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MUST BINGE TV: Lost

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Has there ever been as controversial a finale to a television show as The End, the episode that concluded Lost? You could argue The Sopranos, but given that Lost was a “blockbuster” television show that attracted large ratings and a massive amount of press coverage, it’s easy to say that the final moments of Lost caused anger in a way not seen since the days when St Elsewhere put that snow globe on top of a television set.

Credited to JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber, the real “creator” of Lost was Lloyd Braun, Chairman of ABC Television who wanted a scripted drama version of smash hit reality series Survivor. Stuck at a creative impasse based on what Jeffrey Lieber had written, Braun put the call in to J.J Abrams, who had created ABC’s acclaimed Alias and whose Bad Robot production company was producing shows for the network, asking him if he had any ideas he could contribute to the concept.

The decision to ask Abrams for creative input would make Lost the series it was to become famous for; a serialised, intense, addictive drama with a narrative told in long form that would pose questions and mysteries along with an attractive cast playing engrossing characters.

Co-creator Damon Lindelof had been trying to get a foot in the door at Abrams’ production company and when the two hit it off, Abrams invited Lindelof to help create the series and show run it. Abrams would stay on board as executive producer but not as a creative presence, eventually going off to direct Mission:Impossible 3 for Tom Cruise.

Fearing that he may not be best equipped to handle the series on how own, Lindelof would convince ABC to bring on board his mentor Carlton Cuse around the halfway mark of the first year.  In the end it would be a six season run, producing some truly brilliant and mystifying television the likes of which hadn’t been since the days of Twin Peaks or The Prisoner.

The most expensive pilot produced for television at the time, the premiere episode looks as if every penny was spent on it, the opening sequence depicting the crashed plane on the island and the inevitable chaos proving to be as cinematic an opening to any television series in living memory. Flashbacks throughout would fill in the gaps as to the events leading up to the crash and it goes without saying the episode will never be recommended in-flight entertainment.

Introducing a large cast of characters, the series featured Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, John Holloway, Terry O’Quinn, Ian Somerhalder, Jorge Garcia and would, over the course of six years, also feature Michael Emerson, Michelle Rodriguez, Henry Ian Cusick, Sonya Walger, Elizabeth Mitchell and Alan Dale, amongst others, the full cast too many to mention here.

The series would build up compelling mysteries within mysteries, the island becoming a character in itself, easter eggs embedded in the production design, dialogue and the flashbacks, some of the mysteries would pay off, some not, whilst the show would throw in a whole bunch of genre material such as time travel, smoke monsters, science fiction, medical horror, and intense character drama. It could be dizzying, complex and brilliant and whilst it has become easy to criticise it, when it was on the air, the six-year run to the finale was some of the  most additive television to ever be broadcast.

Yes, you found yourself wanting to throw things at the television sometime due to the lack of answers, but when Lost was good, damn was it BRILLIANT. The time travel element of the fifth season actually answered some questions, although it asked one about a bunch of characters in a raft shooting at our heroes that it never did answer, which was truly aggravating, but has proven to be one of the most wonderfully endearing unanswered questions in the history of a genre television show.

Then there was the whole plot brought up in the first three seasons about pregnancies on the island and how a successful pregnancy seemed to be impossible on the island of weird, a mystery which drove a lot of the story in those first three years, especially around Clare, played by Emilie de Ravin, and which appeared to be completely abandoned as the series went on.

In fact, a short time after the finale, a wonderful video montage did the rounds which pretty much asked every unanswered question on the show in an increasingly frenetic fashion.

Deeply influential, nearly every television network in the US tried to create its own equivalent of Lost. The 2000’s was a golden era for network television serials; on top of ABC and Lost, you also had 24 and Prison Break on Fox, whilst NBC would give the world Heroes which was a brilliant one season wonder that unfortunately went on for four seasons. ABC themselves tried to capture lightning in a bottle the second time with Flash Forward which had a pretty impressive pilot, but whose concept wasn’t enough to sustain an ongoing series, not to mention casting Lost stars Dominic Monaghan and Sonya Walger amongst its list of actors, whilst NBC would produce The Event, a series best described by one critic as the lovechild of Lost and 24, but which failed to capture audiences in the vice-like way both those shows had done.

Whilst other mystery serials crashed and burned, Lost managed to keep hold of the audience who were intrigued to see if there really was a plan to the whole thing or if the writers were truly making it up as they went along. The answer to that lay somewhere in between. Halfway through the third season, Damon Lindelof and co-showrunner Carlton Cuse, along with ABC, announced they would bring the show to an end after its sixth season, but the finale itself would, unsurprisingly it turned out, to be divisive and controversial, probably ranking alongside the final hours of The Sopranos as one of modern American television most divisive and heavily debated endings.

Unlike The Sopranos, Lost didn’t smash cut to black in the middle of an ongoing scene, it actually did resolve things, but debate still rages as to how satisfying or sensible that resolution was. It was backed by gorgeous Michael Giacchino music (whose work for the show is still a career best and arguably some of the greatest music composed for a television drama), and was deeply moving. Sadly it fell apart once one realised that it was in fact a play on a popular plot theory many had when the show debuted, and which had been discounted in many interviews by Abrams.

