Have you heard the buzz about Awake, Sky Atlantic’s latest twisty, high-concept mystery drama? Apparently it’s The New Lost. Which is interesting, because prehistoric time-travel adventure Terra Nova was supposed to be The New Lost. As was complex government conspiracy thriller Rubicon. And Joss Whedon-helmed clone drama Dollhouse. Oh, and Alcatraz, Day Break, Day One, The Event, FlashForward, Fringe, Heroes, Invasion, Jericho, the US remake of Life On Mars, The Nine, Once Upon A Time, Person Of Interest, Persons Unknown, The River, Six Degrees, Surface, Threshold and the remake of V.
Awake, which stars Jason Isaacs as a cop who exists in two realities – one in which his wife has died in a car crash, the other in which his son has – also has the grim spectre of cancellation loitering over its head, another thing it shares with the majority of the shows listed above. Ratings website TV By The Numbers has Awake down as “certain to be cancelled by May 2012″ on its unerringly accurate Renew/Cancel index. Meanwhile, over on Fox, twisty, high-concept mystery drama Alcatraz – inmates and guards disappear from the notorious island prison in 1963, turn up in present-day San Francisco – is deemed more likely to be cancelled than renewed, its early buzz now replaced by sludgy apathy and middling ratings. Fringe, Lost creator JJ Abrams‘s X Files-ish science-fiction drama, has limped into a fourth season, which may well be its last. Many of the others are long since dead: Threshold is toast, FlashForward was a flash in the pan, The River has run dry. Yet the very fact that those shows and others continue to be willed into existence by desperate execs suggests that there is still a widespread belief that a New Lost is out there somewhere, a parallel universe perhaps, just waiting to be commissioned. All of which begs the question: why is the show’s influence so great, and why has no one been able to replicate it?
In the beginning – well, 1990 – there was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a strange, idiosyncratic drama with a central mystery that people went nuts for, on both sides of the Atlantic. For reasons only known only to themselves, execs at ABC, which aired the show, decided that said mystery needed to be resolved midway through the show’s second season. It was a decision that resulted in plummeting ratings, Lynch jumping ship and, ultimately, cancellation.
Fortunately, though, someone at ABC was paying attention, because when, 13 years later, another unconventional drama boasting a grand mystery appeared on the network, there were no such calls for a premature reveal. Lost was swiftly proclaimed must-watch TV, its beguiling riddle about a group of plane crash survivors stuck on a supernatural island – where are they and how do they get home? – inspiring fevered debate on and offline. Yet the very same act of deferred gratification that was seen as central to Lost’s success was also used as ammunition by its detractors, who argued that the show’s writers didn’t have an answer to their grand conundrum; that they were making it all up as they went along. Lost offered few answers and frequently inserted new mysteries into an already stuffed mythology. And when a resolution finally came in the sixth and final series, many felt duped, with spiritual hokum about the forces of good and evil trumping actual answers.
‘All the Lost copycats tried to duplicate was the mythology. If that’s all there was, nobody would’ve watched’
It might be tempting, then, to suggest that the Lost replicants were prematurely scuppered by the original’s botched conclusion. Post-Lost, were people willing to trust similarly pitched shows? TV critic Alan Sepinwall, who has covered both Lost and its less successful descendants in forensic detail, refutes the suggestion. “I know people say that they won’t give a similar show a chance because of Lost, but they said the same thing about The X Files,” he says. “That show’s terrible end didn’t prevent people from getting excited about Lost.”
Central to the success of both Lost and The X Files was the creation of a compelling, knotty “mythology”, a detailed backstory fed to the viewer on a drip-by-drip basis, which allowed for seemingly endless theorising. Post-Lost, mythology became televised drama’s buzz word. Every show required one – the more tortuously complex, the better – a legend that would be teased out over the course of the series or, more likely, left unresolved due to a premature axing. Yet what a lot of the creators of these Lost copyists missed was that Abrams’s show had far more to it than that. For Sepinwall, this is the crucial distinction between the success of Lost and the failure of its clones. “Take all the mysteries and the weird, freaky sci-fi stuff away [from Lost] and you still have a bunch of interesting characters, played by a strong ensemble, with tremendous direction, production values, music etc,” he argues. “All the Lost copycats tried to duplicate was the mythology, and while that was certainly part of the appeal, if that’s all there was, nobody would’ve watched. And those shows had incredibly lame, one-dimensional characters running around in a plot no one understood. ”
For Sepinwall, the reason that the raft of New Losts failed was simple: most of them weren’t terribly good. Ultimately, he argues, Lost was – like Twin Peaks and The X Files before it – an anomaly. “It really hasn’t changed TV, I don’t think. While all successes get copied, some of them – CSI, Friends, Law & Order – are much easier to duplicate than something that was both this idiosyncratic and this well done.”
Lost, ultimately, was a one-off; originally pitched as a fictional version of the successful reality show Survivor, but which transformed into something strange and singular. It seems likely that Lost’s true heir will be similarly anomalous, coming out of leftfield to surprise critics and fans. The New Lost will, in all likelihood, look and sound nothing like its forebear. Most tellingly, it probably won’t get called The New Lost.
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