Wednesday, October 05, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #143: Lost: "Pilot" (2004)

From a certain perspective, it's fair to state that Lost (2004 - 2010), created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof, helped to rescue dramatic, scripted television for the next generation. 

If you remember the context of early last decade, the big four TV networks weren't doing very well as the 20th century became the twenty-first.  Cable television was siphoning off viewership by the droves, and networks were seeking to cut costs.  Reality programs such as Survivor, Big Brother, Boot Camp and Temptation Island were thus taking over the airwaves like a virus, as were gimmicky game shows such as ABC's four night-a-week broadcast lobotomy, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?. 

But in 2004, Lost -- to a very large extent -- re-ignited interest in the prime time drama with the high concept tale of diverse plane crash survivors contending with life on mysterious Pacific island, one where magic and science seemed to intersect.  At first, the series was sexy, provocative, and unpredictable.  It was an immediate critical and popular hit.

By the 2005-2006 season -- just a year later -- all the big networks were seeking to imitate and emulate Lost with other high concept series, ones that blended sci-fi, seralized storytelling, flashbacks, and large ensemble casts. 

These programs boasted titles such as Prison Break, Reunion, Surface, Invasion and Threshold.    More recent programs such as The Nine, FlashForward and The Event appear to operate from the same outline.

Yet from another perspective entirely, Lost may also be a textbook example of the egregious and perhaps unavoidable pitfall of serialized storytelling on television.  As it wore on across the long years, this Emmy-nominated series kept slathering on new mysteries (what's below the hatch? Who are the Others? What does a repeated sequence of numbers really mean?) and kept promising answers, but never really delivered in a substantive or coherent way. 

Then, the series culminated with a whimper rather than a bang after featuring flashes-forwards and, weirdly, flashes "sideways."  By the end of its network run, Lost had became a veritable cluster fuck of narrative cheating and revisionist series history.  The final episode cracked open a pretty big schism in Lost fandom (as the final episode of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica also did, likewise, in that particular franchise). 

The overwhelming feeling was: it was all leading to this?  Are you serious?

In fairness, so much anticipation was built up for the final episode of Lost that there was very little way, realistically, that the writers could successfully meet it.  But the problem was largely exacerbated because the writers also mostly seemed to be making things up as they went along, and constantly changing conceits, or discarding established mysteries that didn't fit into the new overall arc.

In 2011, the widespread, mainstream response to Lost may best be expressed by my wife, a good, patient soul who watches every science fiction series in existence with me, and yet is not a "sci-fi" fan herself.  When she heard I was planning to re-screen Lost's pilot for a cult-TV flashback on the blog this week, she actually turned visibly grumpy, and opted to go read something on her Kindle instead.  I asked her what the problem was, and she said that just the thought of watching Lost again -- even a single episode -- reminds her that the series constantly "jerked her around."  The mere mention of Lost made her mad.

And it takes a lot to get my wife mad.  Seriously. 

So was Lost the messiah for network television during the last decade, or just a long, meandering road to viewer frustration?   Was it a science fiction masterpiece, or a half-baked mess? 

I'd like to see the whole series again (and that isn't likely, considering my wife's viewpoint on the series...) to make an intelligent determination on that point.  But nonetheless, I still admire the promise and potential of the series pilot, which I yet rank as one of the finest made in the history of the TV form (eclipsed, possibly, only by the sterling pilot of Chris Carter's Millennium, which could play theatrically, even today).

As you may well remember, the first episode of Lost commences with utter and total chaos.  After a close-up shot of a distressed-looking eyeball, we pull-up-and-back at extreme velocity to find a man laying prone in the jungle, surrounded by tall reeds and plants. 

After checking to make certain he is actually alive, this visibly-shaken man runs onto a nearby beach and finds utter, complete pandemonium.  A jet turbine grinds away, undeterred, as huge sections of the downed plane are seen on the shore line.  Survivors of the crash move about, dazed and confused, bloodied and bruised.

And before you know it, our hero -- Matthew Fox's Jack -- goes into full doctor mode, tending to the catastrophically injured.  For ten minutes or so, during one crisis after another, this pilot episode maintains a breathless, urgent quality that absolutely rivets the attention.  In one famous, surprising and harrowing moment, a plane survivor is sucked into the whirring turbine...and it explodes into flame.  This moment actually best characterizes the pilot episode's dazzling nature: All bets are off.   Buckle yourself in for chaos and anarchy because it's going to be a damned bumpy ride.

