You’re standing on a beautiful beach. The soft sand drowning in its candle flame color beneath you. The endless blue of the ocean extending to the horizon, battling the orange of the sunset. A cool breeze rolls in, shaking the leaves of the nearby palm trees and enveloping you in a refreshing embrace. It’s paradise.
Now drop a 40,000-pound airplane, rip the wing off it, scatter a smattering of destructive debris and light it all on fire. Welcome to the pilot of Lost.
At north of $14 million, Lost‘s first episode was the most expensive pilot ever made at the time it aired in 2004, and it set the tone for the entire ensuing series. Lost‘s ambition, for better and worse, would become its defining characteristic through to its conclusion, folding away every conceivable broadcast convention as it went.
This week marks the 10-year anniversary of its series finale, “The End,” a grippingly divisive chapter in modern pop culture history. Although the final strokes of its conclusion were not set it stone when that pilot first aired, consideration to the endgame had always been brewing. To unpack how the series navigated the minefield of fan expectations while battling the network for direction, Observer spoke to executive producers Jean Higgins and Jeff Pinkner. What we learned is that the path to Lost‘s conclusion was rockier than most fans at home realized.
In the Beginning…
Today, the flashback-reliant narrative of Lost wouldn’t be a dramatically new way to tell stories on broadcast television. But in 2004, it was noticeable and not just because it cleverly freed the series to leave the clutches of the island.
“It was an amazing pilot and then, at the end of the pilot, everybody went ‘Oh God—what do we do now? Survival is so boring,’ Higgins told Observer. “So they looked back to figure out what they could actually do for a series, and when they came up with the idea of flashbacks, I thought ‘Thank God, we’re saved.’ Because you can go on forever. But otherwise, they just have a bunch of people in the jungle sort of looking for food and bickering—it didn’t appeal to anybody.”
The idea first came from Damon Lindelof, who would take over showrunner duties alongside Carlton Cuse following co-creator J.J. Abrams’ departure after the pilot to direct Mission: Impossible III.
“The pilot started on the island and was literally the very first idea Damon brought to the table,” Pinkner, who played a role in developing the series in its early stages, explained. “When J.J. first had a meeting with Damon, one of Damon’s first comments, if not his very first, was ‘Can we start on the island and flashback to the events that got the survivors there?’ That sort of sealed the deal for him and sealed the job for him instantly.”
Committing to that flashback structure was unconventional in the moment as was focusing on a different character in each of those first several episodes. But similar to how mystery boxes became the chic story setup in Lost‘s wake, that approach has now become a popular in-road for new dramas, especially those with ensemble casts. To also deliver wide swaths of story in foreign languages such as Korean and Arabic, was also completely anomalous to the Big Four networks smack in the middle of primetime. Lost was aiming to change the paradigm but would happily settle for some good old fashioned structured chaos. That mandate, however, inevitably brought the team into conflict with the ones paying for it all.
Network television, particularly in the early 2000s, was built around the idea of finding something that the audience likes and giving it to them over and over. (Lost debuted on the very same day as CSI: NY, for Jacob’s sake.) Whatever pleasure centers a particular show tickles, it should tickle with every episode as much as possible. At least, that’s how networks operated: conditioning the audience to consume familiarity.
But the minds behind Lost didn’t think that sounded like much fun. They swung the other way. Their mission was to recreate the wheel every single episode, which made it difficult for the storytellers—as evident in the show’s clunkier latter seasons—but also incredibly exciting. It also led to some “highly contentious” calls with the studio and network.
“The idea that the show was never going to be the same was a critical element of the series that also caused tremendous conflict with the studio and network,” Pinkner said. “The irony was because the show was so successful right out of the gate it gave the network a deeper desire to constantly deliver the same thing. Their immediate understandable thought was ‘Oh my god, we’ve got a monster hit, don’t change anything.’ And for Damon and the creative side, it was was ‘Oh my god, we’ve got a hit, that must mean we’re doing something right so let us keep doing it.’ It created both sides of the argument.”
Smoke monsters, magic numbers, a damn time traveling island. We know who won most of those arguments between the writers and the network. It was that ambition and Lost‘s admirable scope that drew the interest of Higgins, whose background was in feature films. “I want big because that’s where I come from. So let’s figure out how to make this as big as we can. And that’s what we did, always. The stories were big, the vision was big, I think the execution was big, and it worked,” she said.
