carry forward, too much impersonal “mythology” that would cost the show its humanity. Others loved Lost for its post-9/11 metaphor of a culture recovering from catastrophe, while others loved it for its vision of a melting pot world. These fans hoped the show would remain the gritty, ensemble-based survival drama. But then there were those who located Lost’s profundity in how it dramatized the clash between scientific and spiritual worldviews. These fans wanted Lost to let its geek flag fly and indulge the sc-fi/fantasy stuff… although, even within this camp, there were was a division between those who wanted answers rooted in real world physics and those who were open to contextualizing everything within a mystical or religious framework.
Of course, there was a place where all fans could meet in the middle. Because once upon a time, before it became an obsession — before it became something to love too much and hate too much — Lost was a nifty-cool place to hang out each week, and a great many people really enjoyed visiting. The cast was winning, the characters were interesting, the dialogue was memorable, the drama was intense, the locale was exotic — it was just great fun. Emotionally engaging, imagination-stirring. Really smart, yet utterly unpretentious. Really funny, yet totally sincere.
There’s more to say on Lost’s fragmented fandom, especially as it relates to the touchiest Lost topic of all: Fan satisfaction — and dissatisfaction — with the series finale, “The End.” In fact, I have a whole theory on the subject, which can be summed up by Benjamin Linus’ classic “What about me?” speech to Jacob at the end of season 5 — but that will have to wait for another day. Today, we remember the beginnings of Lost. And what I remember most about the pilot was that…it didn’t make me a fan of Lost. The two-part, two-episode premiere (which really should be viewed, assessed, and appreciated as a whole) was undeniably entertaining. It contains some of the most memorable moments in Lost ever — some of the most iconic moments that TV has given us this decade. Jack waking up in the jungle. Jack racing around the beach and tending to his fellow airplane crash survivors. Kate sewing up Jack’s gash and Jack telling her the “count to five” story. Locke smiling that fruit peel smile. Locke teaching Walt about backgammon. The Monster attack. Sawyer shooting the polar bear. Charlie: “Guys… where are we?”
Great stuff. I get goosebumps just recalling it. And yet, as winning as the pilot was, as much as it compelled me to want to watch the next episode (which, for me, is the simple measure of a “good” pilot), Lost’s first episode left me wary. Funny: a lot of the criticisms I’m hearing about NBC’s new drama The Event — the characters are bland archetypes; the flashback structure is contrived; too much reliance on arbitrary WTH? mystery to create interest — were issues I had with the Lost pilot, too. My visceral reaction was positive. The characters weren’t totally fleshed out — but they were all very relatable and accessible. (In this, Lost was different from The Event, which, aside from Jason Ritter’s Sean, is mostly stocked with super-heroic archetypes. The President. The Secret Agent. Whoever Laura Innes Is.) And the proven track record of J.J. Abrams gave me reason to be hopeful. Still, Lost was about island castaways; how much mileage could this series possibly have? How long before I began itching for their rescue (or death)? How long before the whole thing began to smack of stalling? Everything patently “mysterious” about the pilot — as well as the pilot’s calculated decision to withhold details about its characters which, when finally revealed, made them so much more than “bland archetypes” — struck me, in the moment, as pretty transparent attempts to grab my interest. Notice the phrase I deliberately did not choose, which was “capture my imagination.” For me, that didn’t really happen until Lost produced an episode that both inspired me with confidence that it was being run with vision, and showed me it could work as a weekly storytelling machine. And that episode, of course, was “Walkabout.” More on that gem in three weeks, when my last Lost column — which, yes, I have been putting off; and yes, it has been very, very hard for me to write, because writing it does mean “letting go” — will finally post. Seriously. For realz!
Until then, I ask Lost fans: What were your favorite moments of he pilot? Did the premiere make you a fan — or did fandom come over time? Do you think the Lost pilot represents a standard against which other shows of its kind like The Event should be judges? Or do you think such comparisons are unfair because of the exceptional nature of the Lost pilot? The message boards are yours.
You can also get me at firstname.lastname@example.org and Tweet @ewdocjensen