The lightning in a bottle effect of Lost and why it has never been recreated
A warning of minor spoilers for Lost seasons one to six as we explore the show's legacy on twenty-first century television...
It's been 10 years since Lost came to an end with a decisive sixth season that wrapped up the fates of Jack, Sawyer, Kate, Locke, Hurley et all. It was the end of a cultural phenomenon, that started with the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 coming together on a remote island and took audiences through thrilling twists and turns. The character flashbacks gave depth to the core cast, building on who they were and how they were connected. The mysteries of the smoke monster, the Others, the Dharma Initiative, polar bears, historic transmissions, Jacob, ancient statues and mysterious regenerative abilities truly made Lost the watercooler show of the early twenty first century.
It's easy to see then while so many TV shows attempted to capitalise on the success of Lost, taking the familiar tropes, flashbacks and mysteries and trying to capture the magic of that Island-based drama. The last ten years are littered with dead one-season wonders that tried and failed to recapture that 'lightning in a bottle' effect that was Lost, while other shows managed to take certain elements and run with them. But even then, are any of them the true successor to Lost's almighty crown? Not really. The truth is, Lost was a one of a kind in many ways.
What made Lost work? The character flashbacks were the most successful element of that first twenty-five episode season. There were plenty of mysteries sewn into the fabric of the show. The smoke master makes its presence known from the very first episode, the first sighting of a polar beer and Danielle Rousseau's radio transmission all great hooks that told the audience that this was going to be more than just a show about plane crash survivors. But Lost also wasn't afraid to play the long game. The mysterious hatch - the entry to the first of the Dharma facilities wasn't opened until the shocking finale, the first time the Others played their hand. Throughout season one, the big talking points were the characters themselves as week by week, we learned who they were and just how interconnected their lives might be. The superb Walkabout saw Locke revealed as a wheelchair-bound office worker with dreams of an outback trial by fire given life by the island, Numbers revealed Hurley had won the lottery with mysterious numbers with a strange connection to the island, while it wasn't until ...In Translation that our entire perception of Jin was turned on its head.
Not a huge amount happens in season one, but the flashbacks really make it a success. Certainly, this format began to feel tired by the third season. No one needed the episode Stranger in a Strange Land to flash back to how Jack got his tattoos. By the end of the third run, Lost was started to feel a little tired. Despite the massive expansion of the Dharma and Others plot, it felt as if the flashbacks were a noose around the show's head. And then Through the Looking Glass happened. Not only was it one of the most shocking island-based finales of the show's run it also threw the biggest curveball yet by showing Locke, Jack and Kate off the island...in the future. The flashforwards that accompanied the fourth season gave Lost a massive renewed sense of energy and still kept the audience on their toes. Remember the penny dropping in season four's Ji Yeon when we realised we were watching both flashforwards and flashbacks? Season five continued to mix things up again as characters journeyed back to the island and while season six's flash-sideways were ultimately something of a mixed bag, they kept the audience on their toes in the final season.
Flashbacks weren't a new narrative tool. Angel for example, used flashbacks throughout the five-season run to tell Angel's past as Angelus. But Lost was one of the first to use them as a recurring narrative tool. It was a technique used in two big genre shows; Once Upon A Time used flashbacks repeatedly to tell subverted origins of classic fairy-tale characters, while Arrow's first five seasons portrayed two different narratives; the time Oliver's arrival on Lian Yu and eventual return to Starling City and the present-day season storylines. Both fell into the same trap as Lost, revisiting flashback narratives that had already been exhausted or frankly weren't as compelling as the earliest flashbacks. Notably, Arrow rested the flashbacks in its sixth season and then took a leaf out of Lost's book by jumping into a flashforward storylines for it's final two years.
Some shows have gone for a more innovative take on the flashback / flashforward narrative; How to Get Away With Murder started with a flashforward murder each season and then has that season build to that point, adding a sense of tension as characters and plot lines begin to converge with the familiar. The Affair did something even more interesting with the flashback narrative, revisiting the same event twice from different character perspectives, each slightly different based on the viewpoint of the character flashback. Westworld (minor spoilers for season one ahead) managed to run two time periods in its first season without the audience even realising, in one of the best rug pulls in recent TV history and a brilliant twist on the flashback narrative.
Flashbacks and flashforwards were a simple but effective tool for Lost, but could never be recreated like for like and still succeed. Once Upon A Time had to keep switching up flashbacks to keep audiences interested - it's notable that from season three onwards, the most compelling flashbacks of season one - Snow White, Prince Charming and the evil Queen - were some of the least interesting aspects of the show. Arrow's first two season flashbacks were incredibly compelling because they tied into the events in the present, but seasons three to five bordered between mildly engaging and just plain dull. It needed a refresh once Oliver's five year backstory came to an end (and arguably long before then).
