'Lost' turns 10: Doc Jensen looks back (and forward)
On September 22, 2004, a wild pop romance—a torrid affair between audience and story—took flight. 18.65 million viewers tuned into ABC to watch Oceanic Flight 815 crash on a strange island, leaving an eclectic cross-section of archetypes on a vast spit of mystery. Here, on the 10th anniversary of Lost‘s premiere, we remember a first date for the ages.
Produced for $14 million and shot by director J.J. Abrams with Spielbergian verve, the two-hour pilot immediately sucked us into an exotic survival saga and a shrewdly formulated allegory for a fractured, catastrophe-frazzled world. It captured your imagination by promising a journey with global vision, packed with endless adventure and electrifying discovery—and by making you wonder how long this land-locked, no-escape ironic odyssey could last as the kind of perpetual storytelling machine American television requires.
Perhaps part of our attraction to Lost was the implicit danger. We knew we had fallen for this kind of sexy crackerjack before: take Twin Peaks, or The X-Files. We knew it could burn us by turning incoherent over time, or by withholding answers it may never have had in the first place. We jumped into it anyway, hoping for happily ever after.
Pop culture anniversaries can often be “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” affairs. Lost requires a more complex remembrance. You can’t recall how it hooked all of us without also recalling how it dissatisfied so many. Waxing nostalgic about that seductive, sublime first season—the simplicity of the macro narrative; the artful intricacy of the flashback storytelling structure; the poignancy of its gracious humanism; the adventure, the humor, all those glittering mysteries!—reminds those ultimately unfulfilled by Lost of their misplaced faith, and what the show had become by the sixth and final season.
Lost‘s treatment of its core themes—redemption, community, survival—started earthy and existential and finished esoteric and mystic. A show that originally seemed to embrace (and question) all worldviews appeared to pick favorites, choosing the “man of faith” over the “man of science.”
In the aftermath, we are left with Losties who feel certain that they were loved, Losties who feel jilted, and an enduring conflict between the two parties that boils with the rancor of a bitter custody battle: How do we remember Lost? Was it a success or failure? Who decides? Who gets to be the caretaker of its memory? If there is one thing I hate about Lost—and it is probably the only thing I, an ardent, gonzo acolyte of Lost, truly hate about the show–is how its evolving vision (unintentionally) fractured the show’s vibrant fan community, and how its well-meaning wont for never-ending, friendly debate over the show’s finale has resulted in never-ending, unfriendly fighting over the show’s merit and meaning.
What is certain is that Lost helped change the way we watch and talk about television. A once-passive experience processed the next day around the water cooler is now an interactive experience parsed immediately via social media, recaps, and blogs. Of course, Lost reminds us that this kind of cultural interaction can also be a messy, flawed affair. Case in point: Me. I wrestle with the value of my contribution to the conversation. The overthinking. The projections. The emotional enmeshment. My constant theorizing—sometimes cheeky, more often sincere—cultivated the notion that Lost was a puzzle to be solved, not a story to be enjoyed. What I regret the most is season 6. Those frustrated by the show’s oblique, confounding story needed clear-eyed, common sense analysis—not one last hurrah of my absurd shtick. I am sorry.
The legacy of Lost is seen in shows that try to cultivate following and fervor not so much by replicating its strategies, but by modulating them to minimize their risk. Few, if any, have produced Lost-level results. Heroes—hatched as Lost was beginning to exasperate viewers—attracted eyeballs with high-speed plotting, then realized it wasn’t sustainable, then flailed for better solutions. Fringe launched running scared of serialization and mythology; it stumbled. The precedent of Lost seeded, or at least surely makes appealing, binge media like Netflix and the anthology format represented by True Detective and American Horror Story—single season blasts of weird fiction. Big saga TV thrives in the form of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, whose viewers don’t have the same “Do you have a master plan?” angst that Lost fans had: the series bibles are available at a book store near you. These are shows for a culture that frets bold, demanding storytelling as much as it craves and celebrates it.
The 10 year anniversary of Lost recalls the extraordinary moment to which it belongs: The bloom of the so-called new golden age of television. Lost suffers in comparison to more realized statements like The Sopranos. But we must remind ourselves that TV, and broadcast TV in particular, is tougher soil than cinema for auteurism to flourish. Not every show launches fully formed, and many find their identity on the fly. Lost was not born a passion project (ABC originated the concept; the pilot was developed and produced in a quick 14 weeks), although it became one for showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse and their collaborators. (Full disclosure: Since Lost, Damon and I have developed a professional relationship. I worked with him as a writer and executive producer on the forthcoming Disney film Tomorrowland.) You can remember their effort as a swing for greatness that fell short, or you can remember their work as part of a movement that has stretched the medium and our expectations of it. I choose the latter.
I won’t celebrate the Lost anniversary by re-watching it. TV shows belong to the time they were made; when they end, they should be left behind. I would rather use this time to gamble on a show written for today, about who we are now.
Lost was the greatest love of my TV watching life… so far. I wait for the next one. And I wait for a better one. Because of Lost, it’s a happily-ever-after dream I expect to come true.