We're getting far enough from Lost that maybe it's time to re-evaluate. I have this Blu box set just gathering dust; I keep thinking about revisiting. I keep thinking that maybe my take on the show was unfair and short-sighted. Then I remember the finale and shudder.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch wrote on Lost for the first two seasons, and he was present as the show was hatched, found its way and became a juggernaut. He left after season two, but his position right there at the beginning gives him a unique perspective on the entire series, especially when it comes to the question of whether the creators had the mysteries planned out or whether they were making it all up as they went along. The answer, of course, is yes. To both.
As it has to be. A television series isn't a movie or a novel; you may have an end point but you're undertaking a journey that is prone to detours, unexpected obstructions, miraculous shortcuts and occasionally shady tour guides. In a long, excellent essay about his time on Lost Grillo-Marxauch perfectly clarifies just how much of Lost was decided right at the beginning, how the mysteries were never introduced until they had potential answers, and how network fear of scifi meant many things had to be hidden, obscured or nerfed to make it on air. Some of what he writes is shocking to me - the flashback structure of the show was originally only for the pilot, and was a late addition to the series format! - and some of it is intriguing - Locke's wheelchair was not just a last-minute addition to his flashback episode, it was one the writer of the episode, David Fury, hated... but managed to make work magnificently. It confirms all the worst suspicions about the show - JJ Abrams wanted The Hatch in the pilot despite not knowing (or particularly caring) what would be underneath it - while also combatting them - Damon Lindelof resisted including The Hatch until episode 10, which is when the writers finally came up with some answers about it that made him feel safe in introducing it.
Grillo-Marxauch's essay actually solidifies a lot of my feelings about Lost - it was a great show with a loose and manageable plan that ended up wandering too far astray by the end. Weirdly it seems like the network's insistence on muting the scifi elements helped the show - by the time the series got to time travel nothing really worked or made sense and the flash forwards and flash sideways just kind of stank. Many of the elements of the final season were in play in the writer's room right from the start; unfortunately the way the show dealt with these topics - like the manichean battle between good and evil - simply weren't up to the level of what was happening in seasons one through three.
You should read the whole thing (especially before commenting), but here's a really great excerpt that shows the way that story ideas were played with, teased out and sometimes squashed by the network:
As questions of mythology and backstory came up during the development of Lost, Damon and the staff -- first in the think tank and later in the writers' room for the series -- would come up with explanations. The ones Damon liked just enough to not dismiss outright would be discussed at greater length and eventually, something would become a kind of operating theory. Damon would eventually declare “it’s going to be that unless someone can beat it.” When we finally refined these ideas to the point where Damon was OK putting them on screen -- committing to them as canon -- then we would incorporate them into the show.
For example -- even though we assumed from jump street that the polar bears had been brought to the island as part of the Medusa Corporation's work -- there was also a very strong drive from Damon and JJ to advance the story that Walt was a powerful psychic. This explained, for example, the bird hitting the window in the episode "Special." Walt-as-psychic would also help us explain why The Others had such an interest in Walt and would ultimately kidnap him.
Although the genre-averse Powers That Be at network and studio were resolutely opposed to the science-fictional idea of a psychic boy who could manifest polar bears on a tropical island through the strength of will alone, Damon and JJ nevertheless gave themselves a backdoor into this area by putting the bear in a comic book that appeared both in the pilot and thereafter in series.
Frankly, it's hard for me to look at an episode like "Special" and not completely take from it that Walt is a powerful psychic who manifested the polar bear in order to test his father's love once and for all... but the execution of the episode apparently left plenty of wiggle room to give us plausible deniability -- even as Damon would regularly come into the writers' room, throw up his arms and declare "Of course Walt's psychic."
In other cases, these things would come in through backdoors and leave the same way very quickly. There was a time when -- in order to appease the network's fear of sci-fi -- the polar bear would simply be explained away as having been on the plane as freight. Needless to say, this idea came... and then went.
This is such a fascinating story because Walt CLEARLY WAS PSYCHIC... until he wasn't. And the explanation needed to make his kidnapping and specialness work - that the inhabitants of the island couldn't have kids - was simply poor and eventually was tied into a science fiction story that was actually too big, but was introduced at a later point when the network allowed them to go more wild.
Grillo-Marxauch goes to great pains to give Damon Lindelof a lot of credit and a lot of sympathy, and reading this piece definitely makes me feel like we were all very hard on the guy (although to be fair plenty of other showrunners have run successful shows without becoming celebrities). Lost was, in a lot of ways, an impossible thing - it was a show years ahead of its time, a show that blazed a path for genre on TV, for serialization in mainstream entertainment, for big and weird ideas - and that impossibilty finally bit it in the ass. I don't think this essay makes me like the last half of Lost any more, but it makes me better understand the honest effort it took to get to that place I didn't like.
By the way, this essay is not included in Grillo-Marxauch's new book, Shoot This One, which if full of essays on being a TV writer - which means when you buy that book (use the link below) you'll be getting lots of new material.