In an interview with Reuters, LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof admitted that, yes, the writers were just making it up as they went along. They didn’t think the show would be picked up at all, let alone be the runaway hit that stole six valuable seasons worth of time from its viewers by presenting a totally crap ending and basically disappointing everyone with every single plot reveal within the final act of the show.
No, I’m not bitter at all, thanks.
This admission of guilt made me wonder – Did LOST kill the network prime-time sci-fi drama?
I’m going to make this one a pre-emptive yes.
For a very long time I defended LOST to friends of mine who had fallen away from the show.
“That whole thing turned to crap,” they’d say, “Season 3 was a bunch of BS.”
“Oh, but you’re wrong,” I’d reply, “Season 3 was only the ramp-up to Season 4 and Season 4 has been AWESOME!”
Really, you can supplant any two consecutive season numbers into that conversation and that was how the talk went down. Add throwing tantalizing details and some light spoilers in an attempt to get people back into the show and a result of inevitable failure and you’ve got almost a whole night at the bar.
Of course, the show ended, as I detailed in a previous rant, and many of my fellow viewers were disgusted, disheartened, and disenfranchised. Angry masses teemed at the boards (which I visited once or twice shortly thereafter). Much was left unanswered. The mysteries that had been set down from the beginning of the show were no closer to being resolved than they were when Oceanic 815 crashed on that damn beach in the first place. For as much as I defended the writers when everyone told me that they were just making it up as they went along, I argued that there was some grand design and that it would all come together in the end and make LOST one of the most epic shows ever.
Mea Culpa. Mea Maxima Culpa.
Problem was that a bunch of these viewers with the bad taste in their mouths were also sci-fi rookies. They were people who latched on to LOST because of it’s “compelling” character drama (which usually involved Jack crying or Kate being a hardass or Sawyer really having a heart). They may not have realized it, but they were watching a sci-fi show and they liked it.
LOST blew off these viewers as much as they blew off the serious sci-fi fans. It didn’t cost LOST anything, as they baited us all into not touching that dial and watching until the very bitter end.
The cost of LOST’s ultimate failure was the fate of American Prime-Time Sci-Fi programming.
Proof? The Event. Last season’s desperate attempt by NBC to claim the remnants of the disgruntled LOST audience. Questions answered every week but more questions presented along with the overarching question: “What is the Event?”
I stopped caring what the Event would be about half-way through the season. Blah blah aliens blah blah two factions blah blah shady agencies blah blah crap. Sad, really, that I have to sum things up as such, but it’s true. Coming off of LOST myself, it seemed even more that this was made up as they went along. Some weeks, I felt sure that they were just filming episode-to-episode in case they were cancelled.
There is also Fringe on Fox, which I have not watched, but which I understand has a large cult following. I’ve been told I would enjoy this show. I’m sure I would. When I can get access to complete seasons starting with one, I’ll probably get into it. I can only hope that it lasts, because it’s the last best hope for prime-time sci-fi.
They’re also going to give Terra Nova a try. Ten bucks says it lasts the amount of episodes they filmed and dies a silent, private death, far from its target audience.
Other than those shows, networks just don’t want to take the chance. I can’t say I blame them, especially after Lindelof’s confession. Strange, though, that American network television just doesn’t seem able to sustain such things. Sure, there are other shows in the genre going on right now. Good shows. On cable. Easily overlooked by the vast majority of viewers due to the abundance of channels.
The Brits seem to have it right. Look at Doctor Who. Running on BBC1 for decades, takes a 16 year break with a movie in between, then came back for a strong six seasons (going on seven). Why?
Because Brits know how not to run a TV show into the ground.
How, you might wonder, could a TV show that has run for 26 seasons, sci-fi especially, not be run into the ground? There are two main points:
1. Serialization. Each season is encapsulated in its own arc, for the most part. Concentrate on what’s happening within the season, leave clues to what’s going on, and wrap everything up neatly in the season finale with maybe a few questions left unanswered to tease for next season. Show gets renewed due to interest, show generates fandom buzz based on speculation, repeat. Simple system. You’d think that American television could take a hint from this. True Blood did and look at that shit run.
Instead, shows like LOST take one giant, all-important story arc and lay it down at the beginning. Then, they break things up into smaller internal arcs to kill time and distract people from the fact that there has been absolutely no forward progression with the giant arc. It’s a terrible tactic to use as a storyteller. I should know. On my first runthrough of Unlucky Seven, I did just that. I wrote like LOST. I wound up with 70 chapters of shit. When I went back to the beginning, I realized that everything should be one arc, one story, one plot with only subtile subplots and setup for the possible (read: inevitable) sequel book. Trimmed to 26 chapters. Smart, digestible, and hints at more.
2. Number of episodes, number of seasons. Some of the best shows on television (mostly foreign television) ran a max of three seasons. This is mostly notable in anime. Good anime, that is, not DBZ or freaking Pokemon.
Full Metal Alchemist (the original, not Brotherhood) ran two seasons of 24 episodes, threw up a movie as an epilogue, and it was done. Of course, it was so popular that they brought the series back and “remastered” it, changing some aspects and characters and such, but it was so successful because it told a compelling story with good character development and wrapped it all up in a neat little bow rather than drawing it out as long as could be.
As for episode count… Doctor Who is so good and survives so well because it only produces 12-14 episodes in a season. Each episode is its own adventure but chips away at the main plot of the season, wrapping in a grand finale. The amazing thing to American audiences is that a great story can be told within that short a span. Really, this should be entirely feasible by any standard, not just sci-fi. If you need the full 24 episode season, by all means, take it, but finish a story. By season’s end, the viewer should feel satisfied yet tantalized, not frustrated and disappointed.
The reason this practice continues to be standard in America, and the reason that pay-cable channels such as HBO are currently cornering the market on good television series is that the network only cares about the dollar signs. If a show has run its course with a story and should be over but still has a ravenous fanbase, networks will force the writers (never mind their vision) to continue or just get new writers to make that next (largely unnecessary) season happen.
HBO hands the keys to the writers and producers with a simple “lock up when you’re done” and a “come see us about next season if things go well”. No ad dollars involved, no corporate gears turning. They give people 12 – 14 episodes to tell a story, the crew does its job, things turn out brilliant, and people keep coming back for more. They follow the two main rules: serialization and short seasons.
Such a formula cannot be touted as “difficult” by network writers when HBO can compress a George RR Martin book into ten (TEN!) episodes without losing much of the plot.
If network shows, especially sci-fi ones, are to survive, then the rules must be followed. Dollar signs are great, but increased viewership is better… because it brings even more dollar signs.
Keep fighting the good fight.