15th Anniversary of LOST: Remembering the Show That Changed How We Watched TV Forever
On September 22, 2004 a plane fell out of the sky onto a strange island in the South Pacific packed with mysteries, ghosts, and a smoke monster. On the 15th anniversary of LOST, we at Comic Years are looking back at the genre-bending television show that changed the way we watch television. Serialized television was rare during that time, especially on network television like ABC. Networks want shows that viewers can tune in and out of without worrying that they missed an episode or two. LOST, however, did not allow for such things. Missing even a single week could mean that viewers became (pardon the pun) hopelessly lost. Since the storytellers, like the survivors on the island, discovered things as they went, they had no blueprint to follow. Still, despite a mixed reaction to the polarizing final season, LOST is one of the greatest television shows of all time.
Since it’s the 15th anniversary of LOST, it seems silly to warn about spoilers. However, if you plan to watch the series and want to maintain the surprise, bookmark this link. Watch the series. It’s definitely worth your time. Then, when finished, come back and dive into what made this show so special.
Meeting the Survivors of Oceanic Flight 815
Image via ABC
Based on an entirely different story from screenwriter Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof developed a story about people thrown into an impossible situation. Honestly, a show about simply surviving on a (mostly) deserted island seems like enough to propel a series narrative. Yet, the storytellers developed a series of mysteries around the island and around the survivors themselves. These mysteries were the “hook” for the show, driving viewers not just to tune in every week but also theorize, analyze, and discuss the show on the pre-Twitter internet. Using a unique (at the time) format, episodes usually included a “present-day” on-island narrative along with character-focused flashbacks. These often featured the biggest reveals about the characters.
For example, the first episode focused on Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke, “Tabula Rasa,” seemed to be about how Locke is a loser back in the real world. Only at the end of the episode do they reveal that he was actually a man in a wheelchair, healed somehow by the island. Other reveals about Daniel Dae Kim’s Jin or Josh Holloway’s Sawyer presented them as villains and then, later, victims themselves. We learned not to trust what we saw or even what we thought we knew.
The stories themselves riveted fans in their seats, but the potential answers to the larger mysteries kept bringing them back. Now, on the 15th anniversary of LOST, we can clearly look back and see that the characters were the best part of the series. The mysteries, however, went from being the most exciting thing about the show to the most frustrating. The reason is likely twofold.
Writing LOST Without a Game Plan
Fans always wanted to know if LOST started out as a show with a clear endpoint. Put another way, did the mysteries in LOST have definitive answers? Lindelof, and his eventual co-showrunner Carlton Cuse, both said they had ideas about what the final arc of the story would be. They also talked about knowing the last shot of the series, though pretty much any fan had a 50/50 shot of guessing it. Yet, since they didn’t know how long the series would run, they had to be careful about which questions to answer season to season. Not having a gameplan for the series overall is a good thing, from a storyteller’s perspective. It allowed the show to be reactive and responsive to new ideas and great performances.
For example, Michael Emerson played a character originally slated to die after a few episodes. Yet, because of his incredible performance they blended his character with another, the leader of the island’s “natives.” Imagine LOST without Ben Linus! Yet, this sometimes led to stumbles as well, such as the third season where characters were caged for about six weeks. One such episode also put a story behind Matthew Fox’s real-life tattoos. On the 15th anniversary of LOST, we can look back at these episodes and wonder why fans disliked them so. They aren’t the best episodes of the series, but they aren’t that bad either. Yet, when you remember that fans waited weeks and weeks sometimes for new episodes, these episodes felt like a “waste of time.”
The Mystery Box and Fan Expectations
J.J. Abrams gave a famous TED Talk called “the Mystery Box.” In it, he discusses how sometimes the question is always better than whatever the answer could be. This is the problem that LOST ran into, because what the “whispers” were or the story behind the smoke monster is destined be unsatisfying. Fans created the story they most wanted to see in their heads, and of course the show couldn’t deliver the perfect answer tailored to every fan. This actually got in the way of the story Lindelof and Cuse shaped for the final season. Everyone wondered what the “Flash Sideways” was, thinking it was the key to unlocking all the mysteries. Instead, it ended up being a story about completing the emotional journeys of the characters. Something many answer-hungry fans felt cheated by, especially given the ambiguous nature of the ending.
For many fans, myself included, the flash-sideways world seemed like the ideal “heaven.” A place where everyone you ever loved is both present and emotionally fulfilled. So, the metaphysical concept of transcending into a dimension of pure light (presumably the light at the center of the island) is tough to take. Still, LOST told a beautiful story about a group of misfits who found their true family and became heroes along the way.
The mysteries of the island are interesting, but not as interesting as the human mystery boxes represented by the characters. The ethos of the series—Live together, die alone—is one that modern society still needs to take to heart. If a con man, a perpetual loser, a murderer, a mob enforcer, etc. can all find redemption, then we all can. In fact, even the fans upset at the finale feel enormous gratitude for their own found family: the community of “LOSTies” they found online.
The 15th Anniversary of LOST Is Also the Anniversary of a New Way to Watch TV
Image via ABC
In the long-gone days of 2004, both binge-watching and internet fandom communities were not really a thing. Yet, thanks to LOST, any show with an even moderate fan-following emulates the way fans of this series experienced the show. Sure, the episodes were released week-by-week (sometimes beset by normal network delays). Yet, fans recorded, TIVO’ed, and rewatched the series repeatedly. They did this to discern little clues and hints about the mysteries for the series. Convinced that the writers knew everything about the show from the get-go, every detail deserved scrutiny. Today, fans from Game of Thrones to obscure shows like SyFy’s 12 Monkeys have dedicated online communities. When these shows actively aired episodes, fans discussed their theories and tried to figure out where the storytellers wanted to go.
In the world of the streaming wars, it’s nothing for fans to sit down and binge-watch ten or so episodes of series like Mindhunter. While this may prevent theorizing about what will happen from episode to episode, fans still like to analyze what they’ve seen. In these fan communities the experience of watching a series expands to a kind of community never found around the watercoolers of America. Yet, like with Game of Thrones, this also means that subverting fan expectations like LOST’s storytellers did can lead to immense backlash. The effect of LOST reverberates throughout the culture, because decision makers at networks and streaming outlets know that an audience exists for highly-serialized mystery-driven shows.
Chronologically LOST and How Fans Keep the Show Alive
Image via screengrab
On the 15th anniversary of LOST, the fandom for this series still thrives online and in pop culture. New fans still discover the series on Hulu, and old fans almost never tire of rewatching it. One interesting bit of LOST remixing comes from a fan named Mike Maloney, who spent years working on a project he called Chronologically LOST. Maloney spent hours and hours cutting and editing all the bits of LOST episodes into chronological order. This means that the all the flashbacks stand apart, sometimes by dozens of “episodes,” from their on-island stories. Asked about this, Lindelof respected the effort but called it the “least interesting” version of the story. Yet, he’s not entirely correct. Chronologically LOST stands as a testament to how good these stories are. Flashback episodes about Jin or Locke or Sawyer work just as well on their own.
We live in a culture where people love to never let go of the franchises they love. It is surprising that Disney didn’t celebrate the 15th anniversary of LOST by announcing a reboot or sequel series. The passion for LOST still remains. It seems inevitable that the series will eventually be given the reboot treatment. Nonetheless, the series itself continues to thrive in a world where there is a lot of TV to choose from. The story in LOST about redemption and love and optimism resonates as strongly today as it did back then.
We want to hear your favorite LOST memories! Drop them down in the comments or shout us out on social media. But, whichever method you use, DON’T TELL US WHAT WE CAN’T DO!
Featured image via ABC
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.