Lost, for the Last Time
As the TV phenomenon Lost heads into its final season, executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse talk to The Daily Beast about the show's long road to the end. Interview highlights include:
- How they realized the show needed an end date: "There came a point, sort of halfway through the second season, where we realized we were leaving the beginning of the show and entering into sort of a sustained period of middleness."
- Some questions will be answered: "Hurley [Jorge Garcia] cares about the numbers, so maybe we'll learn a little bit more about the numbers. Jack [Matthew Fox] cares as to whether he was brought to the island for a reason and what he's supposed to do there, so that's a question we'll be taking on."
- And some will not: "Some people are really kind of obsessed with: When are you guys going to explain what was happening in the question mark Pearl Station with all the pneumatic tubes and the diaries out there? Our characters just don't give a shit. It's not relevant to their lives."
- They were scared to introduce time-travel into the show in Season 5: "You can never anticipate what the fandom is going to think. I think, if that had been the case, Season 5 never would have existed, because we were absolutely terrified that people were going to hate time travel and not really understand what the hell was going on."
- History in the making: "We feel a little bit like we're sort of blacksmiths in the Internet era. We're making this gargantuan show; we shoot it on 35mm film in Panavision. We often have multiple crews filming at the same time. We shoot it on location in Hawaii. We live in a fractured media environment now where there's such a multiplicity of choices that it's hard to aggregate resources to do a huge big-budget series like this… I think those opportunities will be a lot fewer in the future."
When ABC's hit drama Lost made its debut on September 22, 2004, no one could have predicted the cultural juggernaut that the flashback-laden show would become. In its earliest incarnation, the show—created by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Jeffrey Lieber (and eventually run by Lindelof and Carlton Cuse)—revolved around the disparate survivors of a plane crash, stranded on a seemingly deserted island that was less than hospitable thanks to some displaced polar bears and something terrifying, large, and mysterious moving about in the jungle.
Damon Lindelof: Is it possible for a Major League Baseball player to get a hit every time he comes to bat? No, of course it's not possible, but he's trying to put wood on the ball every time he does.
While the focus was initially on these characters surviving their ordeal—foraging for food and water and forming a new society that embraced an ethos of "live together, die alone"—these strangers' various backstories were told through the use of flashback, allowing the audience to witness their lives and sins before the crash.
Over time, the show's subtle science-fiction elements began to become more apparent and a deeply detailed overarching mythology began to emerge, one that involved a tribe of island dwellers referred to as The Others, a groovy 1970s scientific/metaphysical research group known as the Dharma Initiative, and their various island stations, smoke monsters, and time travel.
Fans, obsessed with the show's morally ambiguous characters and its mind-bending mythology, were quickly sucked into an immersive universe that extended beyond the confines of the television broadcast to include alternate-reality games and novels. While 18.6 million viewers tuned in to Lost's two-hour pilot, the show settled into an average audience of roughly 16 million viewers during its first season; while those numbers have eroded somewhat over the years (after hitting a series-high of 23 million for the Season 2 premiere), Season 5 lured an average of about 11 million viewers to the island.
Entering its sixth and final season Tuesday, Lost is the rare series that is managing to end its run on its own terms. Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse managed to convince ABC to give them an end date three seasons ago and have been working diligently toward taking Lost to its conclusion. What that entails is known only to Lindelof and Cuse, though they have promised a definitive ending to the franchise as well as a conclusion befitting Lost's propensity for discussion and debate.
The Daily Beast spoke with Lindelof and Cuse, known on the Internet as Team Darlton, about the final season of Lost, its influence on television programming, the show's legacy, and why viewers shouldn't expect to see every mystery answered this season. (This is Part 1 of a two-part interview—look for Part 2 on Tuesday.)
Bolting out of the gate, Lost quickly garnered a devoted and loyal audience that was all too eager to follow the adventures of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, even as the corpses began to pile up. However, by the time the second season, in 2005-06, reached its halfway point, viewer fatigue began to set in, as it became clear that the writers were having to tread water rather than begin solving the myriad mysteries they had raised. For Cuse and Lindelof, it was not only necessarily but imperative that an end date be worked out so that they could begin to tie together their various story threads without worrying that they would be on for another 10 seasons.
Damon Lindelof: The question was always, how are you going to sustain this crazy island show? And our answer was always the honest one, which is, we have no intention of sustaining it forever. We have a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and we're going to do our best.
There came a point, sort of halfway through the second season, where we realized we were leaving the beginning of the show and entering into sort of a sustained period of middleness. We knew that it was going to be very, very difficult to sustain that for long before we told the audience, "here is what the end game is," and we began a series of conversations with the studio and the network about why the show needed to end. At the time, the show was still doing very well in the ratings, but we were attacking it from more of a creative standpoint. I think that we were able to successfully convince them, ultimately, if they didn't end the show that the ratings would suffer... It felt like we always sort of had a five- to six-season plan. It was more for us about how many episodes we were doing. I think we came to a compromise and said, we could do three more seasons of a reduced order.
