Is LOST Irreplaceable? As the Epic Sci-Fi Adventure Concludes, Will Another Genre Show Fill Its Shoes? (2010)

As noted in several of my prior columns, “The Grieving Season Continues: Mourning the Loss of Last Season’s Sci-Fi Shows Cut Down Before Their Time,”Is This The End of Sci-Fi TV?” and “When Sci-Fi Shows Fall Beneath the Guillotine,” there has been a steady erosion of sci-fi fans from genre shows in the past few years. It has led to the quiet cancellation of nearly 75% of all sci-fi shows since 2008. It has also prompted many shows to seek out mutually agreed upon end-dates in order to conclude their stories with dignity and endings that will make the fans happy.

But more noticeable is the loss of “Lost.” Unlike its predecessors and comrades in the sci-fi realm, “Lost” did something utterly remarkable. It crossed television boundaries and amassed a viewership of over 21 million viewers in its first season. Even as viewership began to decline in its later years, it never dipped below 9 million viewers – a number that most current sci-fi shows cannot even come close to. While newcomers “V” and “FlashForward” initially drew in excess of 14 million and 12 million viewers respectively, they were unable to retain those viewers and now are currently drawing an average of 5 million viewers – less than one half within their first seasons. The same holds true with “Heroes” which exceeded 16 million in its freshman year, and currently only pulls in only 4 million viewers. Another noticeable drop was “Fringe” which exceeded 13 million also in its first season but slid to an embarrassing 6 million viewers in its second season (though it has since rebounded back up to 9 million viewers). So “Lost” did the unthinkable: it pulled in over 20 million viewers for its first and second seasons, and managed to exceed 15 million viewers during its third and fourth seasons. While it has slipped to less than one half of its original viewership, it is still the king of the sci-fi realm when it comes to ratings. It not only delivers eyeballs, it delivers the right kind. In today’s television climate, it is not just the number of viewers watching, it must be the coveted demographic: the 18 to 49 year olds. Those with supposedly the most disposable income and thus, are more desirable by advertisers. And in demographic ratings, “Lost” is an unparalleled sci-fi juggernaut. It ranked 12th in its first season, rose to 6th in its fourth season and 11th in its fifth season. Any way you look at it from a ratings perspective, “Lost” was a force to be reckoned with.

Then when every entertainment reviewer and magazine did their Top 10 Shows of the Past Decade lists at the beginning of this year, “Lost” was the one show that was on everyone’s list. It was also the only sci-fi show that was on everyone’s list. A few more forward-thinking television connoisseurs included “Battlestar Galactica,” but as far as everyone was concerned, “Lost” belonged on all the lists. TV Guide ranked it 5th and Entertainment Weekly ranked it 2nd; and television reviewers from Televisionary to TVaddict all made sure that “Lost” was prominently on their Top 10 lists. It did not matter where you looked, “Lost” was there. For what would the past 7 years and 6 television seasons been without the captivating “Lost”?

In addition to being record breaking, “Lost” was ground-breaking. It introduced a large cast and with each season it only continued to add to its list of regular and recurring characters – and we were fascinated by each and every one of them. With the use of the now famous flash-backs, flash-forwards and sideways-flashes, “Lost” introduced us to the lives of a whole host of castaways, zealots and innocent bystanders as it unfolded a complex tapestry of storylines. And who knew that a story about a bunch of airplane crash survivors stranded on a mysterious island would ultimately end up with them pitted in an ancient battle of good versus evil involving the seemingly omniscient Jacob and the murderous Black Smoke Monster? That was simply unforeseeable. It has been a dazzling journey.

So it begs the question: What is next? What show can possibly replace it in the hearts and minds of the fans and viewers? It is unfathomable that another television show could reach the pinnacle of “Lost’s” achievement and success – or even invoke the same level of passion and zealous advocacy (fervor) of the sci-fi fans. While touted as the next “Lost,” “FlashForward” could not sustain audience interest beyond its initial cool premise. Criticized for being too distant and uncaring, it quickly fell out of favor with viewers. Another ambitious launch was the remake of the sci-fi darling “V.” But like “FlashForward,” once the initial allure wore off, the viewing audience vanished faster than before. So what is putting off the viewers? More than likely it is cumbersome, entangled storylines that viewers cannot get a grasp on – and too many characters — so it is unclear who the hero is — and there is no identifiable “heart.”

In “Lost,” the series started with Jack Sheppard and audiences latched onto him as the hero. The heart of the story was multi-pronged as viewers fell in love with Hurley, the blossoming love between Charlie and Claire, and the rich romantic triangle of Jack, Kate and Sawyer. Neither “V” nor “FlashForward” could provide those key ingredients. An epic sci-fi story requires three key ingredients: a hero, a heart and a romance.

