When good TV goes bad: how Lost got lost - and then found its way again

Pointless polar bears and boring flashbacks drove viewers away in their millions. It took an episode so bad it changed mainstream TV for ever to get it back on track

There’s no point explaining Lost to a newcomer, because it always makes you sound dehydrated to the point of inanity. Still, here goes: a plane crashes on a mysterious island and the surviving strangers band together to try to escape back to civilisation. Also, the island is policed by the disembodied spirit of an ancient godhead, and one of the survivors is in the world’s worst band. Also, there’s a nuclear bomb that makes people travel through time. And there’s a zoo. See? Pointless.

Still, while it was on, Lost’s characters and extravagantly high concepts captivated people in their millions. Sure, you could argue that it was let down by its final episode, which hastily tried to wrap things up with woolly faux-spiritualism. But that isn’t to say that Lost jumped the shark. OK, it might have jumped the shark a bit.

Lost was such a hit that ABC didn’t want it to end. “Keep churning out episodes,” it said, “and we’ll cancel it when you stop making money.” This tactic had worked for hundreds of other shows in the past, but Lost wasn’t like other shows. Lost had a huge central mystery that needed to be solved. So, at the financial behest of its network, the showrunners found themselves having to spin their wheels indefinitely.

And they did this with flashbacks. Although they began as a way to fill in character blanks, they quickly became a crutch. With no end in sight, the flashbacks became longer and less essential. And then came Stranger in a Strange Land. It was the ninth episode of Lost’s third series, and it was utterly pointless.

‘Let me tell you all about how I got these tattoos...’
‘Let me tell you all about how I got these tattoos...’. Photograph: Mario Perez/ABC via Getty Images

The flashback? How Jack got his tattoos. That’s it. Even though the meaning of Jack’s tattoos had no significance whatsoever. Even though there is nothing duller than listening to someone explain their tattoos. That’s what they went with. Lost bottomed out with Stranger in a Strange Land, so that must be when it jumped the shark, right?

Well, yes. But that’s not all: it was so awful it caused something amazing to happen. Realising what a go-nowhere stinker they had on their hands, the showrunners took the episode to the network. “Look what you made us do!” they said. “Look what happens if we have to tell this story for ever!” Seventy-five days later, the network relented. Lost finally had its endpoint.

This had an immediate knock-on effect. Lost instantly regained focus. Once it could accelerate towards a definitive ending, the wheel-spinning was replaced with beautiful, streamlined narrative thrust. The third series climaxed with a masterful two-parter that swept away the dead wood while throwing in a plot twist so gigantic that it would become the cornerstone of the entire show.

Others noticed this, too. Stranger in a Strange Land is a prime example of what can happen when a network prizes longevity over story. But when executives saw how vastly Lost improved once it was truncated, everyone else followed suit. 24 was cut to 12 episodes. Game of Thrones was given 10 episodes a year. The first series of Breaking Bad consisted of just seven episodes. Shows were suddenly being given series that fitted their length. As a result, television flourished. The golden age of TV exists because nobody cares about Jack’s tattoos.

None of this could have happened if Stranger in a Strange Land was any good. You say it was Lost jumping the shark. I say it improved television for ever.

Contributor

Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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