There are no simple answers when it comes to Lost. When we left the addictively weird serial about the survivors of a plane crash on a desert island, we had just made a startling discovery: the island is linked to the world outside. That revelation, while it seems small, was momentous for fans. It destroyed a whole bunch of theories--for instance, that the characters were dead and in purgatory. So as Season 3 opens, the question on most viewers' minds is, Will there be more present-day glimpses of the outside world?
Yes, says executive producer Carlton Cuse. But executive producer Damon Lindelof interjects that he might not use the term present.
Adds Cuse: "The context of time is something you can't take for granted."
Uh-huh. TV has seen plenty of shows with Lost's geek appeal, but their stories usually end with "... and it was soon canceled, to the dismay of its hard-core fans." The Prisoner, the first Star Trek series--even Twin Peaks went from phenom to flame-out faster than you can say, Who killed Laura Palmer? Lost is different. An unapologetically knotty, mass-market commercial hit, it demands commitment--and gets it. How did Lost escape the cult-show graveyard? Partly because it's just TV genius. But also because TV has changed--and because Lost changed TV. Many of the changes that threatened old-fashioned TV--the rise of the Internet, new technologies, a fragmented audience with new entertainment options--have made Lost successful. It won over Internet-centric viewers who are supposed to be bored with TV, and it benefited from technologies like iTunes, DVRs and DVDs that some were worried would be the end of TV. It took the attributes that would once have made it a cult failure--eccentricity and complexity--and used them to harness the power of obsessive, evangelical fans. Like the story told in Lost, the story of the series' success is one of careful design, science and a little faith.
First, the faith. In 2004, ABC was fourth in the ratings. One series in its pipeline was based on an idea by then chairman Lloyd Braun: a fictionalized Survivor. ABC turned over the project to producer J.J. Abrams and his partner Lindelof, who elaborated the concept into a wild, character-driven mystery. The wisdom in TV then was that viewers were too busy to follow continuing story lines. Simple procedurals like CSI reigned. "We would have loved to have had a CSI," says Stephen McPherson, then head of Touchstone Television and now ABC Entertainment president. "But given our choices, it made a lot of sense to try to break out of the clutter." Abrams had a track record, as producer of Alias, of making a thriller with emotional impact--although, Abrams says, "it was an ongoing battle" getting the network to support that show's complex serial story line.