The story of Lost makes no sense.
And by that I don’t mean the story on the show — though this is the point where you can feel free to insert jokes about the numbers, the outrigger shootout, or the reasons why Walt was “special” — but the story of how Lost itself got made.
The creation of Lost defies nearly everything we know about how successful television shows — or great ones — are made. The idea for Lost came not from a writer, but a network executive. The first writer on the project got fired. The replacement creative team had a fraction of the usual time to write, cast, and produce a pilot episode. The executive who had championed the show was himself fired before it ever aired. One of the two creators all but quit the moment the pilot was finished. Nearly every creative decision at the start of the show was made under the assumption that it would never succeed. Everyone believed it was too weird, too dense, too unusual to work. And it may have been. But it worked, anyway.
Lost, a show thrown together in a rush and snakebit by top-level turnover, was an enormous hit right from the start (it’s the highest rated of any series discussed in this book). It was among the most thrilling, surprising, memorable dramas in the history of American network television, and at its best could go toe-to-toe with much of what was happening on cable during this period.
And more than any other classic of the era, its success was a long shot paying off big. Lost as we know it was made in the only way it could have been made, and it arrived at the only time when it could have succeeded.
In the summer of 2003, Lloyd Braun was in the middle of a rocky tenure as chairman of ABC Entertainment. A few years earlier, ABC had geared its entire primetime schedule around the hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, in the process making it impossible to grow new scripted hits; the Millionaire phenomenon inevitably fizzled, and the network was still recovering.
On vacation with his family in Hawaii, Braun watched his network’s broadcast of the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, then went down to the beach to watch the sunset and meet up with his wife and kids. As he waited, he began pondering the idea of doing Cast Away as a TV show, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work with only one actor and one volleyball.
“And then the notion of Survivor popped into my head,” recalls Braun. “I don’t know why. And I put it all together: What if there was a plane that crashed and a dozen people survived, and nobody knew each other. Your past was almost irrelevant. You could reinvent who you were. You had to figure out — how do you survive? What do you use for shelter, for water? Is it like Lord of the Flies? How do we get off the island, how do you get home? And I start to get very excited about the idea, and I start thinking about the title Lost.”
Braun had liked the name ever since he saw it attached to a short-lived NBC reality show, and kept it filed away in his head, waiting for the right idea to pair it with. Now, he had that idea — and not much more.
He returned to the mainland and headed to an ABC corporate retreat, where executives had been instructed to pitch one series idea. Braun had another one all ready to go, but as he sat there waiting for his turn, “I was thinking of the original idea and thought it was lame. So I said, ‘To hell with this, I’ll pitch Lost,’ knowing it was probably too high-concept for the room. And I did pitch it, and it was dead silent after I pitched it.”
The only executive who showed any interest was Braun’s head of drama development, Thom Sherman, and the two resolved to make it “our little baby,” as Braun puts it, for that development season. Others were aware of it, but no one understood why their bosses were so obsessed with it.
Sherman hired a writer named Jeffrey Lieber, and as Lieber worked, Braun became infamous around the ABC offices for hovering over the idea’s progress: “All year long, it’s starting to become a running joke: All I’m asking about is this project.”
Braun got a pile of pilot scripts from that year’s development batch around Christmas, and quickly thumbed through looking for Lieber’s. He found the first danger sign on the cover page: Lieber had changed the title to Nowhere. As for the script itself, Braun’s gentle in saying that it “did not live up to my expectations, and I felt, in fact, fell prey to many of the concerns that many people had when they first heard the idea. I was very disappointed.”
Given how late they were into the development season (which typically takes 8 or 9 months from summer to early spring), Sherman suggested they shelve the idea and try again next year.
“I said, ‘Thom, there’s no next year for us,'” says Braun, who knew the kind of thin ice he was on thanks to the network’s recent performance. “At that point, it was clear to me that I didn’t think any of us were going to be surviving. This was the time to take a shot at a show like this.”
Lieber was out,1 and Braun turned to the one writer he suspected could do something with this on such short notice: J.J. Abrams.