The bigger the vision, however, the more difficult it is to rein it in.
Developing “The End”
From the very beginning of the show’s development, the Lost title was meant to have a double meaning. Yes, the characters themselves were physically lost in the world on this mysterious island. But, more crucially, they were each spiritually lost in their own lives. The show always tried to remain true to the characters and, by the end, to some spiritual outlook about life and our purpose. It also edged open new doors into its story even as the show approached its very end. Lost often felt artistically bold, but that didn’t come without drawbacks.
“So even from the very, very, very initial conversations, we considered what could all of this add up to, so there was sort of a framework put in place,” Pinkner said. “Being storytellers, all of us wanted to remain really open to possibility and not limit ourselves by coming up with an answer. We discussed many possible answers and sort of just a leaving off place without committing to any of them.”
As time went on, however, a more definitive conclusion began to take shape. Higgins said “it was pretty obvious to all of us that it was some form of purgatory” from early on and that the showrunners “didn’t feel like they had anyplace else to go with it” by the time the sixth and final season arrived. Higgins remembered Lindelof, in particular, as being pretty much “tapped out” creatively. Making matters worse, the story wasn’t the only headache inducer heading into Season 6 and their two-part finale, “The End.”
“You’re going in and you’re thinking, ‘This is going to be bigger, more intense, how do we pull it off…’ Because you still have a budget,” Higgins said. “It’s not open-ended. Interestingly, when studios know it’s the last season, it’s sort of like, ‘Well, it’s not going to help to add to it because it’s the end.’ So it was trying to figure out how to do everything they needed or wanted within the parameters.”
And if Lost had to operate within budgetary constraints and creative parameters behind the scenes, it also created a tidal wave of external pressure as well.
“It Was Never Designed to Answer Everything”
Lost arrived in 2004 at the very first moment when audience feedback became a real-time consideration with the advent of the internet. That development—which fueled rabid online viewer speculation, passionate globally connected fan communities, and real-time discussions between creators and audiences—helped transform Lost into a phenomenon from the get-go. It also nearly destroyed the series.
Lindelof, Cuse and the rest of the creative team were acutely aware that fans were piecing together mysteries ahead of the writers and injecting theories into the greater pop culture conversation. Former Entertainment Weekly critic Jeff Jensen became a go-to source for expert theories that would rile up legions of online fans and spark off-shoot discussions on popular viewer-driven online communities. Throughout its run, Lost would become a staple of the annual fan fest San Diego Comic Con, with its cast and crew stoking the flames of audience anticipation. The website Fandom has an entire page dedicated to unofficial Lost-themed podcasts produced by the viewing public. There was always a constant stream of noise surrounding Lost generated from the showrunners themselves as well as the hungry consumers.
“Every writer has a little bit of a masochistic streak and one of the things that drives us is criticism,” Lindelof said in 2010. “As much as we say that we hate it and we’re really sensitive about it, it’s as close as we’re going to come as opposing football teams playing in the playoffs. The opposing team for us is the audience and if they’re making comments to the press about how they’re going to beat us, sometimes that works as a motivator.”
In addition to the natural chatter, Lost also spearheaded unique viral marketing efforts that engaged with fans across a variety of platforms. The Lost Experience was an alternate reality game created by ABC to attract die-hards and newcomers alike. The creative and marketing teams would also create videos, clues and inside information to be intermixed with sponsorship campaigns for the likes of Sprite, Jeep and other major brands, further extending the show’s puzzle-structured mystery. The overarching identity Lost began to inadvertently cultivate was one of confusion and misdirection.
By the time the show reached its later seasons, it was trapped, in a manner of speaking, much like the Man in Black. When a reveal was correctly guessed ahead of time, fans complained. When a reveal didn’t neatly align with popular theories floating around the internet, fans complained. It forced the creative team into uncomfortable and unprecedented territory where fans could potentially influence the direction of a cultural phenomenon.
“It was the most difficult because some storytellers or creators would choose to remain in a little bunker and not be mindful of what the audience is thinking,” Pinkner said. “Other storytellers become beholden on some subconscious level to the audience and tried to write stories that they know will please their viewers.”
He continued: “Others tried to live somewhere in the middle, remaining true to themselves and also acutely open to the feedback they’re getting both positive and negative. They would try as best as they can to not let that inform the storytelling too much while also being mindful of what elements of the story are resonating and what aren’t. Damon, and I think the entire staff, we all tried to sit in that third camp as best as we could.”
