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

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But with 19 million viewers, Lost's debut was a hit — and its creators were left scrambling to figure out the long-haul story. Executive producer Carlton Cuse came on midway through Season 1 to run the show with Lindelof and work out a master plan. First up: rejecting trite desert-island tropes. "Like they should form a government," says Cuse. "Someone should be elected leader. They should have a system of laws. We said, 'Let's make the criteria be, "Why? Is there a really good reason we have to do it?" ' And that led us down the untrodden story path."

A Complex Show for Complex Times
So Lost would not be about tribal elections, digging wells or devising systems of coconut-shell currency. It would be a weird mystery involving time travel, the butterfly effect and conspiracies within conspiracies. It would be a spiritual journey about characters seeking redemption. It would be about big ideas: free will and predestination, science and faith, mankind's essential good or evil. Through this prism — and through narrative flashbacks, flash-forwards and flashes into an alternate reality — it would be about, well, everything.

Lost doesn't attempt to answer those eternal questions. What it does instead is challenge the audience to ponder such mysteries themselves. Cuse and Lindelof have dropped plenty of guideposts along the way. Several characters are named for authors or philosophers (Locke, Milton, Rousseau, the Zen master Dogen) whose concepts play into the story, and classic works of literature sneak into key scenes. The writers say they use these references as "a tip of the cap" to their influences, as Lindelof puts it, "as opposed to saying, 'Hey, we came up with this idea for the first time.' " Also, says Cuse, "it's usually meant to say, If you want to go deeper, here's something that you can explore." Lost is like a TV show with footnotes.

But more than that, Lost is myth in the classic sense. It draws on deep-seated archetypes — paradise and the fall, the monster/tempter in the forest primeval, resurrection and redemption — that recall stories from folktales to the Bible to the Greeks. (A major character, Desmond, came to the island when his boat was blown off course and spent years trying to get back to the woman he loved. Her name? Penny, short for Penelope — as in Odysseus' main squeeze.)

Like Star Wars, that other sci-fi saga Lost's characters often reference, Lost takes elements of Western and Eastern myth and philosophy and wraps them in a white-knuckle popcorn-movie story with suspense, romance and engaging characters. But Lost has not a single protagonist but a huge ensemble of heroes and antiheroes with checkered pasts. The loser, the con artist, the arrogant doctor, the fugitive, the junkie: each has his or her part in the quest, which has less to do with good beating evil than determining how to be good, less to do with getting the happy ending than finding out what it means to have a happy ending. Collectively, they are — to borrow the title of Joseph Campbell's classic study of myth — the Hero with a Thousand Faces, or at least a dozen or so. It's a concept of heroism for our complicated, connected world, where problems are too complex for a single savior.

All this makes for a dense, heady story — made more so this season, when Cuse and Lindelof introduced a "flash-sideways" narrative that depicts an alternate reality in which the plane never crashed. It's tough to wrap your mind around alone; you — like Lost's heroes — need a community. As soon as an episode airs, Lost fans online swarm it like ants, picking it clean for morsels of meaning and trying to guess together what might be coming next.

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