LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It was four-and-a-half years ago that Oceanic Flight 815 went off course over the South Pacific and crashed onto a seemingly deserted beach.
Forty-eight people (and a dog) stumbled from the smoking wreckage to discover an otherworldly tropical isle inhabited by polar bears, smoke monsters and a mysterious band of human natives known as the "Others." The ever-evolving mystery made ABC's "Lost" the water-cooler show of the 2004-05 television season, helped revive the flagging fortunes of its parent network, and turned its cast -- all of whom were virtual unknowns, save for Matthew Fox (previously star of Fox's "Party of Five") and Dominic Monaghan (Merry in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) -- into internationally recognizable figures.
With the 100th episode airing Wednesday, the survivors still haven't figured out exactly where they are and why, but executive producer Carlton Cuse has a theory as to how they got there, creatively speaking.
"The fact that no one believed 'Lost' was going to be successful in the beginning was enormously liberating," Cuse says. "So we set out to make 12 episodes of what we thought was the coolest TV show we could come up with and in so doing we violated a lot of the traditional rules of television narrative. We had characters who were murderers and had done very bad things. We had incredibly complex serialized storytelling. We had lots of intentional ambiguity, leaving the audience lots of room for interpretation and those things that sort of violated the rules of television were the very things that the audience ended up responding to."
But nothing lasts forever. In May 2007, it was announced that "Lost" would wrap in May 2010 at the end of Season 6. The reason was not the ratings, which have declined over the years as show has shifted time slots five times and taken long midseason hiatuses like the three-week break between Episodes 6 and 7 in Season 3.
It wasn't the high price tag of $4 million per episode. The decision was purely creative.
"We're fairly certain that, had we not been given an end date, the show might have been canceled by now, because we would've had to continue spinning our wheels and stalling," executive producer/ co-creator Damon Lindelof says. "It's a finite idea. Once Carlton and I had gotten through the first 30 or 40 hours of it, it became very clear to us that we were ready to take the show out of question/mystery mode and into resolution mode. And we couldn't do that until we knew when the show was going to end."
The show's beginnings can be traced to January 2004, when then-ABC president Lloyd Braun commissioned a script from Spelling Television that he envisioned as a narrative take on the unscripted hit "Survivor." Jeffrey Lieber wrote the initial drafts of the pilot, titled "Nowhere." Braun felt it wasn't working, so he brought in "Alias" creator J.J. Abrams and teamed him with Lindelof, a writer-producer on ABC's "Crossing Jordan."
Abrams and Lindelof met on a Monday. By Friday, they had written a 20-page outline, adding a supernatural angle. On Saturday, the pilot got a greenlight. Having started late in the 2004 season's development, they had less than 12 weeks to write the pilot and prep it for production. It would have been a daunting task under any circumstances, but this script had 14 major speaking parts, a downed jet and a remote setting. Abrams and Lindelof compounded the logistical challenges by revising the characters and story lines during the casting process, leaving the complex puzzle of its mystery with more than a few rough, unfinished pieces.
"We didn't know that it was going to be successful, and when the ratings started coming out and it was doing well, we realized, 'Oh, my God, we're going to have to keep doing this,'" says Cuse, who stepped forward to run the show with Lindelof after Abrams departed to concentrate on other projects. "That's really when we really started working out the mythology."
The network started the buzz building by world-premiering the show's two-hour pilot at Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 24, 2004. Over the Labor Day weekend preceding the show's TV debut, bottles containing cryptic messages were scattered across several beaches on the East and West Coasts. Although cleanup crews were prescheduled to remove any undiscovered bottles, the network still managed to get tagged with several littering tickets. It also aired "pirate radio" spots on stations nationwide.
"All of a sudden it would sound like people were cutting into the radio saying, 'Help! We're survivors of Oceanic Flight 815,' then it would crackle out," says ABC executive vp marketing Michael Benson . "We actually got in a little trouble over that, too, because people thought it was really happening."
