By Jeff Jensen
December 30, 2011 at 02:00 PM EST
Mario Perez/ABC

“The next Lost.” For the past seven years, it’s been a TV industry grail quest, and, for the past 18 months since Lost left the air, a felt need for those who not only miss the Oceanic 815 castaways and the Island but the sense of community that the show spawned. From the moment ABC’s saga about redemption-needy souls trapped in a mystical, tropical purgatory became an instant phenom in September of 2004, the leading purveyors of small-screen entertainment have been trying to replicate the success of a cult pop property tailored to our Comic-Con culture that somehow managed to connect with a whole host of non-geeks, too. Key ingredients: Mystery. Monsters. Morally ambiguous heroes and misunderstood villains who belong to a world gone strange, fighting or surviving supernatural beings, strange science and/or secret history, debating things faith and reason, fate and happenstance as they go. Toss in some quips, sex appeal, and a smattering of literary and philosophical hyperlinks, and DUDE! you got yourself another Lost. Right?

Among the wannabes that launched during the span of Lost’s six-year run, Heroes came closest to achieving Lost-like glory, though its critical and popular regard quickly waned after its first season. Fringe — developed by Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams and launched late in Lost’s run — is a critical favorite that remains on the air, but has never cracked the code for mainstream acceptance. Since Lost self-terminated in 2010, cable hits like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story have engendered the kind of intense following that Lost engendered and received the Cool Thing! anointing that Lost received, yet they will most likely will never produce the kind of weekly viewership numbers that Lost produced. This past fall, ABC introduced Once Upon a Time, a fantasy from two of Lost’s key producers that has aggressively courted old Lost watchers, with promos that touted the Lost pedigree and episodes sprinkled with Lost Easter eggs like Apollo candy bars and McCutcheon whisky. The family-hour fairy tale ranks among the season’s top-rated rookies, yet many media folks — often allergic to earnestness and partial to Buffyesque grim — haven’t been able to wholly embrace it. Here at EW, we’re constantly getting e-mails from readers that go something like: “I love [Insert show here] – but it’s not the same as Lost.”

The pursuit to fill that Island-shaped hole in our hearts will continue in 2012. Coming soon: Alcatraz (Fox, premieres Jan. 16), another high concept crypto-thriller from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot; The River (ABC, premieres Feb. 7), a sort of  ‘Amazon Horror Story’ from producers Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) and Steven Spielberg; Touch (Fox, previews on Jan. 25 and premieres on March 19), a supernatural drama starring Kiefer Sutherland, created by Heroes exec producer Tim Kring; and Awake, a parallel-world head trip from Lone Star up-and-comer Kyle Killen starring Jason Isaacs. Let us note that it remains to be seen just how much these newbies will emulate or evoke Lost, and let us also note that there are those who hope these shows won’t even try. Earlier this month, critic Heather Havrilesky, writing in The New York Times Magazine, blasted mystery serials like Homeland, American Horror Story, and The Killing for the seemingly haphazard way they spin yarns, and compared their fans to lab rats in a meaningless maze, chasing after arbitrarily placed “pellets” of seemingly rich mystery that actually possess no nutritional value at all. Ignoring all other factors, Havrilesky blamed Lost for this kind of storytelling, calling the show a “dirty bomb that [has] made the world unsafe for serial dramas to this day.” She’d rather see TV emulate more “nuanced” dramas like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. (Memo to Matthew Weiner: Hurry the hell up with that next season, because clearly people are getting cranky from the wait.)

NEXT: Even a fat and happy rat can use a break from mystery pellets.

While I reject Havrilesky’s theory about Lost‘s influence and disagree with her low opinion of Lost, I do find myself sympathetic to something of the point that she was trying to make. I, too, want less Lost-ishness from TV. In fact, if such as a thing as “the next Lost” is even possible, I don’t think it should be anything even remotely like Lost. I say this as a Havrilesky rat who loves chasing after mystery pellets (although I, too, was let down by The Killing), as a voracious consumer of dark fantasies, puzzle narratives, and epic-sized pulp fiction that dares to reach for profundity when maybe it shouldn’t. But I don’t need any more of them. Not right now, at least. I hunger more for something unique and challenging, something that clever variations of a cherished classic can’t provide. I want a mold-breaking, genre-expanding, zeitgeist-capturing storytelling machine that looks and feels unlike anything else on television right now. In other words: I want a show as original as Lost was when it captured our imaginations and colonized our brains back in 2004.

So what should “the next Lost” look like? I have no idea. That’s kind of the point when you crave risk and ambition and the shock of the new, isn’t it? However, there are a few things I don’t need from my next cult pop obsession, simply because they’ve been done sufficiently and well by Lost and its loosely related kin, or have become so commonplace as to now be clichéd. I like stories with “mythology” — but I don’t want another divine/diabolical conspiracy saga spanning decades, centuries, or millenia. I like supernatural and sci-fi elements, though they’re not essential, and I don’t need them to facilitate another meditation on the tension between religion or science. I like “complex” and “flawed” and “morally ambiguous” characters as much as any other pretentious pundit, but I don’t need more cultural avatars of redemption or vengeance. Similarly, while I yearn for the next zeitgeist show — one that knowingly or not captures the spirit of the times, that calls or expresses the moment — I’m tiring of  9/11 aftermath-recovery allegories. Unless a writer has something new to say on the subject, it’s time for TV to grapple with our post-Osama, post-Iraq world.

Do I want another show that attempts to tell a series-long saga, one that tracks character change over time yet defers the resolution of its core conflicts and key mysteries to the very last season? I love the ambition, but I’ve seen enough flawed work and failure over the past couple decades to wonder if it’s something that television — broadcast television, at least — just can’t do very well. The mandate of any TV show is to stay on the air for as long as possible by any means necessary, not to produce artful cohesion over time. I am among those who accept and admire the final form of Lost, however messy and fuzzy. Still, if “the next Lost” wants to be a multi-season telenovela with a beginning, middle, and end, I do hope it has the support of its network from the get-go, and better, gets a customized format that serves the integrity of the story, not work against it. (I am intrigued by the example of FX’s American Horror Story, whose producers announced last week that each new season will feature a new setting, new characters, and (mostly) new actors, making each year’s set of episodes a complete, wholly unique, hopefully well-realized serial.)

Having said this: Watch me wind up falling hard for something that gives me everything I think I don’t want. Like I said: I don’t know what “the next Lost” will look like. We’ll just know it when we see it — if “we” see it at all. The truth is, when people talk about wanting “the next Lost,” I think what they’re really talking about a kind of big, buzz-y water cooler show (scripted-drama category) that is becoming increasingly hard for broadcast television to develop, the kind that can compel 15 to 20 million people to watch in real time each week and get them debating it and discussing it and dissecting it to pieces in the days between episodes. I miss that cultural energy. It’s one thing to discuss Games of Thrones with my Comic-Con pals and readers of George R.R. Martin’s books. The Lost conversation — at its height — was bigger, broader. Back in 2005, it seemed like everyone wanted to know what or who was inside that damn hatch. Even people who didn’t watch Lost. Those kinds of moments, from those kinds of shows, seem to be increasingly rare in today’s fragmented, niche-oriented, target-market media environment. But never say never again. I once thought I’d never get another geeky enterprise as daring and engrossing — and popular — as The X-Files. Yet the truth was out there — waiting to be found on a trippy tropical island. Now take me somewhere else.

Read more:

‘Once Upon a Time’ I found this ‘Lost’ candy bar

Doc Jensen on ‘Lost’ One Year Later: Keeping the Faith?

Photo Gallery: ‘Lost’: Catching Up With the Cast

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