The Writers Guild of America later ruled that Lieber’s work on the original script merited him a co-creator credit. In a 2007 Chicago Magazine feature, Lieber said his royalties from that credit were netting him in the “low six figures” annually.
Abrams had come to ABC two years earlier with Alias, an addictive spy drama starring a young Jennifer Garner. ABC thought so much of the show, and Abrams, that Alias had been chosen to air after the Super Bowl the season before.
Abrams was smart. Abrams was creative. Abrams was also very, very busy, in part because of Lloyd Braun. Earlier in that same development season, Braun had asked Abrams, as a personal favor, to develop another pilot, a bounty hunter drama called The Catch. When Braun approached him about doing a different pilot as a favor in the same season — while also dry-docking The Catch, after he’d spent a lot of time on it — Abrams laughed at the request, but reluctantly agreed to think on Braun’s idea overnight.
“He comes in the next day and says, ‘I hate you,'” Braun recalls. “‘Well, why?’ ‘Because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this thing all night.'”
Abrams told Braun that there wasn’t quite enough there for a series, but suggested that “The island has to be a character in the show, and something’s wrong with the island.” Braun agreed, so long as Abrams promised to keep things in the realm of “scientific fact” and have an explanation for everything.
Even with The Catch delayed until the next season, Abrams was still too busy to handle Braun’s passion project on his own, especially starting in January at a time when other pilots were already beginning to cast and film. Enter Damon Lindelof, a young writer who wanted nothing more than to get a job on Alias and had been, as he puts it, “stalking” ABC drama executive Heather Kadin to help him make it happen.
Kadin called Lindelof up with a “good news, bad news” proposition: she had a way for him to finally meet Abrams, but it was in the context of a project few executives at ABC seemed to understand or believe in. Lindelof says Kadin told him, “‘Impress J.J. at the meeting, and you will get a job on Alias. Forget about this pilot.'”
But in order to impress J.J., Lindelof needed some good ideas for the pilot. He read Lieber’s script and realized, “The biggest problem with the show was the audience would want the characters to get off the island. How do we defuse that desire?” He wanted to fill the cast with characters who would have no interest in going back to their old lives, and further sate the audience’s appetite for mainland stories by featuring flashbacks to those old lives in each episode.
Lindelof brought those two ideas to Abrams, who shared his own thoughts on making the island a character. Abrams proposed, for instance, that the castaways would discover a hatch in the middle of the jungle, spend the whole first season trying to get it open, and that the hatch in turn would reveal more about the island in future seasons.
The ideas, and the men proposing them, meshed well together. Abrams had been getting grief from ABC over Alias and its focus on the works of a Da Vinci-like figure named Rambaldi — “This was the climate at the time,” recalls Lindelof. “Serialization was bad, and mythological storytelling was worse” — but Lindelof also loved the Rambaldi storylines, and they decided to steer right into this particular skid.
“J.J.’s whole attitude was not defiant,” Lindelof says. “It was the idea that we had the luxury of pitching them exactly the show that we wanted to make, and if they didn’t want to do it, so what? Every other pilot was already cast — deep into casting. We have a week to basically cook the most ambitious, expensive television show ever, and if they want to make it, great. And if not, no worries.”
There was no time to write a full script, so Braun asked them to write a detailed outline that he would use to decide whether to go forward. He read it on a Saturday morning on the way to the home of his friend Marc Gurvitz, a veteran talent manager, and decided, “This is one of the best shows I have ever read. I walk into Marc’s house having just read it, and I go, ‘Marc, you see this thing? ER.’ And I throw it down on the table.”
Lost was a go, on an absurdly accelerated schedule.
“We were shooting this thing in the end of March,” says Braun, “and I didn’t even call J.J. until January. This whole thing was done in 6-8 weeks. Never ever have I heard of anything like it in the TV business.”
