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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Lost is a multimedia experience of which the show itself is only the first component. You can watch Lost, talk it over with your spouse and go to bed. But you can also rewatch it, looking for the "Easter egg" visuals sprinkled throughout. You can play online games, watch webisodes or listen to Cuse and Lindelof's teaser-sprinkled podcast. You can go to fan forums, blogs and reference sites like to ask questions, read theories or post observations. The next time someone tells you TV makes people stupid, think of the Lost fans chatting about gnosticism, Einstein and the British East India Company.

Any network would love to have the next Lost, with a big fan base and cultlike devotion. Can they? Yes and no. Making a stunningly original, mass-culture hit is easier said than done, and shrinking network budgets don't help. "This show will not be duplicated in terms of location and scope," says director Bender. Or if it is, it may be on cable, where there's more room for ambition. Most likely, the next Lost will be as different from Lost as Lost is from, say, Twin Peaks.

First, though, Lost has to end, and in a way that doesn't make future network execs hear the phrase "the next Lost" as a cautionary tale (like, come to think of it, "the next Twin Peaks"). Cuse and Lindelof freely admit the finale won't answer every minor mystery, but they say it will resolve the big ones. When Lost began, Lindelof says, the question was whether the characters had been brought to the island intentionally. "The answer was yes," he says. "And in the wake of that question: for what? 'For what' is about to be answered."

The End — In a Way
Why are we here? It doesn't get much bigger than that for a TV drama. "The finale is tremendously spiritual," says co-star Fox. "It becomes much more character-driven and focused on some of the big philosophical questions: What's the nature of humanity? What happens when we die?" Not even all the cast members know what happens in the end. But they say it aims more at emotional closure. "It's a kind of soulful ending," says Emerson. "It's very human-scale." Of course, as O'Quinn says, a spiritual, human-scale ending could disappoint some sci-fi fans: "If you're all about 'Answer what the Dharma Initiative was doing with the polar bears,' you're probably barking up the wrong tree."

Regardless, the fact that Lost has told an elaborate story and finished it on its own terms — rather than stretching on until it died of low ratings — is almost unprecedented on TV. Lost's ending may be good, bad or in-between, but it will be, conclusively, as the finale is titled, "The End." And then again, it probably won't be — not as far as Lost's legions of amateur scholars are concerned. Cuse and Lindelof — who are fans of The Sopranos' controversial cut-to-black closer, though they swear theirs will be clearer — realize that any sufficiently ambitious ending will have to tick someone off.

And they're fine with that. On Lost, says Lindelof, "the question has mostly been, What's going to happen next? But that question no longer exists after the series finale. And we anticipate that it will be replaced by a question along the lines of, What did they mean by that? And the question that we would throw back at the audience is, Well, what did it mean to you? Your own personal relationship with Lost actually trumps any intention that we had as storytellers. And we wanted that to be the legacy of the show."

Which is as it should be. The TV show that is Lost will be over as of May 23. The phenomenon that is Lost — a story authored by everyone who watches — will continue. And the way we watch TV will have changed into an experience that's more communal, demanding and rewarding. The only truly disappointing series finale Lost could make is one that we won't still be obsessing about a month later.

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