The Daily Beast: In 2007, it was announced that ABC would wrap up Lost after three additional seasons of 16 episodes each, after Lindelof and Cuse made a firm end date a condition for remaining at the creative helm of the show. The move would take the show through its sixth season, which would conclude in May 2010. While the writers strike of late 2007 caused the show's fourth season to be slightly truncated, the producers have stuck to their target goal and Lost will end, as planned, in May, albeit with an extra hour.
Lindelof: We promised 48 more episodes, and the network thought that sounded about right, so that's how we arrived there. We look at each other every day and we do feel like we kind of hit it as just right as you possibly can. We're not having that sensation of, oh my God, we wish we had more time, we're feeling rushed. And we're not having that sensation of wow, we should have ended this a year ago.
The Daily Beast: Fans are chomping at the bit for solutions to some of the show's more perplexing and enduring mysteries, such as the significance of the oft-repeated and allegedly cursed numbers (4-8-15-16-23-42), the nature of the island and its smoke monster, the importance of these specific crash survivors and why their lives seemingly overlap, the healing properties of the island, the sterility of The Others, the fate of former paraplegic-turned-leader John Locke (Terry O'Quinn), the Adam and Eve skeletons discovered in Season 1, the identity of feuding entities Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) and the Man in Black (Titus Welliver), and many others. After all, millions of fans have spent the better part of six years speculating about these plot threads. In order words: There are a lot of expectations about just what the final season will achieve in terms of closure for viewers.
Carlton Cuse: I think that how people perceive the show has a lot to do with… the way in which they watch the show. It's our belief that [viewers] who were in it strictly for the answers got fed up and jumped ship a long time ago... I think the people who have stayed with the show are people who really appreciate the idea that the journey is more important then the destination.
That's not to negate the fact that we hope that the destination will be satisfying. But I think that our intent is to have made the entire ride an enjoyable one. In the final season, we sort of feel like we are tackling what we consider to be the major unanswered questions, but we're also very cognizant of the fact that we don't want the show to be pedantic. And we also kind of like the idea that there is mystery in life and we try to do the same in the show.
It's going to have some answers, some mysteries, character resolutions. It has a lot of elements to it. There's a craft to [making] beer and different people like beer with more barley, more hops, more water, and there are different spectrum points. There's no perfect beer. There's more, in essence, ones that taste better to certain people. We hope we're going to be the sweet spot that a lot of people will like, but it won't be perfect for everybody.
Lindelof: I think what Carlton is trying to say [is] the more beers you drink, the more enjoyable you will find Season 6 of Lost.
Cuse: Yes, that's exactly correct.
The Daily Beast: Cuse and Lindelof have been candid about the fact that they don't intend to answer every single one of the show's mysteries. The duo intend to leave the resolution of some of these enduring puzzles to the viewers' imaginations, believing that some things—as in life—are meant to be unknowable. Others, however, were never meant to be answered in the first place.
Lindelof: For us, the relevant questions are the ones that the characters are asking. There are things that the fans are interested in that the characters aren't interested in, because it's not really germane to what they're doing there. Hurley [Jorge Garcia] cares about the numbers, so maybe we'll learn a little bit more about the numbers. Jack [Matthew Fox] cares as to whether he was brought to the island for a reason and what he's supposed to do there, so that's a question we'll be taking on. But there are other mysteries that we're not even aware are mysteries. Some people are really kind of obsessed with: When are you guys going to explain what was happening in the question mark Pearl Station with all the pneumatic tubes and the diaries out there? Our characters just don't give a shit. It's not relevant to their lives.
The Daily Beast: Given the obsessive zeal with which many view the show, it seems nearly impossible to craft a final season and, even more importantly, a series finale that can please everyone. Lindelof and Cuse believe that, given a show that's as deeply layered and diverse as Lost is, no ending could make everybody happy.
Lindelof: Of course not. But that doesn't mean that it isn't our ambition. Is it possible for a Major League Baseball player to get a hit every time he comes to bat? No, of course it's not possible, but he's trying to put wood on the ball every time he does.
We actually constantly challenge ourselves and fortunately, because the show is such a collaboration, challenge each other to step outside of the show and be a fan of the show. To basically say, OK, we as writers are now writing this script or this story, but let's now step outside and try to think if we were fans of the show. How we would be processing this information. Would we be angry? Would we be unfulfilled? Would we be excited? Essentially, what happens is, as a result of being able to do that, we are writing the show for ourselves, but [also] writing it for ourselves as fans. You can never anticipate what the fandom is going to think. I think, if that had been the case, Season 5 never would have existed, because we were absolutely terrified that people were going to hate time travel and not really understand what the hell was going on. But, we were like, we kind of think this is cool and there's no better way to reveal that Charles Widmore [Alan Dale] was the leader of The Others for some time and he's been on the island since a kid. And if we want to set up this A-bomb that's going to be a huge payoff in the finale, isn't it better to not do it exhibitionally, but to actually experience it firsthand? So, we thought it was cool and we did it and it ended up working.
