LOST is one of TV's biggest hits these days, getting both huge ratings and well-deserved critical acclaim. Why? The simple answer is, people seem to enjoy watching the show. Duh. Critics might explain the appeal, perhaps saying the show is groundbreaking and new, mysterious and suspenseful.
This is all true. But it still doesn't answer the question of why LOST is all these things. To understand that we must dig deeper and look at the components within the structure of LOST that gives it such a universal appeal.
Typically, on successful long-running TV dramas, you have characters who are well-etched and easily digestible; characters who can be placed in nice little niches that we have come to understand as the norm for TV. You'll have your protagonist (the â€œGood Guyâ€?), who is flawed but ultimately heroic, and your antagonist (the â€œBad Guyâ€?), who is the source of the main conflict.
You have your other staples too: the â€œLove Interestâ€?, the â€œSidekickâ€?, the â€œMentorâ€?, the â€œComic Foilâ€?, etc. Television is good at disguising tried and true formulas, but they're there, trust me. It can almost be depressing to deconstruct TV shows; they are remarkably similar in form and, within the run of any given show, virtually indiscernible from episode to episode.
A modern television drama has four acts, allowing for three or four commercial breaks (depending on whether or not the show uses a cold open). Each of these acts has six beats, or plot points, that allow the episode's plot to unfold. This formula isn't just a guideline, it is a steadfast rule. Every episode of typical television shows have exactly six beats per act, no exceptions.
I know this all seems a little silly and contrived, but it's necessary for most programs. Formulas are what allow networks to produce over twenty hours of original programming per year and keep the quality relatively high. However, it can get old.
Thank goodness for LOST.
For the past two years, LOST has been a breath of fresh air for viewing audiences. Not only is it engrossing and soul-crushingly suspenseful, it has shattered the the all-too-common formulas that run rampant in network programming.
The characters on LOST, at first glance, seem to fit well enough into certain predetermined niches. Jack is your heroic protagonist. Kate is the innocent female in distress. Sawyer is the morally corrupt antagonist. Locke is the crazy wild card. And so on. But once you delve deeper, LOST turns you on your head. No characters are as they first appear. Jack may be less heroic that first thought, Kate is a dangerous ex-con, Sawyer may be more heroic than Jack, and Locke could be the most morally grounded person on the show. These characters are dynamic, ever-growing and evolving. The flashbacks certainly help, shedding light on how they've become what they've become, but the island brings enough change on its own.
The LOST creators could have easily gone overboard with the creation of their characters, writing over-the-top caricatures who would overtly (but obviously) clash with each other. It is remarkable that they showed the restraint, however, to mold every figure on the island into a subtle, complex and mystifying being. I feel like I know the main characters better (their nuances, motivations, etc.) than, really, any characters on any other drama ever, but they still surprise me and remain mysterious. There is more to learn about them.
LOST also did not buy into the standard TV drama formula of four acts. LOST uses a completely unheard of six act structure (yes, that's five commercial breaks) and, in doing so, allows itself a ton of freedom. Acts are never of similar length, giving writers the leeway to tell their story in the most effective way possible. There is no set number of story lines either; some episodes have two or three stories, some just have one. Flashbacks are used in a somewhat formulaic manner, but always with the option of not existing; a few episodes have no flashbacks at all.
The six acts are sometimes really four acts, LOST using the first and sixth as small bookends to the episode. Sometimes it's five acts, with the sixth being a long build-up to an exciting cliffhanger. Often the first act lasts up to ten minutes, having to pay off a cliffhanger from the previous episode.
Though we, the viewer, may not realize it, LOST is exciting and fresh because we really don't know what will happen next. In other shows, with repeatable formulas, we (at least subconsciously) know what kind of thing will happen next, even if we're unclear on the specifics. In LOST, not only are we unaware of what will happen, we also have no idea of how or when it will happen.
We need more shows like LOST, unique programs that aren't afraid to pit themselves against tested TV formulas and create something entirely their own.