Love it or hate it, Lost has gone down as one of the most seminal television shows in history. That figurative title was cemented by its pilot, which is often regarded as one of the best in television history. And as the show turns 15 this month, there’s no better time for fans and critics alike to revisit what makes this episode of television so damn good.
The Origins of Lost
The show was initially pitched as a scripted version of Castaway meeting Survivor. The original script looked very different than the version that made it to TV. But once JJ Abrams was recruited to work on the script, it went down in history as ABC’s most expensive pilot at the time, along with often being regarded as the best television pilot of all time.
Lost was born in the era of appointment television, back in the day where commercials were a requirement, not a burden that those too cheap to pay for Hulu Plus had to bear. TiVo and DVR were knocking around, but weren’t nearly universal as they are now. Appointment television was an event — something people talked about at work the next day. And if the first eight minutes of the two-part premiere weren’t enough to suck in even the most casual of viewers, it’s hard to say what could.
So often a TV pilot is focused on world-building. Lost throws caution to the wind and takes the complete opposite approach. Its first scene is sheer, unbridled chaos. Jack, who we quickly learn is to be our hero in this series, abruptly awakes in a jungle. The show’s very first scene in itself has become iconic — a closeup on a single eye opening. It’s such a famous scene that Mike Schur’s The Good Place, a show chronicling four characters in the afterlife, begins with the exact same shot.
He gathers his bearings and bursts onto a scene that is both disorenting and dazzling. Screams, sobs and an unsuspecting man being sucked up into a freaking airplane engine fill the screen. The entire scene is just a flurry of chaotic energy. It brings more questions than answers. Instead of being told who our characters are and what to think, we’re left to figure it out right along with Jack.
This scene gives an unknowing audience a glimpse at our ensemble. This sprawling cast sets scene for what is perhaps Lost’s biggest strength — its character work. So many television shows are story first, character later. Many characters feel like completely different people between the pilot and later in the series. Take Leslie Knope of Parks and Rec. She started off as fairly blatant rip off of The Office’s Michael Scott, only really becoming her own fully-realized character in season two. Often, storylines feel as if they could be applied to any character. That wouldn’t fly in the Lost writers’ room.
Season one and two Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach discussed this in his recollection of his time on Lost: “we created extensively detailed character backstories which we hoped we could use as reference for why the castaways did what they did in the island. For weeks, each member of the think tank would be assigned one character, and in our time outside the room, we would come up with incidents in the characters’ lives to pitch to one another.”
The writers molded the stories based on the Lost characters, and those characters were molded after the energy actors brought to their auditions. Nearly half of the characters on the show were rewritten to reflect the audition of the actor who would eventually play them. Take Dominic Monaghan — he initially auditioned for the role of the lovable conman Sawyer. But instead, Lost had found its Charlie, their drug-addicted “reject from VH1 has-beens.” Charlie was rewritten from an older washed-up rocker to a younger, struggling musician to fit Monaghan. Yunjin Kim initially auditioned for Kate, a woman running from a life of crime. Instead, she was cast as Sun. Based on her audition, Sun was changed from a grandmother-aged woman to an introspective and resourceful younger woman.
The foundations were clearly laid for this meticulous character work right off the bat — Jack and his hero complex, one character running from her life as a criminal, another being defined by his drug usage. Stories were crafted around these traits and backstories, as opposed to the writers working random characters into the stories as they saw fit. One might argue the “Lost” characters paved the way for some of the rich, character-driven shows that fill our screens today.
Something else that “Lost” undoubtedly laid the foundation for? Modern mainstream sci-fi television. Just with comic books pre-MCU, and fantasy pre-Game of Thrones, sci-fi was not widely accepted by the masses at this time. Lost writer and producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach described the science fiction genre as being in the “ghetto” in the early aughts. Quite simply, it was considered too niche a genre to capture the attention of mainstream audiences — back then, procedural shows were what captured the crowds. So when creators Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Jeffery Lieber came to ABC with a show featuring a mystical island, the network was understandably spooked.
The writers had to keep the sci-fi elements at bay for a while. In fact, they flat out lied to the studio and claimed their version of science fiction would be grounded in reality, and would always be explained in the end. It was just one of the many bold gambles that the writers and the creators took on the show. According to Grillo-Marxuach, the logic here was that if the show became a smashing success or a massive failure that led to immediate cancellation, the writers would be exempt from having to provide explanations for their outlandish mythology.
Clearly, the gamble paid off. The show got away with unexplained polar bears, smoke monsters, and time travel. No other network show before Lost had the guts to take risks like this. But after its six-season run, plenty followed suit. Grillo-Marxuach recounted that, after his time with Lost, he was sought out to punch up the scripts on fledgling sci-fi shows. He’d often ask the writers or producers where their story was headed, and they would respond, “You worked on Lost, you tell us.”
That’s the mark of an important show – others desperately grasping at a bit of the magic that the original show used to enchant its audience with. I’d say a show that inspires countless articles examining its history, a fan convention, and rewatch podcasts is full of timeless magic. And it all began with the pilot episode that sparked the question: “Guys, where are we?”
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