‘Lost’ signifies the end of an era

Today, the publication that I edit WEEKEND ran a Lost-centric issue, most of which I penned. You can check out everything here, but I wanted to re-post the piece I thought was most important to a discussion about television formats and genres moving forward. Here it is.

With Lost at the beginning of the end, emotions are high for us fans who have spent too many hours watching, debating online and staring at paused DVR images in hopes of finding hidden clues. But even for non-fanatics, this should be a sad time because there is no way that we will ever see a television phenomenon quite like Lost ever again. And here’s why.

1. No broadcast network takes risks anymore. Even in 2004 when it began, Lost was a major risk. When Lloyd Braun, the head of ABC at the time, greenlit the egregiously expensive pilot (the two-hour effort reportedly cost between $10-$14 million, compared to the usual $4-$5 million), he was fired for being so careless.

Six years and an exponentially quick increase in the use of the DVR and Hulu later, networks are even more worried about saving money. We all know the drill: reality shows, procedurals and lame spin-offs are how the major networks do business these days. And even when a network dips its toe into the shallow end of the interesting idea pool, they are quick on pulling the plug (see: Invasion, Journeyman, Dollhouse).

2. The writers put character over concept.
When people think of Lost, their minds instantly go to the Smoke Monster, the DHARMA Initiative, time travel and the Numbers. But that’s not what the series is about.

Show masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have always said that this is a story about people who were thrown into extraordinary circumstances – and they’ve backed that up. Unlike all the other Lost rip-offs like FlashForward that rely solely on an out-there premise.

Sure, we diehards all tune in to figure out what the hell the four-toed statue is, or how in the name of Jacob, Ben and Locke were able to move the island, but we stay for Sawyer’s nicknames, Hurley’s “Dude”s, Jack’s incessant need to fix everything and all the other character beats that make all the waiting for mythology moments still so enjoyable. There’s a reason purely character episodes like “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead” and “Some Like It Hoth” are still compelling.

3. Audiences aren’t patient enough.
Sprawling, cross-season mythologies don’t just scare penny-pinching networks – they terrify TV watchers in middle America.

Lost does have a sizable group of fans that have watched since the beginning, but as time has gone on and the plot has gotten more dense and complicated, the ratings have plummeted from around 20 million to 9 million viewers an episode. Even factoring in DVR and online viewing, that’s a steep decline.

And the problem with the audience leads to the concept-over-character issue I mentioned above. Producers and writers feel like they have to hook people in with these outrageous ideas and then the audience doesn’t get invested in the characters and leaves. It’s a cyclical roundabout of doom.

4. The disease of more always kicks in.
If a series is a major hit, the networks and advertisers are going to want more of it. More episodes per season, more seasons and these days, more spin-offs.

And the people involved with the show want more too: more money, more screen time, better back-end syndication money, whatever.

But the folks at Lost always avoided that. Lindelof and Cuse negotiated the six-season deal in 2007 when they realized they couldn’t tell the story they wanted to if they didn’t know when it would end. And no actor has spoken out vehemently for more screen time or money, but instead fell into place because they knew they’d get their time to shine.

In May, Lost will be gone forever and so will the idea of the hyper-serialized character drama on network television.

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