By the pilot's twenty minute point, the survivors of the plane crash, including Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), Locke (Terry O'Quinn), Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Hugo (Jorge Garcia) are facing a new challenge: some kind of roaring monster, obscured in the distance, shaking the tops of high trees in the nearby jungle. 

Out of the frying pan and into the fire...

When Jack, Kate and Charlie bravely explore the jungle in hopes of locating the downed plane's shattered cockpit, they meet their wounded pilot (Greg Grunberg). 

He promptly informs them that authorities are looking in "the wrong place," and that the plane was "a thousand miles off course."  In other words, the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 are really on their own, and can't count on a rescue.

Before Jack and the others have time to really let these facts sink in, the unseen creature returns and yanks the pilot from his seat  in a terrifying instant. Kate, Jack and Charlie run for their lives through the pouring rain, fearing that the "monster" is hot on their trail...

And that's the first hour of Lost.  Survivors of one horrible disaster find themselves facing another terror, almost immediately.  Set amidst beautiful natural settings, the pilot generates an aura of spine-tingling uncertainty and fear.

And the potential here for good science fiction storytelling was nothing short of amazing.  What was the monster?  Who was on the island along with the survivors?  Would the survivors ever be rescued?  Or were the survivors actually already dead...dwelling in some kind of strange, paradisaical Purgatory?

This first episode of Lost makes limited use of the flashback, which is a blessing given its overuse in the following series, and these character-building moments ground the proceedings in matters of real human import.

In general, the characters are well-drawn and sympathetic and the writing is sharp and lean too.  The dynamic visual presentation, of course, is the thing that matters most, and Abrams directs the episode well.  The pace never flags and we feel, by and large, that we've been dropped into a blender; only half-understanding what has happened, and to whom it has happened.

From this stirring opening episodes, there were a million possibilities and stories to explore on that remote, isolated island. In fact, this may have simply been too big, too ambitious a canvas to paint upon successfully. 

By the second year, stories such as "Adrift" featured characters stuck on a raft at sea, literally treading water for forty-five minutes instead of countenancing the island's many enigmas.   At this point, the show became about purposefully denying the viewer answers rather than explaining what the hell was going on.   And in this fashion, Lost pretty much tread water for its first few seasons itself, the producers and writers apparently never certain if they were making a science fiction epic, or a drama that happened to be set on a weird island.

So...if you haven't sampled Lost....should you find it? 
I wish I had a better and more decisive answer for you.  The storytelling is pretty variable overall, and the final destination may not be worth the six year journey.  And yet Lost is historically important in terms of the sci-fi genre and television.   The pilot episode suggests a level of promise never quite delivered upon.
In other words, if Lost were a novel, I'd recommend you read the fantastic first chapter, and then put it down.  That way, you can imagine what a terrific story might follow, and -- in all likelihood -- come up with something more consistently intriguing.
Later today, I'll be posting  a "from the archive" post about another sci-fi series that commenced with a plane crash on a mysterious island: The New People. 


  1. I'm fully on your wife's side with this one. LOST I started again and again, only to be bucked off after a episode or two. I found it frustrating to the nth degree. Even after reading summaries to bring me back up so I could try again, it'd do me in again. Reading about the flash forwards (and the ridiculous SIDEWAYS flashes), reminded of my feelings toward the second season of TWIN PEAKS that got me away from that stellar show. Although, I have to admit the pilot for LOST was intriguing, just not the journey or its destination. For me, anyways. Still, I enjoyed reading your fine examination of its pilot episode, John. Thanks.

  2. I commend you for taking such a strong, unequivocal, unwavering take on the evolution of Lost.

    I felt very much the way you articluated. It did not deliver. I enjoyed the dramatic quality of the show, but the endless teasing of unanswered questions burned me out. I still haven't seen the final season. I truly loved the show through the end of Season Three. Even by then, there are many who felt Season Three was disappointing.

    Needless to say, it was a strong series that fizzled and I thought you really captured my own feelings on it succinctly John dubbing it a "cluster fuck."

    Regarding the writers, I would even go so far as to say, they really dangled the proverbial carrot along the way. They kept making promises and making suggestions that led you to believe it the plan was written in stone. Perhaps it was, but it wasn't a very sound plan.

    So, to be honest, the writers were partially responsible for that "anticipation." There was rarely an interview that went by they weren't plugging they were going to deliver.

    I'm kind of in agreement with your other half. I loved the Pilot but going back to walk down a path to nowhere is a bit unsavory as much as I did enjoy much of the journey and I get that part of it with regard to the characters. But therew was a good deal of circle jerking.