Looking forward, there are a few remaining sci-fi shows which may attempt to fill “Lost’s” shoes. There is “Fringe” which offers all three ingredients: a hero (Olivia), a heart (Walter), and a romance (Olivia and Peter). But due to the complexities of its ultra hard-core sci-fi story base, it is unlikely that it will generate the fervor of “Lost.” “Lost” was simply more accessible to a larger number of viewers. It carefully hid its hard-core sci-fi aspects to be revealed at a later date. Instead, it focused on a mystifying tragedy, an airplane crash on a seemingly deserted island with a lurking monster in the distance. It was not relying on the creature-feature of the week plot device, it was relying on drawing the viewers into a mysterious world and turning over the cards one by one to reveal what it was truly about. While some may argue that such serialized storytelling scared off almost 50% of “Lost’s” viewers, I say that for over 3 seasons, “Lost” pulled in 15 million viewers and today still pulls in over 9 million viewers. It is still the number one ranked sci-fi show on television and ranks easily within the top 20 of all television shows. The slow serialized storytelling is only a deterrent to those viewers looking for a quick-fix. For the rest of the viewers, they were happy to tune-in for the long-haul and enjoy the journey.

So if it is not to be “Fringe,” then what? If there is not a show currently on air that can rival “Lost’s” rabid fandom and appeal, what could conceivably be on the horizon? With pilot season under way and as we await the final results of both May sweeps and the television upfronts where the networks announce their new shows and fall slate of television programming, which upcoming shows could be the next “Lost”? Not being privy to what the networks have in store, it is hard to guess. A few television pilots that may have a chance of actually making it onto the broadcast schedule are: “Terra Nova” from Fox (marketed as a dino-drama by Steven Spielberg), “The Event” from NBC (a conspiracy theory thriller) and “No Ordinary Family” from ABC. But a dino-drama sounds a lot like the British series “Primeval,” “The Event” sounds a lot like “FlashForward,” and “No Ordinary Family” sounds a lot like “Heroes” – and none of those shows could come close to being the monstrous hit that “Lost” was. I would love to be surprised and will undoubtedly give each of these shows a chance, but will other viewers? Has “Lost” spoiled the viewing audience forever? Was it simply so unexpected and original that viewers were captivated and gave it a chance?

And did anyone truly see that “Lost” was going to be as big as it was? I can vividly recall sitting in a room with 4,000 other people at Comic-Con watching the pilot in July 2004 two months before it debuted on ABC. I had no idea what to expect. I had just heard that J.J. Abrams, from “Alias” and “Felicity” had a new TV show coming out. On sheer name-recognition alone, the fans assembled and watched. An hour or so later, and “Lost” was a buzz-word that had captured everyone’s attention. It became the most talked about new television show and debuted to some of the highest ratings that ABC had seen in over 10 years. It was virtually an overnight sensation. And it was all anyone could talk about. Six seasons later, as the show is wrapping up its long journey, it is still all anyone can talk about.

But daring to be a rebel, I will posit one possible show that may take “Lost’s” place: “Doctor Who.” The British television series has been around for over 35 years, and when re-launched in 2005 it came back more popular than before and ever since it has steadily pulled in an average of 10 million viewers in the U.K. The only thing that really stops it from competing with “Lost” is that “Doctor Who” currently only draws about 1.2 million viewers in the U.S, which is actually the same number of viewers who watch “Lost” in the U.K. So drawing a comparison between the two massively popular sci-fi shows, both draw approximately 11.2 viewers, if you count their viewership in the U.S. and the U.K. – “Lost” is just more popular in the U.S. and “Doctor Who” is more popular in the U.K.

After weighing their viewership as equal and the fact that “Doctor Who” has successfully recast its principal lead actor with yet another reincarnation of the character, “Doctor Who” stands in a position to continue long after “Lost” is gone. “Doctor Who” simply has time on its side to continue wooing more viewers and growing its audience base. Its fans are also perhaps more devoted than those of “Lost,” as “Doctor Who’s” ratings have only gone up as “Lost’s” have declined in the past 5 years. Due to these two factors alone, time and increasing ratings, it is conceivable that “Doctor Who” could eclipse “Lost.”

However, it is doubtful that “Doctor Who” could ever take away from the critical achievement of “Lost,” which won six Emmy Awards in its first season and has been a steady Emmy Award contender ever since. Additionally, “Lost” scooped up the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Television Series in its first year and a 2008 Peabody Award. While “Doctor Who” has been a steady nominee at the BAFTA’s since its debut, it has not yet received the level of critical acclaim that “Lost” has already achieved. But given time, it could.

The other thing that “Doctor Who” has that may cross-boundaries and lure viewers is that it has all three of the magical ingredients: a hero (The Doctor), a heart (Amy Pond) and a potential romance. While never a staple of the “Doctor Who” lore, recent years have seen some experimentation with The Doctor being a romantic lead, as well as a dashing time-traveling adventurer. Whether new show-runner Steven Moffat will continue down this particular storyline with the Eleventh Doctor also remains to be seen.  But as evidenced by “Lost,” romance sells. What would “Lost” have been without the Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle? Would viewers have been half as obsessed if it were not for the wondering over the fate of the core couples? Surely, Charlie and Claire, Penny and Desmond and Sun and Jin have also played a key part in attracting and retaining viewers. It has been said that an adventure is but only half an adventure without a taste of romance. So with so many factors weighing in its favor, “Doctor Who” could be the next “Lost.”

But it is just not quite there yet. So, as we say goodbye to “Lost,” it is with heavy hearts. We not only mourn the show that took us to new heights of entertainment, we shall fret that there will be nothing to take its place. “Lost” introduced us to a world of wonder, characters we fell in love with, and an adventure that is ending too soon. It will be missed — for some shows are simply irreplaceable.

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