Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Long Shadow of "Lost"

Before ABC aired the extremely expensive pilot of a new show called "Lost" in September 2004, a lot of people were skeptical. But the ratings were really big. ABC had found one of its three shows that year that would start off its resurrection, they had tapped into an audience teeming with tough-to-reach young males, and they wanted more. And boy, have they tried.

There have been a lot of articles written about the failures of other shows created in the Lost vein. There were the Lost lead-outs, like Invasion, The Nine, and Life on Mars. People blamed the fact that "everybody goes on the Internet to discuss Lost after it's over." But it's not like the lead-outs that tried to go in a highly different direction (Eyes, The Evidence, The Unusuals) fared any better.

This year, ABC's churned out two more such shows from the Lost factory in Flashforward and V. They're both still on the air, so it's too early to call their fates either way, but I think they're both headed for the trash heap pretty quickly in TV terms. Flashforward is pulling mid-2 demos, while V has taken substantial drops in weeks 2 and 3. They may give a second season to one of the two as some sort of face-saving measure, but I don't see a sustained run as a big hit in the cards for either. ABC deserves some credit for not attaching these shows to Lost in a programming sense, for trying to create new audiences from scratch, the way they so successfully did in 2004. But in watching the shows, and in watching the promos for the shows, the Lost attachment is still clearly there.

First, it's the concept behind these shows, and this thread has run throughout the five years since Lost. Flashforward and V are what I like to call "aftermath shows." The pilot contains a big-ass incident and the series that follows it is about the aftermath of said incident. A plane crashes. The entire world blacks out for two minutes and sixteen seconds. They arriVe. That can be said of plenty of other Lost clones in recent years. Invasion began with an alien invasion. The Nine began with the end of a bank robbery. CBS' Jericho began with a mushroom cloud. It's become a formula for manufacturing genre television, and it's not necessarily the best formula. Plenty of people have held up The Nine as the banner show for "great pilot, but nothing interesting happened afterwards," but it's a problem inherent in this kind of show. How do you top the arrival of aliens or a worldwide apocalypse? Compared to most of this stuff, Lost's measly plane crash is small potatoes. That was something from which to build, not from which you have no choice but to downshift.

Second, the more blatant Lost connections. Flashforward isn't exactly named after an important term in the Lost mythology (the novel on which the series is based came out in 1999), but it may as well be. FF brought in an iconic Lost actor in a rather transparent attempt to get that audience interested. V, meanwhile, casts an iconic Lost actor in the lead role, and her friend and confidant (and maybe more?!) has the exact same name, Jack. (OK, maybe that wasn't really an attempt to evoke Lost, but it sure did for me when I heard Elizabeth Mitchell call Joel Gretsch "Jack" last night)

Does this stuff really work? Is the Lost audience so fanboyish that they will simply follow the actors that they know to their new shows and keep watching them over and over again? I like to think that Lost fans (hell, any fans) are a little more sophisticated than that, and it seems to be playing out that way. The number of Hollywood actors capable of "opening a movie" on their name alone is quite small at any given time, and on the TV front, it's probably also that way. But even if these concepts and these actors can open (and FF and V both premiered solidly), TV isn't just about opening. You've got to sustain, over a much longer period of time.

Personally, I think the Lost connections have actually backfired. It's not a connection that people who aren't big fans of Lost can make. But I am, so here goes. The Lost fanbase doesn't watch Lost for Dominic Monaghan, or Elizabeth Mitchell, or because it has time travel or because of what the show is "about." They watch because the show is a satisfying TV experience. In my opinion, it's one of the best TV dramas of the decade. So if you're saying in less-than-subtle terms that "this is the next Lost!" then that carries with it a certain expectation. I've enjoyed some of these shows a lot; I consider Invasion one of the more underrated shows of the decade, and I'm still liking V. But none of them are Lost, and none of them have met that inherent expectation.

So what does ABC need to do if they want to be in the genre business? They need to forget about Lost. That individual show has been a really successful hour for its network, but it's also taken over their development. Think a little more broadly. How about a less serialized SF show, maybe something along the lines of Fringe or The X-Files or Warehouse 13? Maybe the demo isn't there for this, but how about a Star Trek or Stargate type of space opera? (A less half-assed one than Defying Gravity, which was a co-production and too obsessed with mirroring Grey's Anatomy as well.) Don't base your promotions around your Lost alums. Truly start from scratch. My list of suggestions isn't great, but I think if they really want the young male audience they've loved having with Lost, they have to try something else. Maybe there will be some more failures, but they can't be but so much worse. Because "big incident, then nothing that interesting ever happens again" is a formula that is wearing out its welcome.

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