View Full Version : How 'Lost' reinvented television

11-06-2005, 12:55 PM
Around the time he glimpsed the shark with the tattoo, a rabid "Lost" fan named Elan Lee knew there was something different going on: This was a TV show that liked its audience.

Really liked its audience -- enough to reward it with treats that only devoted viewers would catch. The shark, which appeared in the season's second episode, had a logo on its fin that showed up elsewhere in the show, a possibly significant clue in the "Lost" mythology. It was the sort of thing you'd only see if you froze the frame and watched very, very closely. If you were looking for just this sort of trick. And if you had a community of fellow viewers doing the same thing.

To a sizable portion of its audience, ABC's Emmy-winning drama -- the tale of a group of plane-crash survivors, stranded on a strange desert island -- has become a different way of experiencing TV. To its most devoted followers, "Lost" -- which returns from a two-week break Wednesday -- is part metaphysics seminar, part jigsaw puzzle, part scavenger hunt. It's a collaborative experience, a game to be played and shared. And an acknowledgment that, even on network TV, the audience can have power, too.

"It's really interesting to see how the show and the writers are trying to put in a bunch of extra little goodies for only them," Lee says. "They feel like the more they poke at this bizarre thing, the more it pokes back."

Lee should know; most of the time, these days, he's poking from the other side.

As director and lead designer at 42 Entertainment, a marketing company based in Emeryville, Calif., Lee is a pioneer of the "alternate reality game," or ARG, and it's the medium that "Lost" most closely resembles.

The ARG is a fast-evolving form of storytelling with millions of devotees. The principals at 42 Entertainment devised what many consider to be the first full-fledged ARG in 2001, when they worked at Microsoft. Steven Spielberg had come to the company -- which had bought the video-game rights for his upcoming film "AI" -- with a request for an unconventional marketing campaign.

Lee and his co-workers devised an Internet-based game. They never mentioned the film itself, but they created a story, loosely connected to the world of the film, and left it for the audience to uncover. The programmers spent six months constructing a narrative, breaking it into a million fragments and hiding it on nearly 1,000 Web pages laced with clues, along with certain spots in the physical world.

Solving the puzzle -- which came to be known, in-house, as "The Beast" -- called for knowledge in areas diverse and arcane. It required collaboration, a network of shared ideas and expertise, the sort of collective entity The Beast's designers called the "hive mind."

And the hive mind was smart. The mystery was supposed to unfold over nine months, but "the audience had completely stripped it bare in three days," Stewart says.

That's an axiom of the ARG, which "Lost" producers seem to have taken to heart: The audience is wise and must be followed. It might not know the ending, but it still can drive the story.

"We have time and time again found audiences really latching onto a character or latching onto a particular theme in a narrative that we were going to downplay," Lee says. "And all of a sudden we let that become the focus of the second or third act of our story."

This is an intense form of participation, to be sure. But Stewart and Lee imagine it could be the future of entertainment. And, in the context of a show like "Lost," it could be the future of TV, says MIT media studies professor Henry Jenkins, author of the forthcoming book "Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Intersect."

With "Lost," "I think the cult audience is the leading edge," Jenkins says. "It's experiencing a new kind of power and a new kind of knowledge that's only possible when you combine the Internet with television."

The "Lost"-ARG analogy isn't perfect, of course. As Jenkins points out, The Beast and its successors are self-conscious games, devised with a clear expectation of what the audience would do. In the case of "Lost," he says, the viewers started the process. "This is something that audiences are demanding, not something that is thrust upon them," Jenkins says.

"Lost" creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof started by plotting a "mythological roadmap" that answered the show's central questions, says Carlton Cuse, the show's co-executive producer. But he says the producers conceived the show as a character drama.

But as it became clear that the mythology had sparked fan obsession, Cuse says, the show began to adapt. Producers weren't sure, for instance, how viewers would react to the six possibly magical numbers that have showed up on a lottery ticket, in a transmitted radio message, and on the door to a buried hatch. But when the idea created a fervor "we spent more time on that aspect of the mythology," Cuse says.

This second season, loyal viewers say, they've noticed more deliberate nods to the audience base, acknowledgment that many are watching with DVR remotes at the ready, prepared to rewind, freeze-frame and slo-mo to home in on possible clues. The rewards for such intensity include the tattooed shark -- which required a certain level of collaboration to spread through the fan base.

The writers have also been more overt about dropping hints -- or red herrings -- in the public arena. A few weeks ago, in a newspaper report, a "Lost" writer hinted that viewers should check an upcoming episode for a reference to the 1940s British novel "The Third Policeman." (Its main character is dead but doesn't know it.) Paperback sales of the book quickly spiked. But in the episode in question, the book was little more than a passing flash. And Cuse won't say what that means.

The book "was carefully chosen as a way to suggest a possible theory about what was going on on the island," he says. "Does it mean that was real, or does it mean that we were just teasing the audience and being sort of self-referential?"

"You have to watch because you're enjoying the journey, not because you are waiting for the endgame," Cuse says.

11-07-2005, 08:06 AM
Anything, and I mean ANYTHING that can put the final nails in the coffin of this "Reality TV" bullshit is cool in my book (Although I've never watched Lost)

11-07-2005, 01:15 PM
I'm with Suit. I can't stand reality TV. I just started watching Lost because my sister told me to check it out. Pretty good show.

11-08-2005, 11:56 AM
Man, I didn't realize all the hidden stuff, just enjoyed the show for its great character twists and development. Now I gotta go back and catch everything.

11-11-2005, 02:18 PM
Never watched it,but I should start.

Only good reality show is Trading Spouses,the last episode the other night was some funny shit when that bitch flipped out.