When Oceanic Flight 815 crashed on a seemingly deserted island on Wednesday, September 22nd, 2004, our perception of what constitutes a solid, game-changing TV show went up in flames. With each episode this realization became stronger; with every season finale our suspicions were reconfirmed: Lost is not just a TV show. It goes beyond any definable genre, beyond the strengths of its actors, directors and writers. The main plot and the individual storylines encompass so many elements of style and feeling, it has spoken to a multitude of people of all ages and backgrounds in a way no other show has managed to do since. Lost was a unifying viewing experience that invited philosophical, religious, cultural and spiritual debates into households that would have otherwise fallen silent under the spell of yet another mediocre blend of badly mixed genre-cocktails. It was a weekly event that established its very own online and offline community—it was not a show you watched over dinner, it was one you turned your phone off for. Crunchy snacks and rustling chip packets were highly frowned upon and talking was strictly verboten whilst watching an episode; you simply couldn’t afford to miss a single word or a suggestive expression.
And at the end of each episode, the minute the screen turned black and the words “LOST” appeared with a thundering thud, the entire room would almost always gasp in unison, as if catching a breath for the first time in forty-five minutes. Eyes widened, oftentimes tears flowed and sighs were emitted, and after a few minutes of silent reflection the room would erupt in a wave of excited chatter, philosophical musings and concentrated puzzle-solving. Once all major episode points were exhausted with the offline community, many people would take to online platforms to further explore their concocted theories and unanswered questions. Lost was a passionate hobby, an adventurous game we could never grow tired of, and one that could never be imitated.
Explaining the plot to someone unfamiliar with the phenomenon that was Lost is a difficult, if not frustrating, undertaking. This show drinks from so many sources and revolves around so many concepts that it’s almost impossible to filter through the different layers and find a pitch worthy of its impact. The secrets of Lost long to be unearthed at a certain pace, much like the ambiguous obscurities of the island. Unveiling these secrets requires patience and insatiable curiosity; this show urges you to channel your inner John Locke and take into the depths of the jungle, turning every leaf along the way for possible answers.
Everything on Lost feels like it has meaning, everything feels like it’s happening for a reason and it takes dedication to find out what, precisely, the purpose of it all really is. This show is “the looking glass,” but it’s up to you to make sense of what you’re seeing. It demands your full attention and, beginning in Season Four, an investigative mind on constant, full alert. This season brought with it great heights of complexity, adding an extra dimension to the already multi-layered show and introducing new narrative resources beyond the classic present/flashback dichotomy. In this way, Lost moved into a completely new realm, with physics and sci-fi now taking the center stage. This actually resulted in the elimination of a certain audience, but most remained loyal to the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 and accompanied them until the bittersweet end.
Lost’s finale, titled “The End,” was a global happening. It can best be compared to the special feeling of solidarity often experienced during the World Cup; it no longer mattered whether you were for team Jacob, or rooting for The Man in Black. This is a show that brought people together to experience a type of island camaraderie, and that union was celebrated one last time as everyone bid Kate, Jack, Locke and Hurley an emotional farewell. All that was left now, were the abundance of unanswered questions to ponder and the silently brooding Lostpedia to consult and, still, the phenomenon lived on.
Thinking back to a pre-island world, there are only one two TV mystery shows that might have rivaled Lost in terms of that distinctive, detail-obsessed fandom—two shows that might have even been precursors to such collective TV experiences. Twin Peaks, which first aired on April 8th, 1990, is another one we still talk about today—loudly enough, in fact, to have been granted our wish for a revival. Created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, Twin Peaks was the first mystery show that created the kind of frenzy amongst fans that continued even after it was already canceled. This is a show that wasn’t just about the mystery surrounding the death of Laura Palmer, or the investigations that lead Cooper closer to finding her killer. It is, above all, about the eternal fight between good and evil. It is complex and cryptic, while still managing to be entirely relatable in its depiction of American culture. It introduces the classic characters present in every small-town community, but allows them to find a deeper edge and an understanding of the supernatural, beneath their superficial dealings in everyday life.
Twin Peaks installments were some of the very first to spread series-geekdom across the internet. Armed with extra-curricular materials such as The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), The Autobiography of F.B.I Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes (1991), Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town (1991) and The Twin Peak Gazette , Peaksies would take to the internet to discuss their latest Black Lodge discoveries and debate the roles The Man from Another Place and the Giant play in these extra-dimensional places. With the release of the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me in 1992, new riddles arrived for fans to freak out over: What was David Bowie’s character all about? What is the significance of the humming electrical sound? What did the monkey say?
