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‘You Can’t Kill the White Guy’: Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s Epic History of ‘Lost’

'You Can't Kill the White Guy': Javier Grillo-Marxuach's Epic History of 'Lost'

Javier Grillo-Marxuach has done many things — created the cult TV show “The Middleman,” worked on more than a dozen others, including “Medium” and, most recently, “Helix,” even written a beguiling collection of essays, “Shoot This One,” on his years in the biz — but if he died tomorrow, there’s one word you can count on being in the first line of his obituary: “Lost.” Grillo-Marxuach was there at the beginning of a show that would help to define both the possibilities and the limitations of a new era of network television, and apart from Damon Lindelof, he hung on longer than any of the writers who fleshed out in surprising detail who Jack, Kate, Locke, Sawyer, Hurley, Sun, Jin and the rest were, and who they had been.

Grillo-Marxuach, who eventually departed near the end of “Lost’s” second season, has told pieces of his story before. But in a nearly 17,000-word post on his blog, he puts them all together as never before, and it’s a fascinating read, a in-the-trenches view of how pressurized brainstorming and the exigencies of TV production combine to make shows work the way they do.

One of the best pieces of “Lost” trivia is that the Jack character was intended to be killed in the pilot: J.J. Abrams envisioned a massive fake-out, hoping to cast Michael Keaton in the role, have him do interviews pretending he was to be a series regular, then shock the audience by killing him off 15 minutes in. But Grillo-Marxuach, who’d already logged more than a decade in the industry, didn’t think Abrams could sell it to the brass.

On our second day at work, JJ and Damon brought in numbered hard copies of the pilot for the think tank to read and on which to give feedback. My most salient note on the pilot was that murdering the one white male character with a discernible skillset that could serve to generate stories — at the very least Jack was a doctor — would not go over well with the network.

In truth, my response was a lot less politically correct, informed as it was by my decade-plus experience as a Puerto Rican working in Hollywood. 

What I really said was “You can’t kill the white guy….”

So when JJ and Damon returned from their first network notes session with a slightly bemused expression, I asked how the notes session went. I was not shocked when Damon shrugged with a not inconsiderable amount of contempt for his unimaginative corporate overlords and reported that, “We can’t kill the white guy.”

Grillo-Marxuach explains how establishing the “Lost” we came to know was part of a delicate balancing act, planning the show’s elaborate mythology on one end while assuring the network that they wouldn’t get lost in endlessly serialized quasi-mystical nonsense on the other. The flashbacks — a critical element that was added relatively late in the game, long after the characters’ backstories had been worked out — became a way of bridging the two worlds, providing self-contained stories while advancing the overall narrative.

By the time the show was picked up, we knew — at least in theory — that we had an episodic structure that could sustain at least dozens of stories without giving up the secrets of the island — such as we had developed them. The idea of dedicating one of each of our first set of episodes to a major character, focusing on their backstory and some struggle on the island made us see the longevity of the series beyond a “case of the week” (or rather an “island problem of the week”). The serialized format, then, was ultimately something that we simultaneously insisted on but also sort of snuck past the goalie by finding a middle ground where stories could also be self-contained.

This is how the battle of twenty-two episode a year network television is fought and won. Not by relying on lone geniuses to come up with everything (though they sometimes do), but by relying on the geniuses to inspire their staffs (which hopefully comprise a few geniuses) with great ideas that generate tons of further ideas — some good, some bad, and some downright insane — and then cherry-pick the best of the best and integrate them into the show.

Finally, Grillo-Marxuach answers the burning question, the one he’s been asked more than any other (and is good-naturedly enormously tired of answering): Did the writers know what they were doing in advance, or did they make it all up as they went along? The answer, as people who know the workings of the television industry may have guessed, is “Yes.” The details of the Dharma Initiative (even if it was then called the Medusa Corporation), the tailies, the Others — they were all there before a second of “Lost” hit the airwaves. But Grillo-Marxuach admits he never heard the name “Jacob” during his two years in the writers’ room, nor any reference to the man in black. The ideas were there, but their dramatic realization came later. 

First we built a world. Then we filled it with an ensemble of flawed but interesting characters — people who were real to us, people with enough depth in their respective psyches to withstand years of careful dramatic analysis. Then we created a thrilling and undeniable set of circumstances in which these characters had to bond together and solve problems in interesting ways. 

Soon thereafter, we created a way for you to witness their pasts and compare the people they once were with the people they were in the process of becoming. While that was going on, we also created an entire 747s worth of ideas, notions, fragments, complications, and concepts that would — if properly and thoughtfully mined — yield enough narrative fiction to last as long as our corporate overlords would demand to feed their need for profit and prestige, and then, just to be sure, teams of exceptionally talented people worked nonstop to make sure the 747 never emptied out.

And then we made it all up as we went. 

After four years away from the show, Grillo-Marxuach admits he was shocked by the finale: His initial response, he says, was “Why’s Henry Gale still on this show and how did he become the most important man in the universe?” But it was also clear to him, even without knowing the intervening four years’ worth of accumulated mysteries — perhaps because of it? — that it was not set in purgatory, a persistent fan theory he puts to rest with as much force as he can muster.

Even after watching the series finale following a four-year absence from any exposure to the show, it was pretty clear to me that only after clearing up whatever insanity was happening on the island did Jack die… and then found himself in a pan-denominational spiritual halfway house where his father’s spirit explained that — because the events of the island were so significant to the ensemble of “Lost” — they had all been brought here to wait for one another so that they would all ascend together. Frankly, I found it to be a nice spiritual grace note, but it most certainly was not a confirmation that the island was purgatory.

There, now you know. Go with God.

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