As we’ve discussed in recent weeks celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the show’s premiere, Lost was a rather groundbreaking effort in the landscape of television. One made all the more remarkable given how, looking back at the early seasons, it didn’t necessarily have that intent. And nowhere is its continual impact more evident than in the myriad of TV series it’s spawned or inspired in one grand way or another. Even those that don’t want to be the next Lost may still be taking a number of cues from it.
Yet, none have managed to pick up the mantle. Many of the series’ fundamental ideals, like high concepts and large ensembles, have been adopted, but the core elements of what made it quality are left ignored or unrealized. True, Lost is a lot of potential to live up to, and it may be a while before anyone succeeds just because of how far ahead of its time the show was. At the same time, there are plenty of ideas that similarly genre- and concept-driven material could better take advantage of. And here are just some of the lessons more shows could afford to learn from Lost.
Don’t Rush Into Your Concept
Season one of Lost remains remarkable for a number of key reasons, among them being how little actually occurs in terms of the grand Island mythology – the kind that came to define the series in its latter years. Indeed, upon suggestion from JJ Abrams himself, showrunner Damon Lindelof held off for almost a dozen episodes before even letting the characters – and viewers – know that there were already other people on the Island. A twist that would reverberate well across the seasons.
But more than that, the first season is about the characters of the show, and this is what really helped it to stand out. Sure, the pilot gave us little bits of the bizzareness to come, like a few brief encounters with a yet-unseen smoke monster. But those elements were stacked up against the overwhelming feel and contemplation of these individuals in the wake of a plane crash. The resulting examination of community, as well as the pre-Island vs. Island character effect, is the primary focus of the first season. And as result, both were a mainstay throughout the entirety of the show, keeping it firmly grounded in its emotional components even as the concepts and mythology grew denser and more complex.
Flash Forward, Revolution, and Terra Nova are foremost of the shows that have struggled with this idea. Lost let the primary guiding conceptual element for the beginning of its run be the plane crash itself, whereas all these other shows have rushed headlong into the conceptual side of things, leaving all other elements of the show wanting. And while it’s true to say that the initial concept is vital in establishing the entire premise of the show, it’s rarely parceled out in a careful enough manner to provide the needed focus on other aspects, like characters.
Know How to Utilize Your Ensemble
A large cast of characters can be an exciting idea, especially when paired with high concepts. If utilized well, different character pairings can bring so much to a show through complicated relationships and conflicts. Almost from the get-go, Lost knew how to do this well, because it knew how to prioritize. In the pilot episode, Locke – who goes on to become one of the show’s most important characters – barely says a word. And he doesn’t need to; along with many others, he stays in the background for most of the opening, and his importance only comes out a couple episodes down the line. This shift allows for the primary focus to remain on central characters Jack and Kate, while other important members of the cast shift in and out. Lost never attempts to define multiple characters all at once over the course of one episode.
Flash Forward struggled immensely to make its characters compelling, but could never find the right mark. This was in part due to its insistence on giving so much focus to the world-wide blackout period, and in part because it just struggled under the weight of how large it was. Once Upon a Time – a show run by former Lost writers and with more Lost actors than any other on television – has grown so impatient with its ensemble that it constantly introduces new characters, sometimes on what seems like an episode-by-episode basis. What this results in is an increased inability to nail down emotional investment in any set group of characters. Revolution struggled under many of the same issues as Flash Forward: it offered up a large cast, but spent so much time trying to develop all of them that all the characters suffered as a result.
What Lost knew early on was that it’s okay to let some of your characters fade into the background for an episode or two. That individual will get a centered episode eventually, and letting us focus on only a handful allows for richer characterization across the board.
Know When to Stick to Your Plan
This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult aspects of development in a TV series, especially one with serialized aspirations: how much do you plan in advance? Once you actually get that pilot picked up, and once you get the full season order, how meticulously do you plot things out? And at what point does the advance planning become too stringent? Everyone needs to be able to adapt to unforeseen changes and challenges.
Lost struggled with this like everyone else, but it also succeeded far more than most. When Flash Forward was eventually cancelled, the show runners insisted that they already had a five year plan. And if anything, it appears to have been to the detriment of the series, since they may not have been as willing and able to adapt for contingencies. Making it up as you go is risky, but so too is trying to plan for everything.
Lost adapted the flashback structure early on based on the success of the pilot, rather than going into the show with the expectation of that becoming the fundamental narrative touchstone. Similarly, it knew when to discard characters that weren’t working (like Ana-Lucia, Nikki, and Paolo) and adopt into the cast guest stars that weren’t initially planned for (like Ben and Desmond). Once the show set an end date, much of the remainder of the series snapped into the focus, as evidenced by its excellent third season finale. But at the same time, there was a consistent fluidity from showrunners Lindelof and Carlton Cuse to accept changes as they came. And when the show found this balance, it was all the better for it.