In the years since, the "Lost" team has made regular appearances at Comic-Con, including a panel discussion last year that attracted about 6,000 fans. The network has also commissioned spin-off novels, an official "Lost" magazine, an alternative reality game ("The Lost Experience") and various tie-in Web sites, including the Emmy-nominated Find815.com, as well as a line of action figures.
The ABC marketing department has further taken on the difficult task of making the show's complex mythology more comprehensible to first-time or casual viewers with weekly four-minute video recaps posted on ABC.com that use action figures and character cut-outs fashioned from screen caps to re-enact key scenes from the latest episode.
"It's a challenging show," admits ABC president of entertainment Stephen McPherson, who greenlit "Lost" as a series after taking over from Braun in April 2004. "It's not just a cookie-cutter procedural with a new case each week. There's a real depth to it. But I also know people who watch only occasionally and really enjoy it when they do."
There's no question that the show's labyrinthine plot twists have been too much for some. Viewership has declined from an average of 15.69 million people a week in Season 1 to 11.37 million a week at the beginning of this season, according to Nielsen. But Cuse believes that has as much to do with changing viewing habits of the show's tech-savvy fans as anything else.
"People are still watching our show, they're just watching it in different ways," he says. "They're DVR-ing it, they're watching it on ABC.com, they're looking at it on DVDs. And when you sort of aggregate all the ancillary platforms on which 'Lost' is available," including cell phones and other PDAs, "and also weekend syndication, in fact the Nielsen number is only a fractional part of the audience now."
The complexity that makes it daunting for casual viewers is precisely what makes it so appealing to its hardcore fans, dubbed Losties or Lostaways, who follow the show with the intensity of Trekkers. They have a strong presence on the Web via such sites as TheTailSection.com and LostHatch.com, and strong opinions about where the plot should go. Cuse says he's aware of the chatter, but he does his best to ignore it.
"The problem is if someone says something that's critical of the show, it can kind of stick in my brain the wrong way and infect my creative process," Cuse says. "There's a guy named Greg Nations who's our script coordinator and keeps sort of records and history of the show. He follows all the boards and sort of gives us a Reader's Digest exegesis of what the fan sites say the day after the show airs, and that's a lot more palatable. He's very well-equipped to say, 'Here's a question that's percolating up to the surface a lot. You guys should take a look at this or think about this.' That indirectness is important for us maintaining the sanctity of our own creative process."
For Lindelof, the risks of responding to fan chatter are exemplified by Nikki and Paulo, a pair of characters introduced in Season 3 played by Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro, respectively.
"The boards were all atwitter with, 'What about these other people on the show, these background people who are walking around?' " Lindelof says. "We had introduced one of them, Dr. Arzt (Daniel Roebuck), in the finale of Season 1 just as a gag to blow the guy up, but the question never went away. So we thought, clearly, there is a desire for us to give these people names and stories, and we tried it and it was a disaster."
Before the season was out, Nikki and Paulo were dead. They're not the only characters that have been sacrificed to feed the drama. During the past five seasons, several of the core group of original survivors have been killed off, including Michael (Harold Perrineau) and Charlie (Monaghan).
"That has been a specter hanging over all of us since Season 1," says Daniel Dae Kim, who plays Jin, a Korean businessman stranded along with his wife Sun (Yunjin Kim).
"It's always difficult to lose a cast member, because we all uprooted ourselves and in many cases moved our families to Oahu," the Hawaiian island where the show is shot. "It's not like shooting a show in L.A. When one of us leaves, they leave the island, and it's not as if we can still have dinner with them even if we're not working on the same job."
Kim says he has given up speculating about the fate of his character or the answers to show's larger mysteries.
"Every time I thought I had a conclusion, the writers proved much more clever than I," Kim says. "Now I just look at it as a great amusement park ride and enjoy the thrill of it."
Lindelof says that when the show itself goes to the great hereafter next May, he and Cuse will be taking a ride out of town.
"We're taking a page out of the ("Sopranos" creator) David Chase playbook," Lindelof says. "Instead of clarifying things, we want to let it simmer and percolate. So we're searching out some undisclosed locations, some of them on the planet Earth, others might involve getting on a Russian spacecraft."
Editing by Dean Gooodman at Reuters