By this time, most of the usual suspects from the casting pool had already committed to other pilots. This turned to the producers’ advantage, as they decided to fill the seats on Oceanic Flight 815 with a collection of mostly unfamiliar — and ethnically diverse — faces: Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as Jin and Sun, an estranged Korean couple who appeared to speak no English; Harold Perrineau and Malcolm David Kelley as Michael and Walt, an African-American construction worker and his estranged son; Naveen Andrews as Sayid Jarrah, a former member of Iraq’s Republican Guard; Jorge Garcia as Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, a heavyset everydude who tended to ask the same questions the audience had; Josh Holloway as Sawyer, a charming grifter; Terry O’Quinn (fresh off a recurring Alias role as an FBI official) as mysterious survival expert John Locke; Dominic Monaghan as junkie musician Charlie; Emilie de Ravin as pregnant young Australian Claire; and Ian Somerhalder and Maggie Grace as spoiled rich stepsiblings Boone and Shannon. It wasn’t a cast that looked like any other on television, and was one of many signals that people who tuned into Lost would be seeing something unique.
At the center of the pilot would be two characters: Jack Shephard, a doctor who quickly falls into a leadership role among the castaways; and Kate Austen, a young woman whose fiancé had been in the back of the plane when the fuselage split in two, and who had no idea if he was alive or dead. In the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (or even the pilot of Oz), they planned to pull the rug out from under the audience by killing Jack midway through the first episode,2 forcing Kate to take charge. After this sudden demise, viewers would realize no one was safe. Lindelof says Steve McPherson, then the head of the ABC studio, made a convincing counter-argument that it would teach viewers not to trust the show, and the writers ultimately agreed with him.
To further elevate Jack’s status for the viewers, actor Michael Keaton (who was at a point in his career where starring in a TV show would seem plausible) was approached for the role, and Abrams and Lindelof planned to make the media into accomplices by asking everyone at the TV critics press tour that summer to please keep Jack’s death a secret from their readers. Once McPherson got Jack a stay of execution, Keaton had no interest in a long-term job, and Party of Five alum Matthew Fox was cast as a younger Jack. Unknown Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly would play Kate.
So Jack lived (his death scene would go to Oceanic 815’s co-pilot), and when Abrams and Lindelof realized Kate wasn’t dynamic enough, her backstory was changed to make her a fugitive from justice (the separated lovebirds angle would go to Rose and Bernard, an older couple who appeared sporadically throughout the series).
At the same time they were sketching out the cast of characters, Lindelof and Abrams were grappling with Braun’s request for only “science fact.” The two men were fellow travelers in the nerd community and wanted to add some of their favorite things to this show, but they also didn’t want to scare away a mass audience with too much sci-fi, too soon.
Just as The X-Files had hidden its aliens and monsters in cop show drag, Lost would take its time getting to the bizarre stuff. In the final version of the pilot, the smoke monster doesn’t make its first appearance until midway through the first hour, and it doesn’t attack anyone until the end of that hour — and even this debut is only audio (we wouldn’t get a look at it until the end of the first season). By then, Lindelof and Abrams had offered viewers plenty of opportunity to get to know the central characters, to see them dealing with an extreme and yet familiar situation with the plane crash, so that by the time Smokey is heard rumbling through the jungle — “That was weird, right?” quips Charlie — it’s just one element of a larger human mystery, rather than the thing that defines the show. In their talks about the hatch, they had conceived of a scientific research group known as Medusa Corp. (later to be reimagined as the hippie science collective the Dharma Initiative) conducting electromagnetic experiments across the island, and the hope was to keep things vaguely plausible.
As Lindelof puts it, “When we talked about the show being set in a Crichton-esque reality — nobody thinks of Jurassic Park as science fiction, because they ground it in actual science — we thought we were telling the truth.”
That the Lost pilot was produced with such haste isn’t apparent in the finished product. The two-hour episode (which ABC ultimately split in half and aired over two weeks) cost a reported $13 million — Braun doesn’t remember the exact figure, but says, “It came in under budget” — which was a bargain for a movie, even in 2004, but one of the biggest prices ever paid for a TV pilot. Abrams had grown as a director during his time on Felicity and Alias, and all his talents as a crafter of suspense are on display throughout.