The next show to take over TV sets and the internet was The X-Files, which first aired on September 10th, 1993. As is the case with Twin Peaks and Lost, The X-Files was another series that dabbled in different genres, thus attracting a wide audience often split between general “X-philes” (those who tuned in for all things extra-terrestrial and supernatural), and the “shippers” (those who were more drawn to the character-driven storyline, and wanted nothing more but to see Scully and Mulder get it on). From 1995 until 2002, Manga Entertainment and Titan Magazines published The X-Files Magazine, which was jam-packed with geeky goodies. Beyond that, The X-Files merchandise included a collectible card game, videogames for PlayStation, PC, Macintosh and even Sega, and several official and “unauthorized” books such as Ground Zero , Fight the Future and Antibodies and Ruins . The show became an important aspect of pop-culture and devoted fans continue to slip into the roles of Scully, Mulder and The Smoking Man for cosplay purposes, never quite allowing the X-Files craze to die down. The show’s style and content inspired a whole generation of new shows including Strange World, Mysterious Ways and, of course, Lost.
This kind of die-hard fandom that we saw with Twin Peaks and X-Files was not seen again until Lost took off, and fans around the world were desperately trying to decipher the hatch’s hieroglyphs, and throwing parties clad in Dharma overalls—and it hasn’t been seen since.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been any more sci-fi/mystery shows worthy of our infatuation. J.J Abrams attempted to establish a similar enigma with Fringe (2008). There were several references to Lost in Fringe, a number of shared themes and, at times, even the same music (the orchestral “Hollywood and Vines” and Desmond’s flash sideways theme). And although the show generally received positive reviews, it never quite reached the same level of success as its predecessor. Though it inspired similar thought processes about life, death, the universe and everything in between, it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. I’d argue that there are two factors that might clarify what’s lacking in Fringe. For one, the emotional connection the viewer builds with Fringe protagonists Olivia, Peter and Walter doesn’t even come close to matching the bond felt with Charlie, Kate and Desmond. Another factor could be the setting. Lost was unique in its setting on a tropical island void of modern distractions, thus almost entirely dedicated to using its natural scenery in favor of its mystical, scientific approaches. In terms of setting, Fringe could be considered overly sci-fi at times, which may have turned away those who aren’t attracted to futuristic notions and environments.
These factors are all refuted by Lindelof’s latest venture, HBO’s The Leftovers, the one show that has everything needed to reach cult status and amass the same kind of relentless fan base as Lost. Viewers have found the same kind of ardent fascination for The Guilty Remnant, Kevin Garvey and the Murphy family as they did with The Others and the flight 815 survivors. The stories of the individual leftovers have been genuinely touching, the conveyance of their grief and loss of self has been undeniably strong. Though the setting in The Leftovers could be described as primarily urban, it flirts heavily with its natural surroundings, all of which become pivotal to the story—key moments are set in the woods and the river, and its backdrop has always transmitted a sense of openness and space. The major themes in The Leftovers may be edging closer to the ultimate message we take away from Lost and critics and audiences are definitely talking about it, analyzing the significance of the water in purgatory and questioning why The Departure happened in the first place. There are pockets forums and groups dedicated to swapping information and theories but a global mania is, as of yet, undetectable.
The Leftovers is one of the best things that has happened to TV since Lost—that’s indisputable; but people weren’t left on a complete adrenaline high that lasted for weeks after Season Two’s finale. Questions don’t seem to be burning in anyone’s mind, to the extent they’d want to make a night of dissecting all the episodes and scrutinizing ideas posed on online forums. People don’t shoot home with the same urgency, jonesing for the latest episode, avoiding social media until they’ve watched it. The links that were tied on the island, were tied in living rooms and dorm rooms across the world. In The Leftovers, though everyone is facing similar challenges, real solidarity has yet to be established, on-screen and off-screen. And ultimately, that’s what made Lost, Twin Peaks and The X-Files so special: community.
The X-Files has already made its come-back and, although there were some promising episodes, it failed to fully revive itself. Hopes are high for Twin Peaks, and there’s no doubt David Lynch will create nothing short of a masterpiece but, perhaps, not one for this particular time. Timing is crucial for TV shows and although Twin Peaks may be an evergreen in the hearts of many, its distinct style and humor won’t necessarily speak to a generation that predominantly prefers a rapid pace in terms of storyline, and Holden’s swagger in The Killing over Dale Cooper’s esoteric methods.
In the same way that Twin Peaks and The X-Files were meant to happen on the brink of the internet revolution, Lost was meant to happen in 2004 during those early years, just when social media was online communities were planting the seeds of their reign. Unfortunately, there’s no button to push to go back and do it all over again, no frozen wheel to bring a new island into the future.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.