And to think that just a few weeks ago, we were worried too few people would bother to go in search of ABC's Lost.
This opulently produced adventure thriller, about the survivors of a terrifying plane crash onto a seemingly uncharted Pacific island, has emerged as one of the instant breakout hits from an encouragingly robust fall-season launch. (The initial ratings are even more sensational for ABC's other much anticipated and well reviewed new drama, the darkly satirical soap Desperate Housewives.)
Defying recent tradition, audiences actually appear willing this season to seek out new network shows that have been generating buzz. More than a few of them—including the addictive reality series Wife Swap, seemingly unfazed by Fox's cheesier rip-off Trading Spouses—are airing on perpetual underdog ABC, which a year ago was mired in a rut with lethargic hokum like 10-8
and Threat Matrix. What makes the early success of Lost
so sweet is that it defies the stifling conventional wisdom that tends to influence the way most broadcast networks go about developing and programming shows.
How do I love watching Lost break the rules? Let me count the ways.
· It's not part of a franchise. ABC won't be able to clone Lost, nor should it want to.
It's refreshingly original, a rare feat in a year when the third CSI
series is outpacing the original Law & Order
in head-to-head competition while a fourth Law &Order show is in the pipeline, whether we desire it or not. The sameness of these procedural dramas has gotten to the point where last month's premiere episodes of CBS's Without a Trace
and NCIS, both involving the kidnapping of a blind girl, were originally titled "In the Dark." (NCIS eventually blinked and changed its name.)
· You could never accuse Lost
of hewing to a formula.
Its premise may be as old as Lost Horizon, as potentially hokey as Gilligan's Island and as familiar as Survivor, but its execution is fresh and startling, playing on primal fears of mortality, abandonment and things that go bump (or louder) in the night.
· There are no big stars.
Generally speaking, TV is much better at creating personalities than at repackaging them.
Cases in point: Seinfeld's Jason Alexander, who became a TV star as a second banana, once again is adrift and miscast as a leading man in a mediocre new comedy (CBS's Listen Up). And NBC seems to have hoped that we will watch Heather Locklear in just about anything—or, in the case of LAX, nothing.
Lost stars nobody. It is less about star power than about story power. It's very much an ensemble piece, with few recognizable players. That will soon change as magazines and newspapers clamor to turn this appealing cast into household names. If there is a star, it's probably Party of Five's likeably unassuming heartthrob Matthew Fox as a resourceful and sympathetic doctor. The most familiar face is probably Lord of the Rings ex-Hobbit
Dominic Monaghan as a drug-addicted rock star. Leading lady Evangeline Lilly, as a heroine with a dark secret, is an authentic newcomer. She's a real find.
· There are too many characters.
One of the first advance criticisms leveled at Lost was that, with 48 survivors, including 13 principal cast members, it would be too confusing, much like creator J.J. Abrams' previous ABC cult fave, Alias. Nonsense. So far, each of the castaways we've met has been clearly defined, with fascinating and surprising back-stories that provide the basis for compelling storytelling. The Oct. 13 episode, for example, focuses on the heretofore enigmatic Mr. Locke (played by character actor Terry O'Quinn), a militaristic take-charge figure whose reasons for being on the plane are the last thing you'd expect.
· It's on too early.
With its scary flashback re-creations of the doomed flight and its grisly encounters with an unseen monster that lurks in the forest, Lost is an unconventional, and some may think unwise, choice to lead off Wednesdays at 8 p.m. But why save all the good stuff, however jolting it may be, for later in the night? Most of those time periods are already crowded with established hour-long hits—many of them, naturally, procedural crime dramas. Besides, the very notion of a "family hour" is a quaint fantasy. (These days, most kids think an after-school special is finding a new ultra-violent videogame to play before dinner. Or they're watching the Disney Channel or SpongeBob, not ABC.)
· It's more like a movie than a TV show.
Even those dazzled by Lost's movie-quality two-hour pilot wondered if the show's premise could possibly sustain the suspense and narrative drive over the long haul. It's still a fair question, but as of the fourth hour (which is almost as enthralling as the first), only four days have passed since the crash, indicating that, like Fox's equally riveting 24, time will play a critical role on this show. If each episode represents roughly a day in their stranded lives, it may be a while before the show runs short on gripping incidents.
· Finally: It's not a reality show.
For that, we can all be grateful.