We open on an extreme close-up of a man’s eye opening, then see him lying on a jungle floor, wearing a suit, unsure of where he is and what’s happened to him. A yellow Labrador trots past, and as Jack gets up, his memory begins to return. He picks up speed, racing through the bamboo until he arrives at a beach that in one direction looks like paradise, and in the other is littered with flaming airplane parts, corpses, and a group of dazed, bloody, terrified survivors. Jack sprints from person to person, trying to save as many lives as he can (though he’s too late in warning one man to step away from the jet engine before it sucks him in and explodes), and by the time Jack can finally catch his breath at the 7-minute mark, we are completely absorbed in this adventure, this man, and the questions of how these people got here and what they’ll do now.
That riveting opening sequence is no misleading tease of what was to come. There are plenty of slower, chattier moments throughout the pilot (most of them intriguing in their own right because Abrams and Lindelof had spent so much of their limited time crafting these characters), but there are several other exciting action set pieces, including Jack, Kate, and Charlie barely surviving an attack by the monster while looking for radio equipment (or, in Charlie’s case, heroin) in the cockpit wreckage, or Sawyer gunning down a charging polar bear3 that has absolutely no business on a tropical island. We close on another unsettling note, as Sayid and Shannon discover a distress signal, recorded in French, that’s been playing on a loop for more than 16 years — prompting a mystified Charlie to ask the question on every viewer’s mind at that moment: “Guys, where are we?”
Initially, the writers had discussed a wild boar attack, but Abrams wanted the animal to hint at the unique properties of the island, and suggested some kind of genetically-enhanced creature. Producer Sarah Caplan felt that could make viewers mistake the creature for the monster, and suggested they just pick an animal that wouldn’t belong there. In Lindelof’s memory, he and Abrams replied, “It should be a polar bear!” at the same moment.
The development process had been tumultuous and rushed. It had cost more than any TV pilot had before. And it was, to everyone’s surprise, worth every penny and bit of stress, because it was great.
It was, unfortunately, too late to save Lloyd Braun, who was fired in April and replaced by Steve McPherson.4 This had been Braun’s baby, but McPherson put Lost on his first schedule anyway.
As a way to thank Braun and make his connection with the show permanent despite the firing, Abrams invited him to be the voice who says, “Previously, on Lost ” at the start of each episode. Braun agreed on the condition that nobody ever know, but several years later Howard Stern figured it out and publicly identified him.
Now there was another wrinkle: Abrams, who was stepping away from any and all Lost responsibilities5 to direct Mission: Impossible III. Lindelof had spent a few years writing for Nash Bridges and Crossing Jordan but had no experience running a show, so he turned to a man who did: his former Nash boss Carlton Cuse.
Abrams later came back to co-write the third-season premiere with Lindelof, but after the pilot, all credit (and blame) goes to Lindelof and then (starting with Season 1’s “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues”) to Lindelof and Cuse.
Cuse had remained Lindelof’s friend and mentor, and as Lindelof found himself “on the verge of a nervous breakdown” after producing the early episodes on his own, he asked Cuse to come on as co-showrunner. Lindelof showed Cuse some episodes and scripts in advance, and Cuse says, “My brain was completely activated by Lost.” He approached his agent to find a way out of the development deal he had recently signed with a TV studio.
“My agent said, ‘Are you crazy? That show’s not going to go anywhere,'” says Cuse. “I really believed it could be something. I really thought it could last. The good thing was there were not many people who did believe that at the time, so my agent got me out of my deal, I came over, and we set out to do the show. And it was kind of great. Everyone left us alone, because they were convinced the show was 12 [episodes] and out, and it gave us the liberation to make the best version of the show we could — the one we wanted to watch. There was no fear of failure, because in this particular circumstance, failure was not an unattractive option.”
The way Cuse and Lindelof saw it, even if Lost were canceled quickly, it would make a classic DVD set to be passed down from one generation of geek to the next, much like the ’60s British cult classic The Prisoner.
With the network in dire need of fresh, popular blood, ABC’s marketing team that year decided to take an unusual approach to the new season. Where networks traditionally will spread their marketing time and money across all the new shows debuting that fall, virtually all of ABC’s promotional resources went to three shows: Lost, the comic soap opera Desperate Housewives, and Wife Swap. Even if you weren’t watching ABC that summer (and not many were), it was hard to escape the billboards, bus ads, radio plugs, and other stunts (like leaving “I’m Lost … ” messages in bottles on beaches that summer) for those shows.
