Is a Lost Spinoff a Terrible or Brilliant Idea?
Do you hear that? It’s the collective exhale of 15 million American television owners after six long, wonderful, horrible, intriguing, confusing, fun and infuriating years of Lost, ABC’s drama about plane crash survivors deserted on a very, very mysterious island who a) have dark, haunting backstories, b) stumble into a metaphysical hurricane surrounding their new home, and c) never, ever ask direct questions.
We’re free. No more Wednesday mornings spent discussing fate and free will, good and evil, Kate and Sawyer, depressed spinal surgeons and Foucault pendulums, 30-year-old beer and obese lottery winners, or Tawaret statues and super hot geophysicists. For 3/5′s of a decade we’ve been sitting in the Swan stations of our living rooms, pushing the buttons of our remote controls every 10,080 minutes to reset the counting clocks of our televisions to ABC and prevent an apocalypse, or at least our equivalent of an apocalypse: missing an episode of Lost. Thank Jacob, we’re finally free.
Or are we? And do we even want that freedom?
Despite a drop-off in ratings in its third season, Lost was always one of ABC’s most valuable assets, with a rough series average of about 14 million viewers a season. Then, of course, there is the cultural impact that series creator J.J. Abrams and executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have made with their group of castaways, an influence that transcends the short-term implications of Nielsen-box tallies. Lost re-popularized prime-time network science-fiction in a way not seen since Captian Kirk. It rallied a community of geeks willing to spend hours each week cataloging new characters and locations and swapping theories online as though the show were a televised version of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most significantly, it sketched over six seasons an impossibly dense – and potentially lucrative – fictional universe.
And far be it for a network to put a cash cow out to pasture any earlier than it has to. In an interview with Variety just before the premiere of Lost’s last season, Mike Benson, ABC’s executive vice president of marketing, revealed the network’s desire to keep Lost trucking in some form after the finale. “We want to keep it alive but maintain the integrity of the franchise,” said Benson “It’s important to see this live for years to come.”
Benson was referring not to a continuation of the original narrative (e.g. new seasons) but rather a franchise that could include spinoffs, films, novels, comics, and a half dozen other genres and mediums in which to keep the Island floating. The closest comparison is, of course, Star Trek, which has existed more-or-less continuously (in some form) since the premiere of the original series in 1966. “We do believe Lost can become a Star Trek for us,” Variety quoted Benson as saying.
But Lost wasn’t like Star Trek. Or like any other show (science fiction or otherwise) for that matter. It was a show with a unique narrative, with a strange, metaphysical core, a large cast, and a show that lured viewers by dangling a single carrot-on-a-string of a question just out of our reach until last night. And these qualities make Lost either the best, or worst, show for a spinoff in television history.
Even more intriguing than than what a Lost spinoff would be, exactly, is the simple question of whether the Lostverse can sustain a new program. In other words: Is a spinoff a terrible or brilliant idea? It’s a question that gets to the heart of what made the original Lost so divisive all those years.
On one hand, the idea of any story attempting to capture the magic of Lost now that the show has reached its punctuation mark seems absurd. The primary engine of Lost has always been the overarching mystery of the show, which can be phrased in a number of abstract ways: What was the nature of the island? Why were the survivors brought there? Why was all this weird shit happening? Few, if any, shows have ever had such a singular goal as the Lost’s quest for a single answer to this question. 24 relies on day-long crisis situations, but each new season (more or less) offers new threats and new goals. Even a program like The X-Files, with it’s recurring mythology about the abduction of agent Fox Mulder’s sister, was careful to balance its mythology with fun, monster-of-the-week capers involving sewer-dwelling Flukemen and Arctic worms that burrowed in your ear.
Lost, on the other hand, rarely provided single-episode or even single-season arcs. With all due respect to Boone, we never really cared about something as trivial as whether Jack would be able to save him in the 60 minutes arc 1′s “Do No Harm.” And with all due respect to Charlie, his redemptive story over the course of season 3 only truly captivated us as it led us to new revelations about what was going on on that land mass. With Lost, there was always a more fundamental question on the horizon that was bigger than any singular issue on the Island: and that question was the Island itself.
