Lost: How a plane crash changed television
Neil Brazier | On 07, Sep 2014
We look back at the show’s legacy and how it changed the face of modern TV.
Lost changed TV when it was first released in September 2004. Now, as we celebrate its 10 year anniversary, the series has finally joined the other big-hitters of the last decade on subscription VOD. While it may be behind them in the streaming stakes, though, it blazed a trail that continues to light up living rooms.
Originally envisioned as a dramatised version of Survivor, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had their own visions for the Golden Globe-winning phenomenon. During the show’s third season, the two writers decided that it needed an end date if they were to be able to tell the story they wanted. In an unprecedented move, the end date was granted and the pair had a goal to work towards, relieving the worry of having to pad out episodes with lots of little stories, such as how Jack got his tattoos.
What first set Lost out from the rest of the TV crowd was its budget. The pilot episode cost an unheard of (for a network pilot) $10 million. The money was well spent, though, with the show’s visual effects similar to that of a movie – 10 years later, they still look crisp and sharp on repeat viewings. The opening reveal of the crashed plane on a beach created a beautiful dichotomy of tragedy and hope, as survivors clamoured together to help each other through the situation.
The cost of that pilot was more than three times the standard TV fare, but since the success of the show, networks have been a little more giving to promising programmes. Boardwalk Empire, the period drama set in 1930s Atlantic City and starring Steve Buscemi with the pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, had a projected cost of $18 million. The Spielberg-produced dino show Terra Nova cost $14 million. Even Game of Thrones’ budget was upwards of $6 million.
The marketing was equally groundbreaking. When first promoting Lost, advertising went into overdrive – ABC decided campaigns for the new TV season would only focus on their two flagship shows, Lost and Desperate Housewives. When the gamble paid off, they continued to break the rules by promoting the show online. Webisodes – a now common term – were aired during the off-seasons and viral marketing websites were set up, which would allow the public access to secret Dharma files and information all in keeping with the show’s mythos.
It worked: people were talking about Lost. Internet forums were flooded with topics discussing the island and what exactly was going on. Theories surrounding each new mystery began to sprout up. Some were close to what happened, others way off the mark, while some were plain ridiculous – cf. Shannon’s missing inhaler – but nothing was ever spot on. Episodes were scrutinised in great detail; if Kate swept her hair out of her face in a certain way, that meant something to someone about the plot.
The devil was in the detail and that applied to the cast too. Characters were changed to suit the actors, after interpretations at audition blew the writers away. The biggest change surrounded the lead, Jack, who was originally going to be played by Michael Keaton. The script, however, had him killed off in the first episode, so Keaton pulled out. Matthew Fox was cast in his place and, of course, Dr. Jack Sheppard became the most integral character to the entire show.
While none of the cast were huge Hollywood stars (at least at the time), shows post-Lost that want to succeed now know they need to attach a big name to the show. Sons of Anarchy has Ron Perlman; True Detective has Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson; Game of Thrones cast Sean Bean; The Walking Dead has Andrew Lincoln. The sense of bringing the big screen to the small is of great appeal to viewers; those who watched Lost with its high production values and striking visuals certainly feel that way.
But as well as inspiring networks to open their cheque books, Lost has also encouraged writers to be a little bolder in their scripts. Lost dealt with grand scale themes on a small stage, primarily life and death; science and faith. Each of these were examined in both black and white terms – literally, in some cases.
That coherence is down to the dedication of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who worked hard to keep the secrets of the island safe. Even in the modern, inter-connected world, spoilers were difficult to come by, thanks in part to the writers throwing red herrings and downright lying about where they were going to take the show.
Lindelof’s return to television comes later this month with The Leftovers, a series set three years after an event causes the disappearance of 2 per cent of the world’s population. Liv Tyler and Christopher Ecclestone take a step from Hollywood to be part of the cast and there is a return of the grand theme of faith versus science.
This new series is based on the Tom Perrotta novel and when asked about dealing with the great question of the missing population, Lindelof told The Hollywood Reporter: “It’s very freeing not worrying about that. The book doesn’t deal with that resolution, and that becomes established very soon within the narrative.”
Lost’s impact on The Leftovers is perhaps most closely felt here. By being based on a novel, the show has created itself a limited lifespan, at least until a decision is made to move away from the source material.
The mystery / sci-fi / drama genre, meanwhile, has been hit with copycats trying to emulate the success of Lost. None have.
One show hoping to break the mould is The After from X-Files creator Chris Carter. The After was a result of the Amazon Originals scheme where pilot episodes are watched and rated by the general public. The After was one of the most popular pilots – receiving 800 star ratings, the next highest being Bosch with 416 – and was green-lit by Amazon Studios for an eight episode run. Plot details are, in Lost tradition, thin on the ground; Amazon has described the series as focused on eight strangers, who must survive a strange and unpredictable post-apocalyptic world.
But are we ready for another show like Lost? The new breed of series formed in the hole left by it tended to start well but their ratings declined rapidly, as viewers tuned out. The Event’s pilot received 10.88 million viewers but by the end of the 22-episode run, only 5.83 million were tuning in. Flash Forward started by pulling in 12.47 million but was down to 5.08 million by the climax of its one and only season. Alcatraz ranked just over 10 million at the beginning but finished with only 4.75 million. The latter failed despite having former Lost creator JJ Abrams on board as executive producer.
Lost’s viewing figures were the reverse of that trend, at least for the first season: 18.65 million tuned in for the pilot, which increased to 20.71 million for the conclusion. The second season posted strong numbers, although people had started to leave by the end of the third. The Season 5 finale saw only 9.43 million viewers tune in to watch Juliet versus the nuke.
But even at its lowest, Lost still brought in 8.29 million fans – and that was the episode for which Michael Emmerson won an Emmy as Outstanding Supporting Actor. Every show has its ups and downs, but for Lost, its downs were still up. (In comparison, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. averaged around six million viewers for its first season, numbers dangerously close to those that have seen shows cancelled. The current popularity and pull of the Marvel brand is probably the only thing that has saved it.) The After, meanwhile, received the highest number of ratings but scored the second lowest score of Amazon’s batch of five pilots – 58 per cent of its ratings were five stars, far below the also-commissioned Bosch (81 per cent).
Quality television has never been more available to view with new shows debuting online and companies such as Amazon and Netflix producing their own exclusive content. This boom in superior series can, in part, be attributed to Lost’s success – if not its high-concept premise, then its big budget, quality visuals and gripping story lines.
When Oceanic Flight 815 crashed on an island in the Pacific Ocean, the survivors naturally felt rescue was a few short hours away. When it didn’t arrive for several seasons, some of the survivors went in search of the black box and found they were hours off course and out of contact. These people were Lost and they would change the landscape of television forever.