The promotional blitzkrieg worked. Desperate Housewives opened to more than 21 million viewers, and Lost (on September 22, 2004) to 18.6 million. Cuse was happy; though he had braced himself for failure, he had always believed that walking away from the studio deal could pay off.
Lindelof, on the other hand? He describes his response to those huge premiere ratings as “Terror, depression, anxiety, anxiety attacks. I’m not exaggerating. Everybody who was around me at the time knows I pretty much wanted to die, and knowing that wasn’t going to happen unless I took matters into my hands, I just wanted to quit. But there was literally no one to quit to.”
Cuse says, “I remember [Lindelof] coming in with the ratings after the opening episode, and he looked completely miserable. He said, ‘Does this mean we have to keep fucking doing this?’ If you’re a producer in television, this is like getting a winning lottery ticket: having a show that’s not only critically acclaimed but gets big ratings. But it was daunting to have to sustain this thing.”
As the show continued to be wildly popular in those early weeks, Lindelof says, “I was completely and totally creatively crippled by people saying two things: 1) ‘How are they going to keep this up?’ And I had no idea. 2) ‘They better have really satisfying answers to all these mysteries.’ And I was like, ‘We have satisfying answers for all the character ones.'”
The development process had unfolded so quickly, there was very little time to figure out what all the weirdness meant — when I ask Lindelof how much of the mythology they had mapped out at that stage, he says, “During the pilot? None of it, to be honest with you” — and most of the focus during the pilot and immediately after was on fleshing out the characters and their reasons for not wanting to return to civilization. The writers knew early on, for instance, that John Locke had been in a wheelchair before the crash — this revelation, at the end of the fourth episode, “Walkabout,” is to Lost what Febby Petrulio’s murder in “College” was to The Sopranos — and that his father had been a con man who caused the injury, but they hadn’t figured out exactly how the injury had occurred.
Lindelof, Abrams, and then Cuse only knew a few broad strokes of the mythology in the early stages: that, for instance, the Oceanic passengers had been brought to the island for a reason, as part of some kind of battle between good and evil. (If the show wasn’t a success and had to end after only one season, they would have built to a battle between the castaways and the monster.)
“I don’t want to be elusive,” says Lindelof, “because being elusive is basically admitting you were up to shenanigans, or conveys a level of dishonesty. What I will say is, I personally believe that it’s hubris to plot out what the second and third and fourth seasons of a show are. You have to have a sense of where you want to go, but at the same time, you have to put your eye on the ball and write the season that you’re writing.”
After the first season, Lindelof and Cuse brought the writing staff to a minicamp where they tried to sketch out the mythology in greater detail. It was here, for instance, where they decided on the idea that there was a mysterious figure named Jacob who had been recruiting people to come to the island, though the name Jacob wouldn’t be uttered until the third season.
“The first season of the show was like putting out an apartment fire with a garden hose,” says Cuse. “We had some general ideas of what we were going to do, but we were making the show episode to episode. That first writers’ minicamp was really engaging. We started figuring out the whole mythology of what was going on in the island, started talking about the Dharma Initiative, what their history was, who else was on the island. We finally had the time — we didn’t have to deliver next week’s episode — so we built the iceberg for the show, knowing only the top 15 percent was going to end up on the air. We constructed a whole mythological world. Obviously, we didn’t have everything plotted out.”
As it turned out, a deeper understanding of the mythology wasn’t crucial to the first season, when Lindelof and Cuse had so much to reveal about the characters, and could get so much dramatic mileage out of showing them simply battling for survival. Locke’s paralysis — and the island’s ability to heal it — was the big revelation, but there were plenty of others deserving their own exclamation points: Hurley won the lottery! Sun secretly knows English! Boone and Shannon had sex?!?! The flashbacks flowed seamlessly into stories about the island, like Locke and Boone discovering the hatch; Michael and Jin teaming up to build a raft to get back to civilization; or Sayid encountering Danielle Rousseau, an insane Frenchwoman who claimed to have been living on the island for years, always staying one step ahead of “the Others.”
