Preparing for Life After Lost

It began with a plane crash and polar bears. Then it got weird. How a wildly ambitious tale of science fiction, spirituality and philosophy changed the way we watch television

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Mario Perez / ABC

A scene from Lost

It's a gorgeous place to hold an apocalypse. Lost — TV's biggest, head-trippiest desert-island adventure — is shooting a scene from its final episode on Lanai Lookout, a treacherous, windswept slope of naked lava encircled by roiling blue water and hammered by whitecaps. [Spoiler alert: if you don't want to know even the slightest details about the finale, skip this opening section.] As the cameras are set up on the rocks, a crew member scouts out an especially dramatic crag downhill. He radios up to director Jack Bender: "The view is great. The safety is ... questionable."

They opt for a less precarious spot farther up. [Seriously, I'm about to name who's in the scene; skip ahead now if you don't want to know.] Six of Lost's stars are on hand — Michael Emerson, Matthew Fox, Jorge Garcia, Josh Holloway, Evangeline Lilly and Terry O'Quinn — and before they shoot, they need to get sprayed down with a massive hose to simulate a drenching storm. Properly soaked, the actors take their places, Bender calls action, and — Oh, like I'm going to tell you. It's not just that if I were to give away the surprisingly spoilery scene they've let me witness, ABC would kill me. The 2½-hr. finale, on May 23, is the broadcast event of the year: the network is charging $900,000 per 30-sec. ad, more than anything save the Oscars and the Super Bowl. It's also that if you're a Lost fan, you would kill me. This is a show that for six seasons has stretched the ambitions and challenged the assumptions of network television. Its intensely devoted fan base has been not just watching Lost but poring over it, dissecting details, formulating theories — and avoiding the numerous spoilers, real and bogus, that are swirling around even now. So let's just say the scene involves a typically Lostian mix of melodrama, metaphysics, emotion, blood, shouting, tenderness and comic relief. Also rain. A lot of rain.

When the scene's done, Bender announces that this is the "series wrap" for Lilly: her last scene in Lost ever. Lilly, shivering and with her head wrapped in a towel, thanks her co-stars and her stunt double. There's applause. Cigars are smoked. Holloway lifts her off the ground in a bear hug. I suddenly feel a little sea mist in my eyes. Shut up.

Something special is ending here. The cast knows it, I know it, fans at home know it. In an era of diminished major-network expectations, Lost has made big, demanding, intellectual TV on a broadcast network. It's married epic action with myth, science and ideas about human nature like few mass-culture hits besides Star Wars and The Matrix. Audaciously and improbably, it's become TV's most philosophical work of entertainment — or its most entertaining work of philosophy.

Rejecting the Expected
In a business that's too often about dumbing down, Lost is unapologetically challenging. (See sidebar for a taste.) But its origins were humbler. In 2004, ABC asked hitmaker J.J. Abrams (Alias, Star Trek) to create a drama about plane-crash survivors stranded on an island. But Abrams, who co-created the show with Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber, decided to complicate this premise. A lot. The cinematic two-hour pilot set out tantalizing mysteries: an unseen monster, a polar bear in the jungle, a mysterious radio transmission. And the producers assumed — at a time when easy-to-follow dramas like CSI ruled the airwaves — that the show was doomed. Recalls executive producer Bryan Burk: "The two things you couldn't do on TV in 2004 were serialized TV and science fiction."

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