20 Years Ago, ABC’s ‘Lost’ Premiered and Changed TV

This fall marks the 20th anniversary of a decisive moment in early aughts TV history: the night 18.7 million viewers tuned in to the premiere of “Lost” on ABC. That’s a fraction of the 54 million people who watched the “Friends” finale that same month, but “Lost” was a major coup for ABC, which hadn’t had a hit drama series since “The Practice” premiered seven years earlier.

And “Lost” became much more than a ratings hit. It was a phenomenon that influenced the next generation of television storytelling and helped give rise to the rabid fan groups (commonplace now) that came together in online forums to obsess over every last plot detail, hang on every single clue and eventually gripe about all the red herrings.

(Left to right) “Lost” producers Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Leonard Dick, Jean Higgins, Damon Lindelof, Sarah Caplan and J.J. Abrams at the 2005 Emmys (Getty)
(Left to right) “Lost” producers Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Leonard Dick, Jean Higgins, Damon Lindelof, Sarah Caplan and J.J. Abrams at the 2005 Emmys (Getty)

With its innovative, serialized model of storytelling, “Lost” was a breath of fresh air in a landscape dominated by the likes of “CSI,” “American Idol” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Each week — remember, we were still eight years away from Netflix’s first original series, “Lilyhammer,” kicking off a streaming revolution — we reliably showed up, on time, to learn what was happening on the unnamed, uncharted tropical island on which the survivors of Oceanic Airlines flight 815 were stranded.

There, they reckoned with unfriendly polar bears, a transceiver playing a recorded cry for help in French on a 15-year continuous loop and a terrifying, amorphous being that fans dubbed the Smoke Monster. Each episode toggled between the island narrative, flashbacks to the characters’ pre-crash lives and even flash-forwards — all pieces to what became a tantalizing, ever-expanding narrative puzzle.

As engineered by showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (plus executive producer and pilot director J.J. Abrams), “Lost” was groundbreaking in its high production value. The pilot itself reportedly cost more than $13 million. Narratively, it juggled more than a dozen major characters who all became an integral part of our lives. They entered and exited, storylines commenced and often abruptly concluded (Nikki and Paulo, good riddance). Throughout, “Lost” engaged with and upended archetypes (the scoundrel with a heart of gold, the mysterious stranger) that would almost certainly have been played straight everywhere else on network television back then.

Jorge Garcia, Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Mira Furlan and Terry O’Quinn in “Lost” (ABC)

“Lost” wasn’t just a show we watched, it was an interactive experience we shared, as we dreamed up and debated theories, wrapped ourselves in the island’s interlocking mysteries and tried to uncover its myriad secrets. Its storyline and narrative foundation carried a rare blend of philosophical, sociological and theological heft, zeroing in on mediations on life, death, birth and rebirth.

Over its six-season run, “Lost” regularly topped critics’ lists, won Emmys and was imitated by dozens of short-lived shows that unsuccessfully tried to evoke its addictive serialized structure, moody tone and sophisticated aesthetic. Its Emmy success, though, was front-loaded: It won the Outstanding Drama Series award for its first season, but became one of the few shows to score a Season 1 victory and never again win. Overall, six of the total 10 Emmys it would win came for that first season, with no subsequent season winning more than one.

Michael Emerson and Yunjin Kim in “Lost” (ABC)
Michael Emerson and Yunjin Kim in “Lost” (ABC)

By the time the polarizing two-part finale aired in May 2010, some of the show’s initial glow had dimmed: Ratings had dipped into the (still respectable) 11-million range and some critics contended that it had become an unwieldy mess. As the last moments of the last episode unfolded, some of the many big questions the show posed had finally been answered (so that’s how the Smoke Monster came to be!), but others (Why were Hurley’s numbers cursed?) remained frustratingly out of reach. They still are.

But maybe, with “Lost” now available to binge at any time on Disney+ and Hulu, those lingering enigmas are our invitation to return to the island. Maybe, we’ll think about Walt or Ben or Juliet or Jin and Sun and find ourselves saying, like Matthew Fox’s reluctant hero, Jack, “We have to go back.”

This story first appeared in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap
Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap

The post 20 Years Ago, ABC’s ‘Lost’ Premiered and Changed TV appeared first on TheWrap.