It’s been 15 years since Oceanic Flight 815 went down. At the time of its premiere, on Sept. 22, 2004, J.J. Abrams‘ iconic series Lost was a major risk for ABC. It was expensive, it was long, and it left plenty of questions about the group of plane crash survivors who landed on a mysterious island. Now, it’s clear that Lost didn’t just change the way audiences watched television — it forever altered the way TV shows are created.
The show’s epic pilot showed audiences and networks alike just what type of stories can be told in primetime. Up until that point, procedural staples (like CSI, Law & Order, or House) and multi-camera sitcoms (think Two and a Half Men and Will & Grace) were the go-to styles of programming. But Lost presented a plethora of deep concepts in a story format mostly unseen by television audiences. On the surface, it was a primetime soap opera about a diverse group of castaways as they fought for survival after a violent plane crash. But underneath that was a layered exploration of the human condition — with the concepts of free will, good vs. evil, and faith regularly playing an important part in this deeply mythologized journey.
It was the beginning of a Mystery Box trend in programming, all thanks to Abrams’ vision and ace showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. And once it all caught on — Lost was the first program with an official TV podcast, its showrunners broke down episodic details weekly, TV recappers wrote thesis-length investigations into each episode, and internet chat forums became a hotbed for fan theories — the demand for more high-concept programming set in.
TV budgets blossomed, production quality became cinematic, and, almost overnight, serialized narratives began popping up in plenty of small-screen stories. Seven years after Lost premiered, and one year after its polarizing series finale, another ambitious program hit television: Game of Thrones.
While there are stark differences between the two programs, one can easily draw a straight line from Lost to Game of Thrones.
Hear us out: Yes, George R.R. Martin’s books existed long before the series even entered development at HBO. Lost, on the other hand, was cobbled together in such a haphazard manner that its success was baffling to Lindelof and ABC. The channel had been struggling for a hit and, after network exec Lloyd Braun watched the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, he had an idea.
“What if there was a plane that crashed and a dozen people survived, and nobody knew each other,” Braun told Grantland. “Your past was almost irrelevant. You could reinvent who you were. You had to figure out — how do you survive? What do you use for shelter, for water? Is it like Lord of the Flies? How do we get off the island, how do you get home? And I start to get very excited about the idea, and I start thinking about the title Lost.”
Lost‘s two-part pilot came with a reported price tag of $13 million, the most expensive of any TV episode at that time. Combine that high cost with how the ongoing story was told, processed, regurgitated, and theorized, and the only other program in recent memory to capture the same caliber of attention was Game of Thrones. Swap out the Dharma Initiative, the Smoke Monster, and the Others with White Walkers, dragons, and the Dothraki and the similarities become clearer. There’s also the fact that every episode in GoT‘s final season cost $15 million apiece. It cost HBO about $10 million to produce each episode in the show’s previous two seasons. That’s pretty crazy when you think about the budgetary restrictions television producers had to work with just a decade ago.
Lost featured an ensemble of mostly unknown actors who were cast without a finalized script (which is a head-scratch–worthy detail unto itself). But the characters were instantly iconic and their International diversity became an important component to the story being told as well as the representation it provided for the global audience with which the series ended up connecting. Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) was British, Claire (Emilie de Ravin) was from Australia, Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) was Nigerian, Sun (Yunjin Kim) and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) were from South Korea, Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) was Scottish, and let’s not forget the former Iraqi Republican Guard member, Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews).
The diverse nature of the cast not only appealed to a global fandom, the characters helped break down preconceived notions regarding citizens from certain parts of the world.
While the majority of Game of Thrones‘ cast may be white (and British), there is a similarity here in the sense that both shows gave their actors celebrity status the world over. Going from barely getting recognized to packing Hall H at Comic-Con is a feat worth recognition.
The cinematic style of Lost also put ABC in a spot it wasn’t expecting to be in. Suddenly the network, which boasted plenty of reality programs and game shows, was competing with premium cable entertainment like The Sopranos or The Wire. It was a high concept risk that almost never saw the light of day, and once it did ABC scrambled to bring in Lindelof and Cuse to keep the show afloat.
Before HBO offered its own standalone streaming service, and before Hulu was a word that even existed, ABC made new episodes of Lost available to watch on its website just one day after broadcast. This type of digital availability of programming wasn’t something audiences or networks were used to. But ABC experimented with this early business model. Two years later, Hulu took that baton and ran with it.
This wasn’t the only way Lost engaged with its audience. In 2005, as free episodes became available to watch online, the network invested its time in a new means of storytelling: the podcast. With Cuse and Lindelof regularly appearing on the “Official Lost Podcast,” along with members of the cast, to provide insight to the drama and mysteries as they unfolded, a new means of engaging with fans was born. Lost premiered during a time when Facebook and MySpace were the social networks of choice. The iTunes Store was in its infancy, and it would be a few more years before Twitter launched (and Game of Thrones fans would subsequently harness the platform to discuss episodes in real time). And yet the character drama, intricate puzzles, and island mythology that unfolded on ABC’s groundbreaking series connected with audiences on a level unlike ever before.
Lindelof and Cuse (or Darlton, as the internet began to call them), helped start the trend of putting showrunners in the spotlight. Before Lost, viewers weren’t granted such a peek behind the proverbial curtain. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff became the faces of Game of Thrones like Lindelof and Cuse before them. The actors were no longer the only celebrities in the room.
ABC broke ground with Lost, giving us an odd string of numbers, a mysterious hatch, and an island full of possibilities to ponder week in and week out. It was an existential story that plucked heartstrings and inspired wonder. This layered exploration of life vs. death and good vs. evil captured the imaginations of audiences and content creators alike. Once Lost ended, HBO took the mantel with Game of Thrones, further breaking down the barrier of what is possible to achieve on the small screen.