The Words on the Page

Lost

December 19, 2017

 

Lost

J.J. Abrams & Damon Lindelof

Series Format - May 2004

Drama, 27 pages 

 

"Yes - the mysteries surrounding the island may serve an ongoing (and easy to follow) mythology - but every episode has a beginning, middle and end. More importantly, the beginning of the next episode presents an entirely new dilemma to be resolved that requires NO knowledge of the episode(s) that preceded it... Viewers will be able to drop in at any time and be able to follow exactly what's going on in a story context." - J.J. Abrams & Damon Lindelof

 

That's right. Lost, the poster show for serialized drama, was pitched as entirely episodic. The series format (or overview) that I looked it is what is more commonly referred to as the series document - an informal document written after the pilot episode has been shot that recaps the concept and maps out the first season. Usually it goes to VPs of drama development at a network in case top brass has questions about a show, but this particular overview is seemingly written to be read by the decision makers. Then again, nothing about the making of Lost was traditional.

 

Lloyd Braun, the then-President of ABC, wanted to do a drama that he described as Cast Away: The Series. He developed it with Aaron Spelling and Jeffrey Lieber (the third writer credited with creating Lost), but it wasn't working. He then turned to Abrams, who brought in Lindelof, and they worked on realizing Braun's idea. The duo wrote a 20-page outline in 5 days, the network greenlit the pilot based on only the outline, and the pilot episode was written while it was being cast. In a sense, this overview is the initial document truly outlining the show - and ABC wanted an episodic.

 

The series format, which includes a table of contents, consists of the introduction, a brief Q & A (where the creators ask and answer what they feel are the questions on everyone's minds), character descriptions, story breakdowns, and an epilogue which is "the hard sell." There were two elements I found particularly interesting.

 

The main question answered in the Q & A section is "What's the franchise?" Instead of committing to a specific category, Lost positions itself as being many different types of shows all at once, depending on the focus of an individual episode. Some will have a medical focus where "the life and death stakes play out just like an episode of ER," others resemble a cop show like "when one of the castaways is murdered," which then leads to a lawyer show with "material for explosive ethical arguments." But, under it all, they position themselves as a character drama. This division highlights the diversity of storylines available and makes what, at first glance, feels like a limited setting suddenly feel expansive.

 

The other aspect that caught my attention is that the overview is rather non-committal. Consider the wording:

 

"Some of all of the castaways may relocate to the vast UNDERGROUND COMPLEX they uncover, although this might not happen until well into the second season."

 

"He will do his best to resist forming attachments, but the right woman might just reveal a softer side. Then again... probably not."

 

"It could be a whole TRIBE for all we know."

 

Some or all, may, might not happen, might... probably not, could be - these are all possibilities, but no commitments are made. On top of that, they don't spell out their character and story mysteries:

 

"Jack's past is shrouded in mystery. Simply put, it's not something he likes to talk about - but if he did, it would certainly explain his tattoos.

 

"[Kate's] crime itself remains a mystery, a fact made even more intriguing by her refusal to apologize for it."

 

"The others don't know what it is yet, but Locke has a PLAN."

 

In a storyline springboard talking about the castaways' discovery of the flight data recorder - "what they ultimately [find] redefines everything they thought they knew about what caused the crash."

 

Intentional or not, the series format for Lost mimics the experience of the show. Mysteries lead to more questions - not answers - and it seems no one really knows what's going on. At the same time, it leaves for a lot of wiggle room with the network. Since very few definitives are written, it's easy to throw an idea out the window if the decision makers don't like it. In some ways, it's a smart move, but I think it's more apropos to a piece that already has a high-level champion at the network, a rather rare situation, than to a piece that a writer pitched. In the later, you need to sell the network on your idea while still giving them what they want, so you need to show you have a solid idea.

 

One final element that amused me is this definitive that was stated in the series document: "There is no 'Ultimate Mystery' which requires solving." 

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Writing for film, television, and the stage is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - art forms. The language needs to be visual and evocative as each script must achieve two important tasks...
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