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How Lost revolutionized storytelling

How Lost revolutionized storytelling

Before telegraphed flashsideways and magical caves, there was a time when Lost told its complex and often surprising story through other means. The mythological show brought to television seldom used attributes to entertain and mystify its audience.
Here’s how the groundbreaking series revolutionized television storytelling.

The first thing to notice about Lost is undoubtedly its unusual use of flashbacks.
At the time (and dare I say still to this day), it was a groundbreaking way to tell a story.
No, I’m not talking about the flashback itself, rather its use in network primetime.
Could viewers keep up with two simultaneous narratives involving the same characters at different times of their lives?
Since its first inception, flashbacks have not only become the staple of the show, but also populated the television landscape.

So much actually, that fans quickly grew tired of what appeared to only be a gimmick.
I guess now we can peak behind the curtain and reveal that, yes, it was at first an opportunity for the writers to stall.
Don’t take my word for it, here’s what Damon Lindelof had to say on the subject:

We knew early on that the flashbacks were going to have to be a prominent aspect of the series but we didn’t use flashbacks in the pilot other than to tell the story of the crash. We knew as we were shooting the pilot though that the only way to do the series would be to use the art of the stall. In any given season of 24 there’s not that much happening, but they give the illusion of constant suspense. On Lost if every episode were about discovering the mysteries of the island than we would be sunk, because there’s an inevitability to that where if the characters decided ‘we’re going to explore this island and figure out what this place is’ whereas if it’s ‘we’re going to figure out how to live with each other and figure out what this island is’ and we’re going to learn about the characters before the crash so that they’re emotionally compelling, that was the only way we saw to do the show.

The bottom line of it all is that, beyond its apparent uselessness, flashbacks on Lost (save for, let’s say, Fire+Water and Stranger in a Strange Land) were compelling both narratively and emotionally. You can’t say that about Damages’ flashforwards (more on that in a minute).
One of my personal favorites is the final flashback of Walkabout where it is revealed Locke was in a wheelchair.
The tour de force of Lost was to intertwine two narratives and therein create a seamless emotional journey that could resonate both in the past (off-Island), and in the present (on-Island). Those “flashes” were actually useful to the show.
As revealed by Lindelof, this back-and-forth between present and past was partly based on the storytelling method of the Watchmen graphic novel as well as Slaughterhouse-Five.

And since we’re on the subject, if you’re going to talk about one, then you’ll need to talk about the other.
I am of course referring to flashforwards (or prolepses).
Remember the time when you had never heard the term “flashforward”?
Me neither.
And yet, before the twist ending occurred during the Season Three finale (Through the Looking Glass), only a few people knew that the technique existed, let alone its usage.
You could say the series finale of Six Feet Under, The O.C., or even Star Trek: The Next Generation used flashforwards to offer viewers glimpses into the future of the show’s characters, but those were just that: glimpses. Like with flashbacks, Lost juxtaposed its timelines in such a unique way that you couldn’t look at prolepses as ‘just that’.

Flashforwards in Lost gave weight to something that was rarely used, or at least not for their sake, but just to give hints of the future. It was the ABC show that truly revealed the potential of such a storytelling technique. The series had showed again that audiences could follow simultaneously two very different timelines. Not since La Jetée have we had such a complex array of timelines, combining both analepses and prolepses. One could argue the writers are trying to catch the lightning in the bottle once more with this season’s flashsideways technique. But all they’re actually creating is a fake sense of nostalgia.

This true revolution gave way to a few series that probably would not have been green-lit had it not been for Lost.
Damages certainly succeeded in using flashforwards with its first season, but could have gone without it with its following seasons. They were as well only used as glimpses into the season finale, not true parallel storytelling. In addition, we can talk a bit about the now-canned FlashForward (based on the 1999 book of the same name) that proved a show could not sustain on mythology alone.

Ultimately, Carlton Cuse describes his show as “a giant mosaic“:

At various points in the journey you’re going to be standing in various spots and you can define them as past, present, or future. We like fractured storytelling, and the way we’re going you’ll be looking at various aspects of our characters’ lives in the story we are telling. We want to explore that from various perspectives.

Another revolution in the network landscape is the scope of the show.
And I’m not just talking about the size of the Four-Toed Statue.
From its cast and sets, to the score and cinematic visuals, Lost was pretty much unprecedented as a network drama. The show is de facto massively expensive (large crew and Hawaii shoot), but it also premiered during a time where networks were slowly moving away from scripted dramas into the realm of cheaply-produced reality shows. Whatever you might say about the mythology of the show, you can’t deny that the series had a lot of layers.

Comparing the show to video-game storytelling, Carlton Cuse went on to say:

We also felt that since Lost was violating a lot of rules of traditional television storytelling, including having a large and sprawling cast and having very complex storytelling, we felt that videogames were one model that showed that if audiences get invested, they love complexity. In fact, the more complexity the better, and the challenge of that complexity was an asset as opposed to a liability. Those are the games that people actually respect, you know?

As for the characters, even though an ensemble cast is far from being new, Lost distinguished itself from others thanks to the innovative “centric” aspect.
And regarding the mythology, well it seems to span literally thousands of years, though we’ll have a lot of things to say about that in the coming days.

Television storytelling was also revolutionized in another surprising way when, after a few months of back-and-forth talk between ABC and the Lost execs, an end-date for the series was announced on May 7th, 2007. Clearly, this move was done as a gesture towards the fan that both answers and the end were in sight. It was also an unprecedented move in network history that is unlikely to happen again, though it shaped in many ways other mythological series. Finally, the announcement led to three shorter seasons (around 15 episodes each), and, as we can see from the current renewals, such “cable seasons” are now becoming more and more in vogue.

Last but far from being least, we can now talk about the final two fundamental changes Lost brought to television storytelling: Crossmedia & Transmedia.
Simply put, crossmedia is distribution of one “story world” across multiple platforms, and transmedia is the usage of said platforms to tell the story.

Think of it this way: the ‘Lost world’ has many stories told through various mediums, the main one being the mothership (the television show on ABC). The rest of the (less important) side-stories can be told through, for instance, a series of books. This is crossmedia.
The show explored Information technologies as a way to distribute its stories. Case in point in December 2007 when Lost: Missing Pieces was launched on the Internet and mobile phones. The thirteen short videos (about three minutes each) were actually mini-flashbacks comprised of mostly deleted scenes. It wasn’t the first foray into mini-episodes (see 24 and Battlestar Galactica), but it certainly was the most effective of its time.

You also have transmedia, which is basically a more engulfing version of crossmedia. The most obvious example is what is called “Alternate Reality Game” (ARG), or, as Wikipedia describes it, “an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.”
One of the best ARG was The Lost Experience in 2007. I won’t go here into the dirty deets of what made TLE so great (Ivan Askwith deconstructed the ARG pretty thoroughly in his paper), though I have to congratulate one of the masterminds behind it, Javier Grillo-Marxuach.
Though their later attempts were much less successful (Find 815, the Dharma Initiative Recruiting Project), what you had with TLE and other Lost crossmedia was a unified viewing experience that allowed the audience to decide on which level it wants to be involved with the series.
You could be an über-fan and follow The Lost Experience, or just a casual viewer and simply watch the series on TV.

At the end of the day, Lost may be most remembered for complex mysteries or lack of answers, but its most overlooked aspect will certainly be the one that will have the greatest impact on television: groundbreaking and timeless storytelling.

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Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.


I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

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