    So the Pilot is amazing and I would rank it high. For me it ranks closer to the Pilot of Firefly. I liked it a lot!

    In fact, the sheer simplicity and mystery of that epic opener delivers great television where Terra Nova is too many things to too many people. By the way, that second episode, Intinct, was worse, but then that might happen in second episodes.

    Thinking back to it, I loved those monster moments. The unseen monster was terrifying, but I had higher hopes than the Smoke Monster eventhough I did like the Smonster!

    That's the other thing. The flashbacks were great for two seasons. They really blended well with the character backgrounds. Eventually the device became an utter distraction of unintelligibly epic proportions.

    But I agree, the promise of Lost was much greater than delivered. The possibilties were significantly better imagined.

    But Lost really writes a powerful episode of film making Terra Nova feel like the romper room of science fiction with all of its easy answers. Your review puts some things in perspective.

    Gosh, I really did like those first three seasons. The first was the best. It's a shame it crashed and burned.

    Unfortuantely, there aren't many that don't crash and burn a little.

  3. I'm actually watching Lost for the first time. My wife and I are halfway through the fifth season, and are enjoying it. It's been a lot of fun to discover the connections between everything, which I'm guessing was the basis of the "revisionist history" of the series.

    The biggest draw for me right now is watching the mythology unfold--sometimes with great frustration at the speed of revelation--and probing that mixture of science and the supernatural.

    Overall, it's been an enjoyable experience for us.

  4. Anonymous3:04 PM

    I never saw a single episode of lost while it was on TV, but have recently finished streaming the series through Netflix. I didn’t think I would like it. In fact, I walked away uninterested after watching the first three episodes; I didn’t hate it, but it just wasn’t The Wire or Six Feet Under, if you know what I mean. But then we picked it back up and watched every season within a month and a half. It became fairly addictive, and there were so many cliff-hangers that we had to watch just one more. I had heard that I would not be satisfied and that answers would not be provided, and that it would generally not be worth it to watch them all. But I think there were so many good episodes like “Man of science, Man of Faith” that remind the viewer that a lot of metaphor was being played out on the show, and that a literal resolution, or consistency was not really necessary in order to enjoy the story. -r

  5. Jane Considine3:15 PM

    I was hooked by the first episode, but lost interest after the third season, when it became the Jack, Kate, Sawyer show. Several characters I really cared about got unceremoniously iced also. Dislike. I felt the same way about "Heroes". Loved the first two seasons, then lost interest as the plot became convoluted, and strayed from the established mythology. That said, several of my friends continued to be loyal viewers, and loved it 'til the end. Maybe I'll revisit it at some point. Maybe it was my general mood at the time. Have to think on that some more...

  6. Great thoughts and insights here on Lost from everyone.

    Le0pard13: I agree with you. Lost has such a wonderful set-up, but watching the series is often, as you say, frustrating to the "nth degree." I couldn't have said that better.

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: I also agree with your assertion, well-borne out, that Lost, in the final analysis "did not deliver," and that, furthermore "it crashed and burned." I wish I did not feel this way. I wish that Lost were to the last decade what X-Files and Millennium were to the 1990s, or what Star Trek was to the 1960s. But the writer's diffidence and dawdling keeps the show from achieving that goal, I believe.

    Michael: You are undergoing the journey I would like to take if I had time, and the wife were willing!:) It's good to hear that you are enjoying the series, and this makes me all the more curious to take on the re-re-screening. I don't deny that the show is highly compelling at times. I watched it regularly and passionately.

    More to come...


  7. I just wanted to say I enjoyed the commentaries here on the series and the different perspectives.

    It was definitely a series that created two camps. ;)

    But it sounds like Jane and I are very similar on the seasons. NOT JUDY's BOAT. : )

    Also, I agree that some of those episodes like the one mentioned by "r" made for terrific television.

    All this talk makes me want to get Lost again if I had the time.

  8. Anonymous12:37 AM

    I loved the show. I was hooked from the pilot and never missed an episode. It was event television for me and my daughter every week during the season. I totally understand why many viewers were put off by the show and became frustrated. You guys are right, it did not deliver on all it's promise. I still didn't care. I loved the mythology and I cared about the characters. maybe I was just happy to have a show like that and wanted to see it succeed, so i kept positive and supported it when many other people I knew gave up on it. I kind of feel the same way about the Walking Dead. Many people I know have lost interest and gave up on it already. I love the show and the premise and will be sorry when it all ends.

    Mike Moore