By Jeff Jensen
Updated July 22, 2009 at 09:00 AM EDT

Take your seats, class: We’re picking up the second class in week 4 of EW University, as Doc Jensen continues to explore the cultural influences in Lost. Check out our gallery of 15 Must-Answer ‘Lost’ Mysteries, or jump ahead and test your knowledge with our final exam on season 5. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Quentin Tarantino and more.

‘Lost’: Balancing the scales
Throughout the 1990s, cult TV began morphing into something more than just a category of brilliant-but-canceled-yet-fondly-recalled programs. “Cult” became a sensibility, made sexy by the rise of “alternative culture” and made marketable by a paradigm shift toward demo-targeted niche marketing. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991) quickly went from phenomenon to joke, yet nonetheless proved that mainstream audiences were game if not hungry for adventurous, idiosyncratic visions — provided there was genuine vision involved. Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2002) formalized the modern model of cult TV: a hard genre show anchored by accessible characters goes from a critics’ darling watched by a devoted few to being embraced by many, although the show’s new big tent audience may not all agree on which elements are most compelling or should be emphasized by the show. Indeed, the phenomenal success of The X-Files introduced a new tension into the cult-TV conversation: finding and maintaining the proper balance of “mythology” (mysteries, historical backstory, big picture plot — the geeky, cerebral stuff) and the emotional human drama, which conventional wisdom says is usually favored by the late-adopting mainstream. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) found the perfect equilibrium, although to be clear, the exceedingly talented Joss Whedon never had the pressure of delivering a broad audience, as Buffy was produced for youth-targeting weblets The Wb and UPN. On the other hand, J.J. Abrams’ Alias (2001-2006) taxed the patience of its faithful and decidedly geeky constituents with incessant tweaking and rebooting designed to draw a larger audience that never came, resulting in a mixed creative legacy for the show that made Abrams a brand-name escapist auteur.

After the jump: Find out why having an end date is so important

By the time Lost launched in 2004, TV was primed for a new cult sensation. The X-Files and Buffy had both passed on; Alias was on the wane. David Chase’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), a different sort of cult phenom, had launched an era of creative risk-taking, while the Internet had provided a medium for cult TV tribes to gather, gab, buzz. And, sadly, the post-9/11 culture seemed ready to process its confusion and fear through the allegory of dark fantasy. Lost had the goods to fill the cult TV void, and more, elevate it into a pop phenom. But as much as geeks and non-geeks alike came to Lost wanting to love it, their enthusiasm was tempered with guardedness: recent history — specifically, the weak finishes of Twin Peaks, X-Files, and Alias — had taught them that mystery-mythology shows that demand a long-term commitment are gambles that don’t always pay off. And so it went that promptly upon seizing our imagination, Lost was under intense pressure to be responsible with it. Exec producers Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were constantly asked: Do you have a master plan? Do you know where all of this is headed? Or are you just making this up as you go along? For the creators, it must have been like a nervous new spouse getting after-the-fact cold feet and hectoring for a prenup agreement during the honeymoon. Another analogy, frequently used by the producers themselves: the high-wire walker, traveling between two skyscrapers without a net, the audience below alternately cheering for him to succeed and bracing to see him fall — and maybe even expecting to see him fall.

Toward the close of Lost’s third season, with the wire-walking show smack in the middle between two towers and showing signs of teetering, the producers negotiated to end the series after three more (shorter) seasons. The move helped alleviate the anxiety of Lost loyalists and deserves to be applauded and imitated. The certainty of an end puts storytellers in the best possible position to realize an artistic vision and please the fans. Whether broadcast networks will embrace and replicate the Lost model remains to be seen; the example of 24 or Heroes — serialized dramas with more open-ended premises, comprised of shorter, closed-ended arcs — is more financially attractive. Regardless, the final, most critical stage of the Lost experiment is yet to come: the final season of the show — the last chapter in the sprawling epic novel that Lost has become — begins in six months. And when it does, cult TV will have come full circle, from brilliant shows that never wanted to end, to brilliant shows that do — and, hopefully, are better for it.

Extra credit viewing!

The following are examples of other really cool cult TV series. The ones in bold indicate shows with particularly strong Lost resonance. Wiseguy (1987-1990); Profit (1996); Nowhere Man (1995-1995); Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

Extra credit reading! Watchmen (1986-1987), the brilliantly conceived, intricately constructed graphic novel with a massive cult following. Its storytelling gambits — Easter eggs and flashbacks — have been emulated by Lost’s producers.

For discussion: What’s so wrong with “making it up as you go along?” Why do you think that idea spooks viewers so much? When producers say they have a “master plan,” do you really believe them? Have the creative flame-outs of past cult TV series (Twin Peaks, Alias, and at present, Heroes) shaped your expectations or impacted your patience for serialized TV? Would you be more willing to commit to a long-term, multi-year serialized saga from the get-go if it launched with an announced end date?

For more ‘Lost’ EW U:
‘Lost’: The cult of “cult-TV” (Part 1)
‘Lost’: 15 Must-Answer Mysteries
EW U Final Exam: ‘Lost’ Season 5

See all EW University courses