The real-time social media fan engagement reached its fever pitch following Lost‘s series finale. Some applauded “The End” as an emotional character-first sendoff to a groundbreaking series while others derided it as bait-and-switch due to its lack of resolution for several remaining questions. The overwhelming chorus of negativity grew so loud that Lindelof ultimately left Twitter. Without excusing the more vitriolic fan reactions, Pinkner conceded that he might approach things differently if given another chance.
“I think that some of the mysteries could have been resolved along the way, but I think that the show was the perfect articulation of the show it was designed to be, and it was never designed to answer everything,” he said. “I haven’t thought about this in a long time and I’m only thinking about it because you asked—I think that we could have trained the audience to not worry so much about the answers. That’s something we could have done a bit better both in the way that we interacted with the audience online and the way that the show presented the questions and the way that the characters responded to the questions inside the story.”
Still, there was hardly a blueprint for presenting those questions to an audience that grew increasingly online and ravenous for answers when Lost aired. Asking that audience to care less, Pinkner points out, wouldn’t be quite right either. “We could have trained the audience to not care as much, but at the same time, that would have diminished the storytelling. So it’s really hard to look back on something that you participated, created in that way and say what would I have done differently.”
Higgins chalks up the blowback to the finale to the naturally fickle nature of viewers. “Sometimes, I think audiences want to be told exactly what things are. But I don’t think you need to hit the audience over the head,” she said. “If it’s a little more ambiguous, you can take away from it what you want or what you need to believe.”
Reckoning With “The End” and the Hereafter
Beyond the tens of millions of viewers Lost entertained each week, beyond the tens of millions of dollars Lost spent on its blockbuster episodes, the core of the series was always an inclusive exploration of humanity and our own search for meaning in a vast and overwhelming world. To portray that ideal, Lost needed to portray the real world as it is, not the sanitized and color-coded world that mainstream entertainment often depicts.
“We were literally the first show that was multicultural in that way,” Higgins said. “There had been other shows that had black people and white people in the same show, but they didn’t interact and have relationships in the same way. It hadn’t been done before. Now, people take it for granted because we had such an eclectic cast, but that was the first time. And when you show things on television and you make them seem normal, they become normal in real life.”
“Lost was designed and trained the audience to receive it on one level as a giant cosmic riddle to be solved,” Pinkner said. “The audience was deeply invested, thinking ‘what are these mysteries? Surely I’m going to get answers by the end,’ and then when they didn’t were understandably pissed off.”
“The End” polarized audiences deeply. Several critics named it among the worst series finales of all time, while others called it an underrated masterpiece. Are the beautifully emotional character reunions in the afterlife a testament to the show’s commitment to a character-first narrative? Does the lack of resolution undermine the building blocks that enabled the show to thrive in the first place?
Regardless of the ongoing debate that still ensnares “The End,” Lost as a whole remains one of the most acclaimed television shows in history. When ranking the top 100 TV series of all time, Lost landed 39th on Rolling Stone, 8th on IGN, and 9th on Empire. And like all multi-season television, Lost‘s full impact never boiled to simply sticking its landing; yes, the journey still can exist separate from its destination. It was a show that followed the stories of people who were stuck, but as a whole, the show was always about their journey to getting themselves un-stuck. The effort required to become unmoored from apathy and aimlessness was more important than the ultimate result.
Pinkner posited another answer for viewers frustrated by the Lost ending. “Now, I think what Damon might say is that’s analogous to our lives, that very seeking answers and then that frustration when you don’t get them is analogous to our lives as human beings here on our Earth,” he said. “But that doesn’t make people feel better.” In a bit of metafiction, the episode itself—which was written by Lindelof and Cuse—seems to echo this sentiment in dialogue between Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) and his ghostly father, Christian Shephard (John Terry), in purgatory.
“Everything that’s happened to you is real. All those people in the church, they’re all real too,” Christian tells his son. It was not paradise, but it did happen. It was purgatory, but it made for great TV. “The End” matters, but it will never matter as much as the 120 episodes of Lost that came before it.
At first Jack refuses to acknowledge this, clinging to the idea that because his life has come to an end, his efforts have been meaningless. But his father continues: “The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people.”
Ultimately, Jack accepts that and moves on.