Ten years ago today, it began with an eye opening.
Over the course of six seasons, Lost took viewers who were brave enough to follow it on a journey. With all its twists and turns, the journey incorporated flashbacks, polar bears, numbers, hatches buried in the ground, time travel, questions of science and faith, and everything in between.
When I think back on the legacy of Lost, I remember the few seasons after it aired, when everyone was trying to crack the Lost formula. Lost showed that audiences would love watching a complicated show and picking it apart. Networks wanted a similar show to tap into that devoted, engaged audience.
Lost premiered right at the dawn of many significant changes in how we watch television. During its hit (and critically acclaimed) first season, many viewers were forced to watch it live. It was the definition of water-cooler TV, and it changed television as television was changing around it.
Lost was at the forefront of the many changes in television distribution. In fall 2005, it was one of the first shows made available for purchase on iTunes, and in spring 2006, it was one of four shows that ABC put online for viewing the day after airing as a test. In May 2009, Lost was the most viewed show online, excluding views from Hulu, which had only been founded in 2007. Lost’s serialized nature demanded that audiences be able to catch up on episodes they missed, which viewers take for granted today.
Along with the emergence of online viewing, television – and the way we watch it – changed markedly during the course of Lost’s run. In a trend continuing from the 1980s, audiences flocked from broadcast to cable TV. The industry began to take notice of cord cutting. In 2004, DVR penetration in the United States was around 3%; in 2010, it was 40%. In 2004, Netflix was just a DVD-by-mail service; by 2010, it had been streaming content online for two years.
Much like Netflix adding streaming, technology that has been changing how we watch TV emerged while Lost was airing. The iPhone didn’t exist in 2004; by the time Lost ended in May 2010, we were up to the third model, with a fourth on the horizon. Twitter didn’t exist in 2004; in 2010, there were 13.1 million adult monthly active users in the United States.
Would Lost have become such a breakout hit if it had premiered in today’s television climate?
Lost the Broadcast Drama
In recent years, many of these changes in television have shifted the discourse of television away from broadcast and towards cable and digital. Lost emerged right as broadcast was beginning to lose its relevance; in fact, it was the second-to-last broadcast drama to take home the top prize at the Emmy Awards. These days, broadcast television is at a disadvantage within the industry: witness The Good Wife’s failed 2014 Emmy campaign (there are spoilers for the show’s 5th season in the linked article).
Examining Lost now, its vast scope, its complicated mythology, its cliffhangers, and its deep questions still give it a feel different from the run-of-the-mill broadcast show.
But Lost was conceived partly around the idea of turning Survivor, a broad hit if ever there was one, into a scripted drama. Broadcast TV is in Lost’s DNA.
Before the complicated mythology and numerous mysterious, Lost was a character drama. Its opening plunged viewers into the perspective of Jack Shepherd, opening up the world to unveil a variety of very real people.
The diversity of the original cast of Lost speaks to the definition of broadcasting. Lost was a human drama with real people – and a hint of mystery – designed to appeal the broadest audience it could.
As Lost went on – and television and technology changed around it – the show began to cater to a specific slice of its audience: its fans. It became more complicated and embraced its science fiction and mystery elements. It incorporated Easter eggs for fans to pour over and created interactive online games for fans.
But when Lost ended, it went back to its roots. There were no clear answers to the complicated questions. Lost ended the story of its characters, not the story of the Island. By ending on a character level – just as it began (and, truthfully, how it always remained despite the growing emphasis on mystery) – Lost showed that it is the questions, more than the answers, that matter.
The Legacy of Lost
And this is the legacy of Lost. It wasn’t perfect, but it was grand in scope. It meandered, but it always knew what it was.
Lost proved that a great television show could be messy and still beautiful. A great show could weather the storm of the dynamic changes in its industry. A great show could tackle big questions without answering them and still be great.
Lost was all about the journey, and, after all, life is a journey.
- Borgen (2010-2013) Series in Review: Politics and Power
- My Personal Television History