Taking one element of Lost's success is one thing, but there were a number of TV shows that went for the whole formula and failed in its wake. Flashforward is one of the biggest casualties of TV networks trying to recreate the Lost magic formula. Not only did it bag two of Lost's cast members - Sonya Walger and Dominic Monaghan - it also attempted to capitalise on all the elements that people loved about Lost, with planned multi-season mystery unfolding through non-linear narratives. The fact that it took one of Lost's most memorable elements - the season four flashforwards that reinvigorated the show - and built an entire show around it shows just how transparent Flashforward was in trying to tap into the audience that loved Lost so much. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Flashforward was that it didn't have the patience Lost had. Lost spent three years building to the epic events of four through six. Flashforward feels like it accelerates at the same pace as Lost season four from the very first episode.
Needless to say, audiences weren't having it and Flashforward was cancelled after just one season. It's a shame as there was a lot about the cast and the premise that was very enjoyable to watch, but its desperation was apparent from the very start. A year later The Event followed, another one season wonder that attempted to construct what could have been a multi-season long-form mystery that would keep audiences talking for decades, all the while employing multiple timelines to unveil the narrative.
The reality is that Flashforward may be remembered as a something we remember watching ten years ago. The Event was something we all stopped watching long before the season came to an end. Why? Because audiences weren't ready for another multi-season mystery. As great as Lost had been at times, it had burned through the good will of audiences willing to wait several seasons to see the big mysteries revealed. Season six of Lost after all, was the most decisive in the way that it attempted to wrap up some of the wilder myth arcs that had run through the show.
Would that have meant audiences would have switched off long before the end of Lost if it aired today? Perhaps, though it's hard to say, given that Lost's legacy is the reason that audiences might not have the patience for multi-season arcs today. Cracking the winning formula of long-form storytelling, compelling characters and engaging mysteries and making it work a second time is a hard thing to achieve. There really is a sense that Lost was at the right place, right time, coming in a period of television where myth arcs were becoming more engaging than traditional episodic series. Lost existed alongside Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all shows that changed how we viewed television and marking a transition into the what is common practice in twenty-first century television. But the reason it was never successfully replicated was because networks wanted to be the new Lost with the likes of Flashforward, Lost, Alcatraz and Revolution.
Perhaps it also takes time. It's been ten years since Lost ended. Long-form storytelling continues apace in the likes of Westworld. With popular multi-season narratives in shows like Game of Thrones and Mr Robot coming to an end, maybe audiences are ready for another compelling TV mystery to get their teeth into. Enter Manifest, which finished its second season this year and has been renewed for a third. It is a show that feels like it could have come in the wake of Lost alongside Flashforward and The Event and would have likely ended far sooner had it aired then. But while it doesn't have the wide appeal of Lost, Manifest is securing itself a loyal fan base with some compelling multi-season mysteries for the audience to get themselves into.
The premise itself has touches of Lost. Flight 828 vanishes, only to reappear with all passengers onboard five years later, having not aged a day and with no memory of where they have been. With mysterious powers known as callings guiding the passengers to save people and change history, there is more to the mystery of Manifest then just what happened to Flight 828. With other supernatural events and nefarious organisations trying to work against the passengers, there are plenty of intriguing twists and turns to keep the audience on their toes. Season two has expanded the show's myth arc further, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions going into the third.
Manifest isn't quite Lost. It doesn't have the range of compelling characters that Lost did, largely focusing on brother and sister Ben and Michaela Stone (Josh Dallas and Melissa Roxburgh) and their immediate friends and family. But it is highly enjoyable viewing for what it is. It doesn't utilise flashbacks on a regular basis and the mystery is more focused than Lost's many twisted narratives, but it does feel like the first proper spiritual successor to the cultural behemoth that ran for six seasons.
Whether Manifest gets to tell its story or ultimately ends up cancelled with many unanswered questions remains to be seen, but it has certainly gotten further than any other show influenced by Lost. However, it is unlikely that Manifest will never come close to becoming a cultural icon though and that's because Lost truly was a 'lightning in a bottle moment' with the compelling mix of characters, mysteries and narrative structures that struck a chord with audiences in a time where long-form storytelling was becoming the norm. But at least the interest in Manifest's continuation shows that audiences might be ready for the next big TV mystery.
And if not, you can always return to the island and watch Lost all over again...
Lost is available on Amazon Prime here. Check out Manifest on Now TV here.