Why Lost Worked And Its Wannabes Don’t

While its finale brought out strongly differing opinions, its impossible for anyone to say that Lost didn’t have a massive influence on the television landscape. It was the kind of television show that encouraged you to obsess about every last detail. Every episode left the viewer with questions and hints at the truth that laid at the end of the entire series. While, the writers decided to focus the ending on wrapping up characters’ emotional arcs instead of combing over the minutiae of the mystery, I felt very satisfied. What the rest of the television producing world took away from Lost’s success was that they needed to cram their shows with as much mystique as possible.

1. Character Development
The thing about Lost most people seem to ignore is that it spent the better part of its first season focused solely on hashing the characters out. They were introduced as some fairly broad tv character types, types which the series went on to completely deconstruct in that first season. Take Jin and Sun for example: dominant Asian husband and submissive Asian wife. In that first season, the roles established in the pilot are flipped. Sun is the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Korean business mogul and Jin is the man’s hired muscle and the son of a poor fisherman. Sun and Jin’s story had nothing to do with the overall mystery arc of the series and it never needed to. While there were some easter egg elements that might have connected Sun’s father to the mystery that was simply left for the fans to mull over. Now, look at a series like Once Upon a Time (from a pair of writers on Lost), where the “great love story” plot is Snow White and Prince Charming. The entire love story is hinged entirely on the “mystery” of the show. Every single character arc in Once is ultimately tied into the core story of the show, making it an increasingly harder series to untangle when that moment comes. Which leads me to…

2. Slow Reveal of Mystery
Like I said up top, Lost didn’t delve deep into its mysteries in the first season. If you think about those first 24 episodes all we got before the season finale was 1) Ian , 2) The Hatch, 3) Rousseau, and 4) The Smoke Monster. Everything else was character work. Extrapolate this over the entire six seasons and see how much time Lost took to tell its story. Season 2 introduced us to the concept of the Dharma Initiative, and it wasn’t until the end of Season 3 that we actually got to see what Dharma was like. Even then, it was a single episode glimpse. It took till Season 5 to spend a significant amount of time with Dharma and its people. Over the year since Lost ended, I’ve actually come to like that the series left so many mysteries. My personality has always lent itself to enjoying stories that start in media res. I love the idea of a fictional universe having scope beyond the material presented to the reader/viewer. I’ve known people that have to get onboard with a comic book at #1 or they feel they have missed important things. I love playing catch up, having picked up random issues of comic as a kid and trying to imagine the rest of this world and its story. Speaking of comics…

3. Genre Without Being Genre
Lost was inspired by so much genre media, but was able to appeal to a mass audience by not limiting itself to a genre. The creators behind the show cite influences such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Twin Peaks, The Chronicles of Narnia, and many other works of fiction that are typically compartmentalized by genre. If you had pin Lost down then it would probably have to be an amalgam of science fiction and magic realism. There wasn’t enough hard sci fi to make it fall completely into that genre and there was enough explanation that it wasn’t entirely fantasy. And, in tying in with points #1 and  #2, the creators took their time wheeling out the genre elements of the series. The strange science fiction weirdness of Dharma didn’t become a plot element until the second season and the time travel pieces of the show were introduced in the third season.

So what shows are attempting to capitalize on the Lost audience? From the current television landscape I would pin Fringe, The Walking Dead, Once Upon a Time, and American Horror Story as the most recent and prominent examples of the post-Lost serial drama. I’ve attempted to watch Fringe a number of time and, while I love many of the fun and riskier chances they take, it started with too much of a procedural bent (a la The X-Files), and it was firmly planted in the science fiction genre from the get go.

The Walking Dead has tried to shorthand character development in the most unpleasant way. Characters in the Walking Dead haven’t been established as humans outside of the zombie apocalypse and the show doesn’t know if its a survival piece or character piece. For example, the second season’s search for Sophia plot defied the survival angle of the story. Characters functioned simply as plot delivery devices to make sure the cast was sidetracked for the season.

American Horror Story lessened its Lost ties with the most recent announcement that it would be a season long anthology series, meaning all the mystery of the first season stayed in the first season. This in my opinion was the smart thing to do. The first season has plenty of mystery to keep the viewer intrigued and delivered some strong character moments. It also ended with many smaller background mysteries left hanging which helped to make that universe feel alive.

Finally, the worst abuser of the Lost audience is Once Upon a Time. The show has zero mystery and   in fact spoils everything in the pilot. By the end of that episode, we know exactly how all the characters have come from the fantasy world to the real world, we know who did it, and we know a considerable amount about how it will be fixed. If the creators had wanted to hook viewers in a strong way, they would have cut the fantasy world pieces (which reveal what could have been an interesting reveal throughout the series) and focused entirely on the real world. Once also decided to make callbacks to Lost, tossing Apollo Candy Bars and McCutcheon Whiskey into episodes, which seems pointless as those items were used to create connections in the Lost universe. In Once, they serve no purpose other than to nudge the viewer as if to say “Seeeee, just like Lost!”

The shows that have created feelings as strong in me as Lost have been character driven dramas: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones. These shows understand we are drawn in ultimately by riveting characters. Intrigue and mystery are important elements, yes, but without developed characters to populate the world the mystery ends up hollow.

Once Upon a Time, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Fringe,

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