This month a number of notable television series are returning to the small screen (just how small depends on what you’re watching shows on – considering the amount of devices people view TV shows, it could be pretty small), with the usual accompaniment of hype and fanfare. “Game of Thrones” returned to the fantastical realms of Westeros this weekend and next weekend “Mad Men” begins its protracted final season. And as exciting as these shows are, we can’t help but think back to a few years ago, when “Lost” was still on the air. Back then, it felt like the only show people were watching. And now, on the tenth anniversary of its premiere, it’s worth noting that nothing in the years since has come close to eclipsing its zeitgeist-seizing sway. Why, in the past ten years, hasn’t there been a show to rival “Lost?”
“Lost” was initially conceived, by former ABC executive Lieber, as a kind of fictionalized version of the popular reality series “Survivor.” When he took the project to Abrams and Lindelof, what he got back was something far more breathtaking (and a whole lot weirder). Yes, a group of survivors would be stranded on a jungle island. But instead of an arbitrary, “Lord of the Flies”-y situation where people entrenched themselves in clearly defined camps and voted other survivors off of the island, the show would take a different approach – they would devote each episode to a single character, interspersing the island adventure with flashbacks (and, in later seasons, flash forwards and whatever the hell was going on in the sideways universe). Mysteries would deepen weekly, as would our understanding of the characters.
And almost from the word “go,” the show was a smash. And a different kind of smash. Yes, critics got behind it and the ratings were strong. But this was a show that people talked about, endlessly, online and in person. They spun wild theories and brought in outside reading materials to try and make sense of the mysteries. It was a wholly inclusive experience, unlike any television show that had come before it. And as the seasons went on, the creators of the show fed the fan appetite as well – there were all sorts of viral marketing tidbits, a series of online-only “webisodes,” the release of a tie-in novel that only tangentially connected to the series – creating a rich universe all its own, both adored and influenced by its viewers.
One of the most deft and entertaining “Lost” enthusiasts during the series’ heyday was Jeff Jensen, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, who would both recap and speculate (wildly) on what everything meant and where the series was headed. What’s interesting about Jensen’s investment in the series is that it came at a particularly difficult time for him personally. “It was during the third season of the show when my wife was diagnosed with brain cancer,” Jensen told Indiewire. “It was at that time that I had to dial work way back and take care of business at home. And what I found, as a caretaker for someone with cancer, is that it can actually be really boring.”
Jensen’s caretaking was only “boring” because his wife, with her steely
resolve, only allowed him to fuss over her so much. His days were left
largely unoccupied, which gave him a nearly endless amount of time to
dig into the show’s equally endless mythology.
His wife’s diagnosis aligned with the series’ regular recapper leaving the magazine, so Jensen combined his theoretical pieces with episode recaps to create sprawling, emotionally charged pieces that were oftentimes more entertaining than the show itself. “It was hard for me to not bring that to the writing,” Jensen said, of the way that his emotional state would often show itself in the recaps, which he described as “crazy theories that suddenly morph into pretentious, overly sincere philosophizing.”
Looking back on the show’s legacy, Jensen put it in context. “I think that ‘Lost’ connected with the audience at a very specific and unique time in the evolution of television,” he said. “I kind of look at ‘Lost’ as one of the last traditional monoculture TV phenomenon. That was a show that, at its height, was doing 23 million people a week in viewers. That’s not unheard of in today’s media-verse but they’re franchise shows. It was still at a time when it was all about same time viewing. But now we watch television differently. Our phenomenons are different.”
When “Lost” was initially on, you mostly had to actually watch it while it aired on television. The replaying of episodes online was still in early stages and there was no Netflix Instant. If you wanted to catch up, your best bet was to wait for the DVD box sets to arrive. “The show wasn’t designed for mass consumption,” said Arija Weddle, a Pediatric Resident at Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and one of the bigger fans of the show.
Weddle recently talked to a friend’s sister who was binge-watching the series, and was struck by the amount of repetition there was in each episode, unlike more series today which take into consideration the fact that a percentage of people will watch the entire thing over a long weekend. Katie Walsh, whose TV recaps for The Playlist are some of the best online, said that the series “bridged the gap from appointment viewing to binge watching.” In other words: “Lost” was a gateway drug.
“We have seen pop culture phenomenons but they play out differently,” Jensen said. “These shows are phenomenons in their own way that are somewhat similar to ‘Lost’ but they behave and look differently. They grab people’s imagination…but not all at once.”
The internet also had a huge impact on the show, since the way that fans interacted with their favorite creations was changing as “Lost” chugged along. “Lost” transpired when, as Jensen says, “social media and the internet became the base for television fandom. This whole idea where after you watch a show, you go on the internet, you go on your favorite message board, happened during ‘Lost.'”
Weddle recalled that transition in vivid terms. “I remember putting NO ‘LOST’ SPOILERS up on Facebook. I don’t remember doing that before,” she said, pointing to the “meta-commenting machine” that sprang up around the show.
“‘Lost’ engaged our imagination and mysteries in two different ways: it engaged us in history and certain phenomena and historical events on the island,” she said. “You imagine there are hard and definitive answers to things like the full and complete history of the Dharma Initiative. But then there’s the other kind of mystery that the show communed with thematically and viscerally. Questions like, ‘What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of existence?’ These kind of core human concerns. Questions with unknowable answers.”
More recently, “Breaking Bad” gripped the public consciousness in a way similar to “Lost” — although fan theorizing regarding that series was fairly limited and constrained to the mortal fates of most of the characters. With “Breaking Bad,” fans weren’t left speculating about the cosmic inter-connectedness of the characters or quoting passages from obscure Warren Ellis comic books. Instead, they simply shrugged and said, “I think Walter will probably die.”
Jensen points to a single show that has tapped into the kind of metaphysical quagmire that “Lost” frequently engaged with: HBO’s “True Detective.” “It’s one of the few shows since ‘Lost’ that really captured our imagination for, What is the nature of this show? Similarly to ‘Lost,’ what was fascinating to me about the cultural conversation was you had different constituencies arguing for what the show should be.”
Obviously something as bold and as popular as “Lost” would inspire imitators, things like short-lived, mythology-based series like “Invasion” and “Surface” and larger, more widely accepted stuff (initially, at least) like “Heroes.” But those never connected; there was always a piece of the puzzle that was missing, either strong enough characters or deeply devoted back-stories or the kind of precision-made craftsmanship of the episodes. The alchemy was never right; things were too archy or nerdy or perverse. And even things like “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad” were never embraced as expansively. Ten years later, and everyone is still looking for the survivors of Flight 815.
Jensen, for one, looks back on his coverage of “Lost” fondly, and has forged a new relationship with “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof: the two have worked together on a screenplay for the upcoming Disney mega-movie “Tomorrowland” (directed by Brad Bird). For more actual viewers like Weddle, they simply miss the experience. It’s hard to get as excited about any TV show after “Lost,” even with its ups and downs (Weddle points to the back-and-forth between the creators and fans as part of the reason for its “downfall”). Still, even with its issues, one thing is for sure: In the decade since it aired, there’s never been anything like it since.
“None of these shows have the broad-based popularity or intensity of ‘Lost’ at its height,” Jensen said. “And we may never see anything like that again.”
Below, watch “Lost: Unraveling the Mystery,” a hardcore fan investigation into the show’s mysteries: