15 Years Ago, ‘Lost’ Changed Television Forever

Lost anniversary

An eye opens, widening as it takes in its surroundings. A man with a five o’clock shadow is lying down in the middle of a forest, nearly gasping for air. He’s wearing a suit and looks entirely at odds with the remote setting. And then, a dog saunters by. The man gets up and seems to realize how he’s arrived here, his confused gait turning into a headlong run. Upon exiting the forest, he passes one person, then another, as silence turns into deafening background noise. There are the remnants of a commercial plane on the sand of a tropical beach, where the man and every other survivor of the crash has landed.

Such was the beginning of the ABC TV series Lost, and the beginning of a brave new world where the demarcation points between television and film began blurring. 

Live Together, Die Alone

Coming just a few years after the success of Cast Away as well as the game-changing reality show Survivor, Lost might have seemed like an obvious win on paper, combining the recent fad of remote islands with dramatic stakes. But the pilot episode that aired 15 years ago, on September 22, 2004, was as ever-changing and surprising in its conception as it was to the millions of viewers who flocked to ABC on premiere night. The setup of the show was deceptively, almost maddeningly simple: what would happen to the disparate survivors of a plane that crash-lands in the middle of a tropical paradise harboring a few secrets of its own?

The task of bringing this show to life first fell to writer Jeffrey Lieber, who wrote a pilot in the fall of 2003 that failed to impress ABC executives. The following January, Lloyd Braun, then-chairman of ABC Entertainment, asked J.J. Abrams, best known then as the creator of Alias and Felicity, to take a crack at the idea. Abrams agreed as long as he had a writing partner for the job. Damon Lindelof, then known for his work on the NBC procedural Crossing Jordan, was that writing partner. Their work so impressed ABC that the 21-page outline they came up with was approved to be turned into a two-hour pilot episode.

Over the next 12 weeks, the show was cast with a diverse ensemble. Abrams himself would direct the two-hour pilot, which found its male character from the aforementioned opening moments later in the game. As diehard fans of the show already know, Dr. Jack Shephard wasn’t going to be an integral figure in the original conception; in fact, in the pilot script, he died halfway through. As Abrams told Entertainment Weekly years later, ABC “really resented” that twist. (Had Shephard been killed off mid-pilot, it’s possible he would’ve been played by Michael Keaton.)

Where Are We?

Watching the pilot in 2019, what makes it seem distinct isn’t just its massive cast — in the first season, there were 14 regular cast members — or even its twist-filled story, culminating as a smaller group of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 realize that there’s been an SOS radio call playing on a loop for over 15 years on the island. Lost felt cinematic in 2004 in ways that most other TV shows couldn’t possibly hope to have achieved. By the mid-2000s, cable television was breaking content boundaries network TV couldn’t thanks to regulations by the Federal Communications Commission. The profanity, gory violence, and sexuality in cable shows like Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Shield simply couldn’t be presented in the same way on a network like ABC.

One of the most notable flourishes of the program was established early on in the pilot: flashbacks. For characters like Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (newcomer Evangeline Lilly), Charlie (Dominic Monaghan, fresh off the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and Sawyer (Josh Holloway), we wouldn’t just watch how their personalities morphed and expanded after the crash. We’d learn about who they were beforehand — Kate wasn’t just a pretty face, but an escaped fugitive; Sawyer was a con artist; the garrulous Hurley (Jorge Garcia) was a lottery winner cursed with bad luck — back in the real world. But both the real world and the island would exist in the same filming location: Oahu. 

Where Lost was able to stand out was with the scope of its on-island sequences. The setting along with the massive set of the crashed plane made the pilot for Lost, at the time, one of the most expensive episodes of television ever made, at $12 million. It would be wrong to suggest that every visual element of the two-part Lost pilot holds up as well now as it did in 2004 — from a storytelling standpoint, it’s truly shocking for the characters to inexplicably encounter a vicious polar bear in the tropics, but the VFX are…not great — but the scope of the show was unlike anything on network television at the time.

Two Players, Two Sides

Prior to Lost, there had been a few daring visual experiments in modern network TV. Perhaps the most notable, and the most successful, was the Fox action drama 24. The conceit of the show was that each episode was designed to take place in real time over a single hour. Each season, thus, took place over the span of 24 straight hours in the life of secret agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as he attempted to stop various worldwide calamities from occurring. The show invoked split screens, digital readouts, rapid-fire editing, and more, to get across the sense of real-time suspense and action. 