The Daily Beast: Not all of the producers' decisions have gone over as well with fans. Throughout the five seasons of Lost that have run so far, there have been some choices that ended up raising viewers' hackles, particularly in Season 3. A six-episode mini-season found the castaways' group splintered, with Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) trapped in a bear cage for episodes on end while Jack (Fox) was forced to oversee the surgery of The Others' leader Ben (Michael Emerson). Additionally, the inclusion of two new Oceanic survivors, Nikki and Paulo (Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro), into the third season storyline met with universal disdain from viewers and critics, and they were quickly dispatched by being buried alive.
Lindelof: Some other risks, some other things that we thought that the fans might like haven't worked. But that's sort of the nature of the beast. I mean you've seen 105 hours of Lost before Season 6 starts and every single episode is not going to be a winner.
The Daily Beast: While the May conclusion marks the end of Lost in its current incarnation, it also marks the end of a particular type of serialized storytelling on television. Following the success of Lost , several networks attempted to reproduce its magic, ordering a number of highly serialized shows meant to capitalize on Lost 's success, including ABC's Invasion , Daybreak , and The Nine , NBC's Heroes and Surface , and CBS' Threshold . Of the Lost wannabes, none lasted more than a season other than Heroes , which has seen its own fortunes severely decline over the years.
Cuse: We like to believe that we've sort of opened the door for certain types of shows that were not welcome on network television before Lost. It has led to the networks taking gambles with heavily serialized shows, and also genre shows. I mean, basically, there was no science fiction on the networks prior to Lost.
Lindelof: Except for The X-Files, but they'd been off the air for at least five years.
Cuse: At the point in which Lost started, there was nothing and it was not something that anybody was interested in. Clearly, there was an appetite for other shows. Heroes came along, debuted, and did very strongly for a few seasons. It proved that there was a network audience for shows, not just our show, but for other shows that were sort of heavily genre. We like to think that we opened the door.
On the other hand, we feel a little bit like we're sort of blacksmiths in the Internet era. We're making this gargantuan show; we shoot it on 35mm film in Panavision. We often have multiple crews filming at the same time. We shoot it on location in Hawaii. We live in a fractured media environment now where there's such a multiplicity of choices that it's hard to aggregate resources to do a huge big-budget series like this… I think those opportunities will be a lot fewer in the future.
The Daily Beast: While Cuse might paint themselves as throwbacks, they are also some of television's greatest innovators, using a slew of narrative techniques in order to tell the story of these castaways' past, present, and future. The first three seasons of the show utilized flashbacks to paint vivid portraits of the survivors' pre-island lives but a game-changing series of sequences in the third season finale—which pictured a bearded and suicidal Jack in Los Angeles—were revealed not to be flashbacks but flash-forwards showing what happened after several characters escaped the island. The fourth season continued these future tense threads while Season 5 introduced actual time travel into the show, with the castaways traveling through time to the 1970s, where they became members of the mysterious Dharma Initiative. Season 6 will introduce a new narrative device though Cuse and Lindelof remain coy about what it will involve. Nothing is off-limits, including multiple alternate realities or pocket dimensions.
Cuse: I actually have never said the expression "pocket dimensions" to Damon, but it's a good one.
Lindelof: It's a good stocking stuffer for next Christmas.
Cuse: Exactly! I'm going to give you pocket dimensions for next Christmas.
Very early in my career, I went in to pitch on this show called The Equalizer, and I was provided with this list of rules of 25 things or something that the Equalizer couldn't do on the show. So, I was trying to concoct pitches that didn't violate any of the 25 things... It was absolutely impossible. I ended up not going in and pitching on it, but it was an indelible lesson that made me realize that having rules in a television show is really a bad thing.
We've tried, Damon and I, very hard, if we establish rules in terms of narratives and things like that, to figure out how to break them… Our view of the show is, what's the best way to tell this individual story and then we try to come up with an appropriate narrative device. We are slaves never to rules, but only to this basic simple concept: What is the best way to tell the particular story that we want to tell?
The Daily Beast: Regardless of what new surprises that story may come to hold this season, all things must come to an end, as Lost 's current narrative is slated to wrap up—after six seasons of plane crashes, smoke monsters, four-toed statues, and other mind-bending plots twists.
Join The Daily Beast on Tuesday for Part 2 of this interview, in which Lindelof and Cuse discuss the fate of Henry Ian Cusick's Desmond Hume and Sonya Walger's Penelope Widmore, the return of long-dead characters Michael (Harold Perrineau) and Libby (Cynthia Watros) to the series, the show's final image, and the future of the Lost franchise, as well as put to rest those Dark Tower rumors.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.