What’s more important to a story: The destination or the journey getting there? How you answer that question will inevitably determine your overall feelings on Lost. An utterly brilliant, groundbreaking sci-fi drama series when it launched on ABC in 2005 and helped to usher in the Golden Age of Television, Lost ended up being intensely divisive thanks to its frustratingly vague ending five years later.
Personally, I’m a Lost fanboy through and through. I was that guy playing all the Altered Reality Games and studying all the Dharma Initiative lore hidden behind cryptic internet puzzles. I was obsessed with the world of Lost for years and still love it to this day… but even I will admit that ending sucked. And now we’re learning that how the show got there was supposed to be a very different, much shorter trip.
This was revealed by Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost alongside JJ Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber, when he spoke to Collider recently. Lindelof is coming off his awards-favourite masterpiece adaptation of Watchmen, which – unless something drastic happens – will just constitute one season. Before Watchmen, Lindelof also earned huge critical acclaim with The Leftovers, another short-lived show as it wrapped up its whole story in just 28 episodes. In contrast, Lost ran for 121 episodes over six seasons… which totally wasn’t the plan.
As Lindelof explained, even before filming the award-winning pilot episode that had the passengers of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 crash onto that mysterious island, Lindelof and co had already envisioned their endgame, but ABC had some qualms.
…the conversations about wanting the show to end began as early as the pilot. One of the notes that we were getting back from ABC was ‘When are you gonna resolve these mysteries? And once you resolve these mysteries, why will people keep watching the show?’ And Level One of that was, ‘Well we’re gonna be introducing new mysteries as we go. So hopefully for every one that we answer, we’ve set up a new compelling mystery. If we get that balance right, they’re not gonna stack up.’ I think that we can both agree that we did not get that balance right.
As Lindelof continued, he explained that one of the reasons why that balance was off, was because the entire show – stacked-up mysteries and all – was supposed to be wrapped up in just three seasons.
Lost was like, ‘What’s in the hatch? What’s up with the monster? Who’s the original Sawyer? How did Locke get in the wheelchair? What is the nature of the island? Why does it appear to be moving? Who are the Others?’ There were all of these compelling mysteries and so we were saying, ‘We wanna have this stuff answered by the end of Season 1, this stuff answered by the end of Season 2, and then the show basically ends after about three years.’ That was the initial pitch, and they were not even hearing it. They looked at particularly me — [writer/producer Carlton Cuse] came on about midway through Season 1 and he joined the chorus of me — but they were just like, ‘Do you understand how hard it is to make a show that people want to watch? And people like the show? So why would we end it? You don’t end shows that people are watching.’
Lindelof and Cuse, who took up a co-showrunner role, were so adamant in wanting to have a finite endpoint for the show just a few years ahead, that they nearly quit. The duo’s plan had been to work out the two-year deals they had and then leave. After heated renegotiations though, the duo was convinced to extend their deal one more year in which they would hand off the show to somebody else – most likely Jeff Pinkner, who along with Drew Goddard, had moved over from the Alias writers room.
During that time though, the showrunners’ dealings with ABC brass got even more frustrating as the latter kept wanting to stretch things out. When the show made clever use of flashbacks to reveal some character backstories – a narrative technique that shot to prominence in network TV series after Lost – ABC wanted them to keep going back to that well, no matter how silly it seems. Like a flashback just to explain where a character got tattoos.
All this time when ABC would be like, ‘Why do you want to end the show?’ we’d say, ‘These flashbacks are finite. You can do like three flashbacks of Jack getting drunk and being self-destructive, or Charlie relapsing, or Kate running away and the marshal that is chasing her. But ultimately the first one feels like an origin story because you’re learning about that person for the very first time, but all the other ones feel like you’re treading water. So we’re gonna have to switch gears—we can introduce new characters who have new backstories, but people are invested in the old ones. We’re seeing about eight chess moves ahead and it ain’t gonna end pretty.’ And they just didn’t agree with us.
And then, following negative sentiments towards the lumbering season two and equally unappreciative fan feedback to season three – which the network decided to split into two six-episode halves – started rolling in. There were some fantastic additions to the overall story in those episodes, but there was a lot of bad as well and fans weren’t happy. And that forced ABC to realize that maybe Lindelof and co were right about not keeping the show running forever… and ten seasons is less than forever, right?
Then they finally came to the table and we had a real conversation. They were like, ‘We have agreed to let you end the show.’… I just said to [ABC President] Steve McPherson, ‘Thank you. This is what’s best for the show,’ and he said, ‘We were thinking 10 seasons.’ Mind you, we’re halfway through Season 3, so first off how do you even think we’re gonna get to 10? That’s really the same as saying we’re not gonna let you end the show, because how many drama series even get to 10 seasons?
Lindelof countered that absurd number with a proposal for four seasons, as they had already worked out several major plot points that could be wrapped up in that time. After some back and forth, they eventually settled on a compromise of six seasons, but with a reduced episode count per season. This was actually a historic move. Besides for bucking the standard of 23 episodes per season, having showrunners negotiate the end of a show right in the midst of its popularity just never happened. This paradigm shift set a precedent that other high profile productions would follow in the years since. It’s precisely why a show like Breaking Bad could end the way it did.
On top of the modern trend of minimalist TV intros, viral marketing, and use of mysterious polar bears that Lost popularised, it’s this act of having a roadmap with a definitive end that is arguably its biggest contribution to the world of US network television. And Lindelof himself admits that while not everything on that roadmap worked out, “we had a plan and we executed that plan.” Just how different things would have been if this was their original though, we’ll never know.
Last Updated: July 2, 2020