Given the environment in which that first season was made, it’s remarkable that the episodes were as good, and coherent, as they were. Viewers may have preferred some characters’ stories to others (I never much cared about Kate, for instance, whether on her own or in a love triangle with Jack and Sawyer), but that was a minor issue considering how deep the roster was, and how high the level of execution was for the individual stories. Lost had a little bit of everything — mystery, science-fiction, comedy, tragedy, deep characterization — not out of an attempt to pander, but because Lindelof and Abrams had tried to cram in as many of the things they loved about popular culture as they could into one improbable pilot.
Lindelof’s decision to give the characters reasons to stay on the island opened a rich vein of material about regret and redemption. The island provided a thriller format to sustain the tension, while the flashbacks functioned as tragic short stories about people whose lives hadn’t turned out as planned. We saw the rise and fall of Sun and Jin’s romance, as his attempts to please her domineering father wound up turning him into a cold, unlovable brute. We saw how Sawyer’s name and career had been perversely inspired by the murder-suicide of his parents due to the work of another con man. We saw John Locke rail over and over about his special destiny, when instead the only time when his life wasn’t horribly ordinary was when it was tragic.
The season finale, “Exodus,” tied together all the major narrative strands while spotlighting the technical genius involved in making the series. Lindelof, Cuse, and director Jack Bender (who had ably continued the style Abrams established in the pilot) put together one thrilling sequence after another: the castaways gather on the beach to help Michael, Walt, Jin, and Sawyer launch the raft (accompanied by a gorgeous orchestral piece from the show’s Emmy-winning composer Michael Giacchino); Rousseau goes on an expedition to the Black Rock, a pirate ship stranded in the middle of the jungle, in search of dynamite to blow the hatch open; Jack saves Locke from the monster’s clutches; and the raft encounters another boat, but just as Michael and company are ready to celebrate their rescue, the captain tells them, “We’re gonna have to take the boy,” and sends his men over to abduct Walt.
The three-hour episode, aired over two weeks, captured everything that was exciting, moving, and funny about Lost. And in its final minutes, it captured everything that could be frustrating about it, too.
The show had spent half the season teasing viewers about what could possibly be inside the hatch, and on Locke and Boone (before he became the first of the main characters to be killed off) trying to get it open. As “Exodus” built to Locke blowing the hatch with the ancient dynamite, every viewer who had speculated on this particular mystery could feel his or her pulse quickening. At last, we all thought, they’re going to answer this.
Instead, the episode, and season, closes on the image of Locke and Jack peering into the hole they’ve just blown open, and the camera zooming down a deep metal shaft to reveal nothing, save that the ladder to the surface was broken.
Lost, ladies and gentlemen! You’ve been a great audience! See you in the fall!
As would happen again five years later, the reaction to what happened at the very end overwhelmed nearly all talk of what had come before, whether in that episode or in the series to date. We had been promised answers, we felt. We had wanted to see what was in the damn hatch, and they had refused to show it to us.
We were not pleased.6 And Cuse and Lindelof had not anticipated just how displeased we would be.
In my review of the finale, I recalled a conversation I had had with Lindelof and Cuse at the January TV critics’ press tour, where they had promised answers, but not a timetable for them. I wrote, “I realized that then, as now, they were playing a very expensive game of three-card monte, with the show’s secrets as a red queen that somehow never gets turned over, no matter how long you stay at the table.”
“We weren’t surprised that people would be frustrated,” says Lindelof. “We were surprised that people would be angry. There’s playful frustration: ‘Oh, you scamps.’ And what we experienced was, ‘How dare you? How dare you make us wait all this time?’
“And the reality is,” he adds, “I would not change a thing. I would go through that tenfold. That summer was so amazing. I have never been through anything like that in my life. My wife and I would be out eating breakfast together, and people would be at the table next to us going, ‘What do you think’s in the hatch?’ The fact that that would have only lasted a week versus three months; that sense of anticipation and excitement, and I was one of only ten people on the planet who knew the answer to this question, it was pretty cool.”