Friday, January 23, 2009

Thoughts on "Lost"

I was reading a discussion thread about the new season of "Lost" over on Boing-Boing, and had to jump in to give my own two cents' worth. Thought I'd pass along here what I said there:


I'd like to bring some professional insight to the discussion, since most of the criticism of "Lost" in this thread seems to grow from the premise that "the writers are just making it up as they go along."

To establish my bona fides, I'm a writer, and I wrote episodic television for almost twenty years, and produced some too. So I'd like to think I speak with some authority here -- if not about the specific situation the "Lost" producers find themselves in, then in general terms, the specific situation *any* television producers find themselves in, creating a TV show week-to-week.

Point one -- the writers *absolutely* knew where they wanted to go with the show, from the day they first pitched the concept.

Point two -- where they wanted to go *absolutely* changed over the course of developing the story and the series week to week and year to year.

This is because creating a television show is more than just writing words on paper and having them translated magically into film. It's an organic, living process that is influenced by forces that are inevitably beyond your control -- and ultimately is the better for it. Let me give you one small example from personal experience.

A few years ago I was writing and producing a show about a pair of detectives. I created a love interest for one of the detectives, and developed a year-long arc for the relationship. We cast the part of the lover; the actors had chemistry; we did a three-part introductory story; and then the actor we'd cast as the lover LEFT THE SHOW because he wanted to be free during pilot season. (Pilot season is when networks and producers make life hell for casting agents of ongoing series; all the good actors refuse to commit because they want to be available for casting in their own pilots.)

As a result, we had to drop the long-planned romance in mid-story line, to the considerable detriment of the series. Should we have locked up the actor before we began the arc? Probably; but we were laboring under certain economic constraints, and we thought we had an understanding with the actor's agent. Sure, we knew they'd probably f**k us if they got a better offer, but we figured they'd at least wait till they got the better offer before f**king us. (Happily, the actor in question never got cast in a pilot, and because of the reputation he developed from this and similar diva behavior, he hasn't been cast in any other ongoing series since. Good riddance.)

Anyway, point is, the writers of "Lost" are constrained by simple reality as they develop their series. Actors cast for minor roles suddenly take off and are lost to the show; actors who you think will bring something special to a plot line turn out to fall flat, and have to be cut; other actors who are cast as minor figures suddenly play so well you start writing more and more material for them; and so on. (This is probably why Ben has become so important -- a potentially minor character is played brilliantly by an actor, and the writers are inspired to develop more material for him. This isn't to say the writers would not have created a similar character to serve the story as Ben now does; it's just to say it might not have been Ben.)

In addition to the impact performers have on the writing process, you also have to take into account the impact the network executives have -- both positive, when they're supportive of what you're trying to achieve, and negative, when they actively seek to undermine your efforts. (I believe most of what went wrong with "Heroes" in year two was a result of network interference.) The creators of "Lost" probably had a clear vision from the start of where they want to take the show, but I'm betting they had to struggle through most of the first three years to get the network brass to let them tell the story their way. That's why Season One consists mostly of single-episode "flashback" anthology-style stories, focusing on character backstory: it's something network execs could understand and relate to. It's also why "Season Two" began to get more complex, as the network suits allowed the writers to play around with their overall concept and begin to lay the groundwork for the end game. And it's most certainly why "Season Three" went down the rabbit hole for the first six weeks, because the writers were forced to create an artificial six-week self-contained story line simply to address the network's desire to have two blocks of shows, one in the fall season, and another beginning in late January.

The point is, whatever problems the show may exhibit from time to time, in terms of inconsistencies and inelegant transitions or reveals. most likely has more to do with practical issues of production than with any overall lack of a planned outcome. One can argue that it's the job of show runners to deal with the practicalities in such a way that it appears as if they intended to go the way they have all along, and you'd be right. In that sense, I think "Lost" is a brilliant series of adaptations to the realities of producing a weekly television series. The producers know where they want to go, but the path they have to take to get there is constantly changing.

By the way, that's how it is for every writer, except the most disciplined and sterile hack. You know where you want to go, and you move in that direction, but sometimes as you follow the path, the destination changes, and either you adapt, or your story dies.

Viva "Lost."


Michael A. Burstein said...

An excellent analysis.

A few years ago, Stephen King had a column in Entertainment Weekly in which he suggested that the writers of Lost wrap up the series and let it come to a natural end. This was before ABC actually agreed to let the writers do this, and the writers explained to King that the realities of network television might not let them do as he suggested.

I actually discussed this on my own blog, at , regarding the Spider-Man One More Day story. I'm quoting the relevant part here:

"Suppose you're a creator of a serial work of fiction like a TV show, which is technically owned by the network. Suppose you want to bring the story to an end after (let's say) five seasons, but the network is making a ton of money off the show and insists on renewing it for another year. They approach you, the show's creator, and ask you to resume your role as show runner for that new season. You're reluctant to do so, obviously, and you tell them. And then they remind you that if you decline their offer, they'd be more than happy to hand the show off to someone else.

What do you do?

You basically have two choices. Either you can continue writing and guiding the show, doing your best to give the fans of the show the storytelling experience that they have come to expect; or you can walk away, and watch in horror as someone else puts your characters through story lines and plots that you would never have allowed. But either way, your show is in danger of 'jumping the shark.'"

That's the sort of thing viewers need to keep in mind when critiquing TV.

Dana Gabbard said...

It seems to me network television primetime shows, especially dramas, have over the past 15 or so years been developing in ways that are at war with the basic economics of the industry. Shows like Star Trek and Bonanza basically set up a status quo and had the basic premise play out episode after episode. Character development per se was discouraged. Each episode was self contained and rarely was reference be made to previous storylines. Shows like L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues started allowing growth and storylines that went beyond the confines of a single episode. Babylon 5 continued the trend with an avowed 5 season arc, albeit some wiggle room for sequel series. Now with Lost and Heroes we are having shows that have beginnings and seem to point toward an eventual final resolution. This all conflicts with the episodic nature of classic TV series and especially the financial model built on the profits coming from syndication, for which at least 100 episodes are necessary. Unlike Britain in the U.S. a show with 6 or 8 episodes and a conclusion is not the way things are done, thus shows like Life on Mars and 11th Hour that are brought over are turned into ongoing series. Eventually I suspect the success of Lost will provide an opening for a someone to do a limited series of X number of episodes with a definite ending. Lord knows with dwindling audiences the networks will try most anything at some point. If it is a ratings success they'll have to figure out a way to make money doing more of them. After all “reality” shows are now a staple of programming and most have almost zero re-run value, much less syndication (except maybe on specialized cable channels—and I bet that is no bonanza).