After its pilot, Lost wouldn’t hem itself into such a specific timeline, but revealed itself to be many different shows in one. Yes, there was always the tension of what was happening to the survivors on the island as they attempted to be rescued by anyone from the outside world. But depending on which character took the flashback spotlight in a given week, the show’s template was malleable enough that it could change. If Kate was the character of the week, the show could be a blend of star-crossed romance and action. With Jack, the show was a melodramatic medical procedural. The flashback episodes featuring South Korean married couple Jin and Sun (Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim) turned the show into a perceptive look at a different culture’s presentation of gender roles. And so on.

Within the pilot, many of the characters’ pasts are hinted at, as is the inevitable rancor among them. One of the more heroic characters on the show, Sayid (Naveen Andrews), is treated kindly enough until many of the American characters grow wary after hearing that he had been in the Iraqi Republican Guard, leading to tussling with the Southern-fried con artist Sawyer. What’s remarkable now is how so much of the show’s storytelling felt grand even in its first episode, grander than the small screen would normally allow. Minor character dramas would play out on such a large stage, with life or death hanging every week in the balance.

Tabula Rasa

If Lost was influential to the future of television because of its visual and storytelling scope, it was also influential to the career of arguably one of the most popular filmmakers of his generation. Fifteen years ago, J.J. Abrams had not directed a single feature film; he’d written or co-written a few films, including the underrated 2001 thriller Joy Ride. The ABC spy drama Alias had proven that he had some tricks up his sleeve, with its own extended pilot episode (which he directed) owing a debt to the German action film Run Lola Run. J.J. Abrams’ directorial career soared thanks to his work on shows like Alias and Lost.

That isn’t just rank speculation or criticism, either. After development issues continued to dog the proposed third Mission: Impossible film, star Tom Cruise wound up binge-watching Alias (as detailed in behind-the-scenes materials on the DVD). That show proved Abrams’ capabilities at writing an entertaining mix of spycraft and romance. Lost’s pilot, however, proved that Abrams could mount something akin to a mammoth feature-length blockbuster. 

The mix of experience on each of these shows — notably, Abrams only ever directed the two-part pilot of Lost before other directors took up the baton — manifested in Mission: Impossible III. The in-office IMF sequences feel straight out of Alias, down to Simon Pegg’s nerdy tech character seeming like a big-screen version of Alias’ Marshall. But the various action sequences, from Ethan Hunt running through the streets of Shanghai to an early helicopter chase, evoke the sweaty, propulsive quality of Lost’s opening hours, as hapless characters run through the forest in the hopes of finding salvation.

Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do

Leaving aside Abrams’ career and how high he’s risen since the Lost pilot, Lost didn’t just inspire a handful or two of copycat genre dramas. (Remember Flash Forward? The Nine? Vanished? Sure you do.) What the show proved, both in its pilot and over six seasons, was that network television no longer had to be hemmed in. The way that Abrams reveals what Jack is seeing after waking up in the forest — the way he and cinematographer Larry Fong gradually allow us to understand the severity and massive size of the tragedy of Oceanic Flight 815 — was akin to a boxy, pan-and-scan aspect ratio being expanded to CinemaScope. 

We are now in an era where major films feel more like massive-length installments in overarching TV series, and where TV creators are constantly talking about making seasons the equivalent of a 12-hour movie. (To cherry-pick an example, the speculation that Andy Muschietti may have a 6-plus hour version of the two It films that would mix and match when you see the young and older versions of the Losers Club really just sounds like Muschietti has a miniseries-length version of It.) The blend of storylines, the scope of big-screen storytelling on a small screen, and the vast ensembles never existed before in this specific package of ingredients the way they did on Lost.

When it premiered in the fall of 2004, Lost felt like a risk because it was something unlike just about anything else on TV. Unlike most procedurals, Lost required you to watch each episode — sure, you could pick up some of the broad details, but you’d be pretty…well, lost without knowing each hour backwards and forwards. Unlike the rest of scripted network TV, Lost didn’t often feel as if it was being shot on the same old soundstage, in the same old hospital or courtroom or office setting. Lost was a wildly ambitious show from its first two hours, with a multicultural cast, a roller-coaster pace, and a bevy of twists that only hinted at the wildness to come over the next six years. Abrams has gone onto massive international acclaim, and Lindelof is just weeks away from unveiling his take on the seminal graphic novel Watchmen. That show will premiere on HBO, if only because of that premium channel’s ability to house R-rated content. But whatever it looks like, and however breathlessly tense it feels, it’ll only be there as a heady mix of genre and adult content because of Lost.

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