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Lost Legacy - What TV Execs Should Learn From Life on the Island

"There will never be another show like it."

That’s the prevailing sentiment as the obsession, addiction, disorder known as Lost ended last night after six seasons on ABC. At a time when the networks are struggling to retain viewers and ad dollars and they have yet to generate commensurate revenue for their online content, Lost in all likelihood is the last great big-budget network gamble.

Shot on location in Hawaii and starring a huge cast – a dozen leading characters and even more supporting players – the show required some 450 people to craft 20 or so cinematic episodes each season, more episodes than cable gems like the Sopranos and The Wire offered up. And remember, before the show became blognip at the Tail Section and Lostpedia, ABC bought an actual jetliner, cut it into pieces and shipped it to Hawaii. Thanks to such high-end authenticity, the Lost pilot was the most expensive ever made for TV.

Even if the networks can’t spend that kind of money again, they can certainly replicate other things that made the show so engrossing:

Narrative structure – Yes, the serial format is risky, because viewers have to start at the beginning, or they’re, well, lost. But the flipside is that when you get hooked by a compelling story early, you cannot miss an episode. Even if I didn’t watch Lost the night it aired on TV, I'd catch up on or Hulu. That’s the sort of loyalty that advertisers love.

An expiration date – Three seasons in, ABC made one of the smartest and most daring decisions in recent TV history: it determined how long Lost would run, regardless of the ratings. At the time, the network might have looked foolish by promising to discontinue a hit show instead of letting a decline in audience dictate a premature finish. But that predetermination gave the writers the parameters they needed to plan the arc of the series and finish the story they wanted to tell. The writing improved. The urgency picked up. After some previously meandering subplots, the show felt focused and purposeful again.

An exquisite puzzle – Flash forwards. Flash sideways. Allusions to mythology, religion, and literature. Lost was damn confusing, but that helped inspire its ardent following. The show offered few easy answers – and judging from the hue and cry this final season, not enough answers. It made you think. Hard. After watching an episode, I had to jump on the Lost fan boards to read theories about what it all meant and to see what sort of clues and connections to previous episodes I'd missed. After a few seasons, ABC began offering its version of a clever study guide: reruns annotated with explanations and footnotes in pop-up bubbles.

Signature styleLost didn’t look or sound like other shows, and it developed motifs that it would return to, which added to the richness. My favorite was when an episode would begin with a tight close-up of a character’s eye. It was disorienting and startling and suggested so much in a darting or frozen pupil. Fear. Calm. Uneasiness. Perhaps there’s no better evidence of the show’s distinctiveness than the parodies and videos that it inspired.

Darlton – That’s Lost fans’ shorthand moniker for Damon Lindelhof and Carlton Cuse, the executive producers and writing duo (pictured above as superheroes) who took over the show from J.J. Abrams, who quickly became the hot new creative force in Hollywood (Mission Impossible and Star Trek sequels and the Fox show Fringe). For the first time, I found myself following the guys behind the scenes of a show more than the actors on screen. I followed them on Twitter, and their Official Lost Podcast became a weekly habit. They would rehash the last episode and "pre-hash" the next one, share stories from the writers’ room, answer questions from fans, entertain some interpretations of the show and dispel others. They were often exhausted from rewriting, but always smart and funny; they had their mothers on for Mothers’ Day and dared to ask them, "Jack or Sawyer?" No wonder Darlton became regulars on Jimmy Kimmel, who sounded like he was grilling them for his Ph.D. thesis on the show.

Will there be another Lost? Probably not. But if networks and cable channels learn from Abrams and Darlton, they might just make a hit that’s as engrossing, one in which viewers lose themselves on TV and online week after week.

[Illustration by Kirk Manley]