Lost, The Phenomenon: An Outsider’s Perspective

No, I don’t watch Lost.

Yes, I am starting to feel really bad about that.

Lost isn’t just a ratings magnet, and it isn’t just a brain-requiring science fiction (I use the term loosely) series. It is both, and that is what makes it so unique. Compare Lost to any vaguely similar show of the last decade in terms of ratings and it’s easy to see, it is an outlier.

Somehow, Lost has managed to attract seemingly ALL the people who watch shows of its approximate genre (I say approximate because, from my understanding, it really is pretty much unique in these terms as well), and even a few who don’t. And they all LOVE IT. Perhaps my experience differs from that of other people, but I have yet to find someone who is so-so on Lost. You love it, or you don’t watch it.

So the question is: WHY?

And I really don’t know the answer. Has creator-mastermind J.J. Abrams discovered the formula for primetime network television that captures this unheard of combination of ratings, intelligence, and weirdness? This seems unlikely. If he had such knowledge/mastery, surely Fringe would be a much larger hit than it has been (and was expected to be; see: minimal commercial breaks for Season One*). Or, maybe he did find a formula that worked…but it only worked at exactly that time. Rewind the clock to 2004, and it becomes obvious that non-realistic television was in something of a dry-spell. Basically the only other new science fiction show in the 2004 period was Battlestar Galactica – cable, hardcore sci-fi, aired internationally (simultaneously in multiple countries).

In the present, science fiction shows are seeing a rise in popularity again – and it’s not just J.J. Abrams making them. Yes, Fringe and Lost, but also Heroes, FlashForward, V: The Reimagined Series, and Dollhouse (up until last week). And that’s just the major networks. There’s more competition for viewers. And yet Lost still rises far beyond the rest.

The final season has just started, so it will be a good long while until next fall when we see the effect of a television world without Lost. But it will certainly be a brave new world. There’s no way to predict how the sci-fi television scene will change when Lost is no longer a landmark. As a purveyor of the genre, I’ll be on high alert until the future solidifies.

For now though, Lost fans are simultaneously rejoicing and beginning to grieve. Emotional investment is high, and the whole world is buzzing with anticipation. All this political network junk aside,the success of Lost can also be boiled down to the fact that it is brilliantly done, endlessly fascinating, there is simply nothing else like it on television.

So I’ve basically argued myself into watching it.

I didn’t start watching when it began because I was a dedicated Alias fan embittered by a) the declining quality of that series, and b) how Lost was dragging all these non-Alias fans on to the J.J. Abrams bandwagon. From then on came a series of excuses about “Oh, I don’t have time for television,” (no, really – at one point I did actually have such thoughts) or “Oh, I don’t have time or resources to catch up on what’s already happen.” But my priorities have changed (see: I have a TV blog now), as has the technology (hello, SideReel and Hulu!).

I guess the only real question now is: Can I catch up in time to watch (and fully appreciate) the finale with the rest of the world?

*Commercial breaks are how networks make money. They sell airtime to advertisers. The more audience members there are in a given timeslot, the more the network can charge. There is a certain amount of money that networks are looking to make. Minimizing commercial time is a sign that the network expects they can make the same amount of money with fewer commercial slots – as in, they can charge more. Seeing as Season Two of Fringe has seen a return to standard commercial time, I’m guessing that indicates their gamble didn’t pay off quite as much as they hoped. (As I am not an economist or a well-researched expert, I should also note the possibility that this may also have been either a sign or the recession or that the first-season commercial set-up may have been part of a negotiation to get J.J. Abrams to sign Fringe to FOX instead of his home network ABC.)

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