TV has never been the same.
From the mysterious smoke monster to the elusive Dharma Initiative and every bit of mythology in between, Lost not only put J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot on the map, it changed how audiences consume content, pushing the medium firmly into the digital age.
Every episode of the Survivor-inspired series is now on Hulu, which makes this the perfect time to look back on ABC’s landmark series. Here’s how Lost changed television forever.
8. A 6-Year Plan
In 2007, just three years into the show’s production, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof put their co-showrunner status to the test by announcing an end-date to the most popular show on TV. The decision happened during a time before American TV embraced the limited series model, and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu were just a pipe dream.
The modus operandi at the time found broadcast networks keeping their hits on air as long as possible. Instead of milking this ratings cash cow, though, Lindelof and Cuse came to the decision to end Lost after its sixth season. The move gave the writing team a goal to meet–aiming to bring the show’s expansive tale to a worthy end–while confirming the ownership of the story laid firmly with the creative team, instead of the suits on the corporate side.
7. Serialized Storytelling In A Primetime World
When Lost hit the airwaves, the series blew the doors open, showing audiences and storytellers a whole new world of storytelling possibilities on primetime TV. It was jaw-droppingly cinematic with its effects, it was intricate in exploring each and every character’s story, and the supernatural mythology blended perfectly with the harrowing survival tale of Oceanic Flight 815.
While most primetime broadcast shows tended to present formulaic procedural subject matter to TV audiences, Lost never disrespected its viewership. The "mystery box" style of storytelling popularized by J.J. Abrams and perpetuated by Lindelof and Cuse, along with the show’s signature flashbacks and time-jumps, helped to deliver an episodic experience where the stakes were spectacular, and always heightened. The audience thoroughly cared about the show’s characters, and every new discovery provided conversation fodder for days to come. In short, Lost become the first watercooler series for the internet age.
6. Often Imitated, Never Duplicated
ABC took a huge chance on Lost, not least because at the time its pilot was the most expensive ever made. Aside from the fact that the huge ensemble cast featured a bunch of unknown actors, the style in which the story was told was unlike anything audiences had seen on TV before. We already mentioned the mystery box–J.J. Abrams’ popular storytelling device–which helped to keep Lost’s subversive sci-fi storytelling full of intrigue, while the mythology only grew.
But another narrative component Lost introduced was the use of time jumps, flashbacks, flash-fowards, and character-centric bottle episodes. The series was an anomaly on multiple levels. And as flashy as these plot tricks were, they succeeded time and again in moving the story along. When Lost went off the air in 2010, multiple networks tried encapsulating on its success. Copycats like NBC’s The Event, CBS’s The Nine, and ABC’s FlashForward failed to connect with viewers.
5. A TV Show For The Internet Age
Lost premiered in 2004. Facebook was in its infancy, Twitter was two years away from launching, and YouTube wasn’t yet a thing. Still, the series struck a chord with internet users, prompting fans to venture online to chat forums and IRC channels to discuss theories and piece together clues, while speculating on what would come next.
Fan theories aside, Lost also introduced multiple alternate reality game (ARG) components that helped continue the canon outside of the small screen world. "The Lost Experience" was created in partnership with ABC and the show’s writers to further engage with the audience via a variety of in-episode puzzles and clues left to be decoded by fans. This forward-thinking viral marketing–along with the addition of online bonus webisodes–helped keep the fandom satisfied while waiting for the next episode to air.
4. Television’s First Official Podcast
In its second year, ABC took Lost beyond the small-screen to connect with its growing online fanbase. Podcasting was still in its infancy but, with the help of co-showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, The Official Lost Podcast released in November of 2005. Twitter was still a year away from launching, but this didn’t stop the network and the show’s executive producers from latching onto some exciting new media trends.Not only were fans treated to weekly episodes of the podcast, where they were able to speculate on the mysteries of the series, Lindelof and Cuse were regularly featured in the show, helping to guide viewers on this journey by giving them behind-the-scenes tidbits, tease upcoming twists, and answer fan questions.
3. It Brought The Showrunners Into The Spotlight
Before Lost, a showrunner’s success was based on how many programs they had on the air at one time. But things began to change in 2004, when Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse brought Lost to the small screen. Their decision to stay with the show throughout its six-season run helped cement them as important components to the series–the cast weren’t the only celebrities.
In an effort to help usher in this new brand of storytelling, Lindelof and Cuse (or Darlton, as the internet began to call them), regularly took the stage to explain the show’s mysteries, casting choices, and plot points to come. They became the spokespeople for TV’s new watercooler show. And while fan scrutiny was a constant–Lindelof ended up quitting Twitter–their role in the series helped change the perception of showrunners for good.
2. A Diverse Cast, A Global Phenomenon
One of the key factors to Lost’s success was its ensemble cast. For a 2004 TV series, ABC brought one of the most diverse casts to primetime TV ever. The survivors of Oceanic flight 815 included Charlie (English), Mr. Eko (Nigerian), Sun and Jin (South Korean), and of course, the former Iraqi soldier, Sayid Jarrah. It’s worth noting that, with America’s military conflict in the Middle East, presenting an Iraqi hero such as Sayid was a huge risk–and it paid off, showcasing a universal (and welcome) element of humanity.
Alongside the varied cultures featured in the series, the show relied heavily on its strong female characters: Claire, Kate, Danielle, Juliet, Ana Lucia, Libby, Ilana, Rose, and others.
1. A Huge Return On A Risky Investment
When the plane crash transpired in Lost’s pilot, it was evident that this was going to be a show unlike anything audiences had seen. It was hugely cinematic in a big-screen blockbuster sort of way, and it played well with the growing popularity of the HDTV. Lavish special effects, a tropical shooting location, and large ensemble cast full of relatively unknown actors translated into a huge investment for ABC–the pilot episode cost roughly $10 million to make.
Not only was ABC investing in its innovative programming, it was investing in an evolving content market. Since its premiere, many copycats hit the small screen trying emulate the show’s success. And more and more shows have racked up a sizable budget to deliver engaging programming to viewers: HBO’s Boardwalk Empire pilot exceeded $18 million, Netflix’s Sense8 averaged $9 million an episode, and Game of Thrones regularly shells out roughly $7 million per episode. It’s been 14 years since Lost hit ABC and, for better or worse, TV has never been the same.