Another problem with a Lost spinoff arises when you consider how mind-bogglingly broad this last season has been. The sheer, well, bigness of Lost’s BIG ANSWER is so all-encompassing, so fundamental, that to try and set any new story – even a tangential one – in the same universe would seem trite. In short, this BIG ANSWER of Lost (and I suppose here I should finally insert a *SPOILER WARNING*) is that the Island is the source of a Magical Light that represents capital-L Life, or capital-E Existence, or air-quote “God.” Or all three. I’m honestly too exhausted to tell. (Season 6 of Lost might be the only body of writing best discussed by a triumvirate of the Dali Lama, Carl Sagan, and Tron Guy.) When your show is claiming to wrap up all of, like, Human Existence, dude, what new information could Dr. Arzt: The Early Years provide. Lindelof and Cuse didn’t paint themselves into a corner, as many skeptical fans have asserted; they splattered the paint across the room like a pair of bespectacled Jackson Pollocks.
On the other hand, Lost’s enormous cast of characters, various locations, timeliness, and realities provide the narrative with the kinds of nooks and crannies in which spinoffs could lushly take root. One literary approach uniquely suited to Lost is th “parallel,” following one of the lesser explored groups who inhabited the Island during the thousands of years that Lost’s mythology spans. For example, what were Dogen and the Temple Dwellers dealing with back in Season 1, long before we met them? Or what was life like for Penelope Widmore, who raced to find her long-lost-at-sea lover Desmond before her wicked father Charles did? Who knows how many mercenaries she had to elude, or how many Jacobian mystics she encountered during her unseen quest. Think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by way of Marvel Comics and you start to get the idea.
Similarly, Lost’s time line jumps in spans that range from a few months to thousands of years, like a world history textbook with entire chapters torn out and ready to be re-inserted. Do we really believe that Jacob and the Man in Black just sat back and twiddled their thumbs in the centuries between their origin episode “Across the Sea” and Richard Alpert’s arrival in “Ab Aeterno?” Or how about the three years when James “Sawyer” LaFleur was head of security for the DHARMA Initiative. Science fiction has always relished the opportunity to fill-in every available crevice in a mythology, from Shadows of the Empire, a 1996 Star Wars novel set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, to ODST, a first person shooter that takes place between Halos 2 and 3.
Of course, there’s one important question we’ve yet to address: does the world really want more Lost? It was a hell of a ride, but I’ve heard even the most devoted fans express more relief than dread over the show’s end. And one need only look to The Phantom Menace to see the legacy-destroying potential of stretching a franchise too thin. Even the show’s creators have serious reservations about Lost: The Next Generation. “People deserve an ending,” said Lindelof in an interview earlier this year. “And to promise a continuation of the story in any form in some way negates the finality in some way.” (Tellingly, neither Lindelof nor Cuse will be involved in any Lost spin-offs.)
But I happen to think it’s worth the risk. Bring on the spinoffs, I say. The comic tie-ins, the movies, the prequels, and the lame fan conventions. We all want freedom, but who’s to say we won’t end up like Jack in Season 3: bearded and popping pills, realizing the freedom we craved wasn’t freedom at all? Sure, all good things must come to an end, but after Michael Jordan retired the Bulls didn’t fold their franchise; they just drafted a Croatian dude. Why should Lost be any different? Let Lost 2.0 be science fiction’s Tony Kukoc.
And as for the potential life-consuming effects of an endless Lost franchise? The possibility that Lost: The Spinoff means another six years of obsession? All I can say is that for every hour of my life I’ve wasted alone on a laptop obsessing over trivial details of a fictional show, I can think of three spent talking, thinking, theorizing, screaming, laughing and bonding with a diverse, wonderful group of human beings. Like Jack said at Lost’s beginning, “If we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.”
So what are you doing Tuesday night?
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