It has become popular to criticise Lindelof and Cuse to an extent, more so with Lindelof due to fan controversies with Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness which he also contributed to, but one cannot help but feel that maybe it never mattered what way the final hours of the show went, it would always be controversial no matter what they did and given the impact of the show on popular culture and television during those six years it was on the air, opinion was probably destined to be divisive in the way that it was.

Flaws are evident, no television show is perfect, but when Lost got it right, it was truly amazing, and even with all its problems and audience cynicism on how much was planned and how much was simply made up as the writers went along, the journey there was exhilarating, brilliant and downright brilliant television. It was compulsive must see TV that was rich and deep, with the production values in the style of the best feature films and the intricate ongoing story telling in the style of the best novels.

Whilst it has become popular to knock the show as the years have gone on, and opinion on the finale has dropped even further it seems, looking back on Lost, it’s hard for this reviewer not to see the good; a genre television series, on a big budget, on a mainstream US television network that wasn’t afraid to be complex, smart and above all else intelligent. What other show in television history has mixed smoke monsters, the paranormal, science fiction, time travel, quantum physics, action, thriller, humour, pop culture references, flashbacks and mystery in the way Lost did week in and week out, all in the space of a single, ongoing, serialised narrative?

Other serials that tried to cash in failed because you couldn’t really copy it; Lost was truly one of a kind and a television show the likes of which, no matter if it’s on cable or network TV, we may not see again for a long time. Say what you want about the finale, but the journey was truly worth it.

Live Together, Die Alone.

Budgeted at over $10 million dollars, the Lost pilot was the most expensive episode in television history at the time.

 

AIRDATE: September 2004-May 2010

NUMBER OF SEASONS: Six

NOTABLE WRITERS: Although co-created by Abrams, the brainchild of the series was really Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the latter coming in around the halfway mark of season one. Together the two writers became not only the creative guiding lights of the series, but its most high-profile representatives, frequently being interviewed and talking about the show as it continued. A lot of their work on the show together was frequently bamboozling, dazzling and brilliant and for a time really stretched the limits on how one could go about writing a mystery drama for mainstream network television. Although it has become a popular tactic to criticise them for any perceived failings or problems with the show, many of their scripts were truly fantastic. Their work for the show’s season finales were some of the most enthralling television of the decade, never shying away from legitimate game-changing twists, whilst their script for the fourth season’s The Constant must surely rank as one of the best pieces of television of the decade (more on that coming up).

NOTABLE DIRECTORS: Jack Bender and Stephen Williams were the recurring directors on the show and frequently helmed the best episodes. Bender had directed several episodes of Alias before coming on to be the main director on Lost and soon both himself and Williams would be calling the shots on many of the show’s finest hours.

NOTABLE ACTORS/ACTRESSES: With a large ensemble, there were many stand outs. Many plot lines centred around Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly and Josh Holloway (how Holloway has not become a bigger star is a mystery worthy of the show), however many of the best performances and flashback stories were centred around Terry O’ Quinn, Michael Emerson, Henry Ian Cusick, Sonya Walger, Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim, Dominic Monaghan and Jorge Garcia. Garcia as Hurley was an undoubted series highlight and was frequently the most charming presence on the series.

BEST SEASON: The first and fourth seasons are the best years of the show. The first laid down a lot of the groundwork, and whilst frustrations did set in with audiences over seasons two and three, the show hit it out of the park in its fourth year. The first full year of the show after an end date for the series was announced, it felt truly confident and for the first time the show felt as if was actually going somewhere.

WORST SEASON: Has to be the third, although it did manage to settle down and deliver a great series of episodes in its second half, and that end of season cliffhanger was a genuine jaw dropping game changer of a scene if there ever was one, this was the point where the show faltered somewhat, thus facilitating discussions amongst the writers and ABC to come up with an end date. Too much time spent in cages in the first six episodes, it would eventually lead to the single worst episode of the show, Stranger in a Strange Land, that centred around, of all things, Jack’s tattoos whom nobody gave a damn about.

BEST EPISODE: The Constant. Without a doubt the show’s best forty-five minutes, whilst fans everywhere debated as to who should end up with who in the Jack/Kate/Sawyer love triangle, the best relationship in the show was that of Desmond and Penny and this was never more evident than in what was arguably the show’s best ever hour. An intense time travel drama that builds up to a remarkable romantic moment, the writing from Lindelof and Cuse is wonderful and the performances from Henry Ian Cusick and Sonya Walger are beautiful. Simply a must-watch for any fan of quality genre television, this is a prime example of what Lost could do so well.

Possibly the geekiest man in all of Ireland, I have consumed too many television shows, movies, books and comics to know the difference any more between being geeky and not geeky. Very proud of my geekdom, it brought me together with my one true love, and if that’s not a great reason to be geeky, I don’t know what is. Could also beat anybody in an X Files trivia contest. True scientific fact.