A decade after the first episode, we look at how Lost laid the groundwork for big-budget, blockbuster television
This past Sunday, PaleyFest welcomed a panel of Lost cast members and creators ten years later. Back in 04, the island mystery drama had us glued to the dull glow of our TV sets every Wednesday night to try to decode what the hell was going on. A decade on and the television landscape has undergone a vast change – for the better (and we still don't know what the hell went on). In many ways, Lost paved the way for the big-budget, blockbuster HBO-serials that we weren't ready for all those years ago (side note: 2004 saw the backside of Friends and Sex & The City and the start of House and Desperate Housewives). Post-Alias, Lost was a new highbrow, episodic drama that asked more questions than it answered. Entire dissertations have been written about how the show ultimately bowed out.
During its run, blogs sprouted up to crowdsource answers to satiate hungry viewers. "What do the numbers mean?" people primarily asked. "Why is there a polar bear on the island? What is the hatch?" All of these questions and watercooler discussion around them led to a faithful audience who followed the castaways week in and week out. The first episode of Lost drew 18.65 million viewers on ABC, with 16.33 million tuning in to see the second episode. There was no way of diving in head first – you were either there from the beginning or frantically catching up. At some points it wasn't that difficult as there were major series blackouts for months at a time. Viewers were plagued by repeats, tearing their hair out waiting for new episodes. "The ABC drama returns Oct. 4," wrote The Chicago Tribune. "That's the good news – if your idea of good news is waiting another three months to find out what is going on with the island castaways." Unfortunately, these weren't the shows only problems. It got off to quite a rocky start.
The story was midwifed by J.J. Abrams and Lloyd Braun (an ABC chairman), the latter of whom greenlit the idea and gave the show a nest egg of $12 million to get started. Disney's then-CEO Michael Eisner (ABC's parent company) was not at all thrilled with the idea, calling the show "a crazy project that's never going to work" and "a waste of time". While some more pessimistic viewers may still agree it was a waste of time, it's undeniable that TV has since trumped the silver screen. Vanity Fair's James Wolcott announced Prime Time's Graduation – an ode to a television line-up that was finally worth tuning in to. But it remains that Lost was a precursor to the big-budget, continuous plot arc that now runs rampant in television.
Then came the deluge: Grey's Anatomy in 2005. Heroes in 2006. Mad Men in 2007. Breaking Bad in 2008. Boardwalk Empire and Sherlock in 2010. Game of Thrones, Homeland, and American Horror Story in 2011. Post Lost, production budgets soared, culminating in the $60 million first season budget for HBO's Game of Thrones. Jaws may drop at the price tag to deliver something as all-encompassing as Game of Thrones, but the series is an epic of epics. Before parent conglomerates were easy with the idea of concept television, they had to be hoodwinked. Lost show creator Damen Lindelof fed a laundry list of lies to the network in order to get his show off the ground. Things like "the show will be self-contained and not have a serialized structure." Liar. "Claims the show will have no 'ultimate mystery.'" Liar. "The show won’t fit into one specific 'franchise,' but instead can be many genres, such as a doctor show, lawyer show, cop show or character drama." PANTS ON FIRE.
Regardless, a little white lie goes a long way (six years, in fact). Whether or not it had been done before, Lost claimed the continuous plot and "every character has a storyline" as its own. It broke the dam on serialised television and gave way to other blockbuster shows that followed in its wake. While it all came to a very confusing end, it continues to be debunked and still remains shrouded in mystery. The point is, we're still thinking about it ten years later, and any television show that accomplishes that is one for the history books. "The finale is just very, very important in terms of how people look back at the show," explains one of the show's producers. "As an audience member and fan, I want to turn off my TV after that last night and go, 'Wow, they really got me. All that time was worth it.'"