Lost, 1x01-2, “Pilot” parts 1 and 2

Guys, let's find out where we are.

Welcome to a new feature, reviews of Lost! This is going to be something that goes up on the first Monday of each month. I’m doing the two part pilot here, but going forward we’re looking at about 4-6 episodes a month. If people would prefer a different schedule, I’m open for discussion. The plan right now is to cover episodes 3-6, “Tabula Rasa” to “House of the Rising Sun”, on Monday the 3rd February. There aren’t any spoilers here for any episodes beyond the two part pilot, but I might do clearly indicated spoiler sections in future reviews. Enjoy!

So, they crashed.

There are pilots out there than Lost. Not many, but they exist. There are better shows than Lost. But in terms of something that instantly announced itself, that screamed “you must pay attention to this”, nothing has the pilot of this show beat. It’s a statement of intent, an announcement that this show will be different than anything on TV as of 2004. If you would allow me to make a pun, Lost didn’t just turn up, it crashed onto our screens.

Everyone who loves TV has “their show”. The show that pushed them beyond a normal viewer to more seriously interrogating the medium. The show that they built their week around. Lost was my show. It was the thing I thought about all day at school. Three significant things happened in my life in 2010: I failed all my A-Levels, I didn’t get into university, and Lost ended. I’d be lying if I said one was obviously less meaningful than the other two.

I criticised J.J. Abrams approach to storytelling a lot when writing about Rise of Skywalker, and I think everything that’s a problem there is evident in this pilot, but he uses his powers for good. If you’d allow me the vanity move of quoting myself for a moment:

“He starts from “what do I want the audience to feel?” in any given scene and works back from there. “J.J. always has a clear idea of what he wants you to feel”, Rise of Skywalker co-writer Chris Terrio explained, “and then our job is to create a story in which those emotions could be evoked”. This can be incredibly effective at its best, and it’s a key part of Abrams’ success that his work is able to cut through any story mechanics or sci-fi logic and get to the core emotional beat of any scene. I could not for the life of me tell you what Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s plan was in Mission: Impossible III, but it doesn’t matter because the whole thing is exciting when it needs to be, tense when it needs to be, and emotionally upsetting in exactly the brief moments when it needs to be. Abrams is remarkably good at manipulating the audience to feel what he wants to feel at the right times.”

The first seven minutes or so of Lost might be the purest form of this in his career. It’s something he’s gone for again, particularly in the opening of his first Star Trek film, but he never gets the blend of cutting from serene to intense, evoking action and shock with the right emotional beats, quite as right as he does here. We open with the famous eye: Jack, alone in the jungle, almost at peace, even if he’s just been in a trauma. The first two minutes are remarkably calm to contrast with the total carnage we see straight afterwards. Early on, it exists to make the audience feel two things: “what the fuck is going on here?” and “wow, Hawaii is pretty, this doesn’t look like any other shows on TV”.

Then we get to the shock. TV had never done a sequence like the crash wreckage in 2004, but you’re not supposed to be thinking about that. It does good work quickly showing us some of the other cast members, but you’re also not supposed to be thinking that. You’re supposed to be feeling the initial shock and awe (yes, this show premiered 18 months after the Iraq War began) at what you’ve just seen. But it can’t last, because we’re very much in Jack’s shoes here, and he doesn’t have time to reflect. He has to act. It’s important to note that Abrams and Damon Lindelof originally intended for Jack to die at the end of part one here, and that’s a big part of why he’s elevated as such a straightforward hero. This first hour of Lost is very much from Jack’s point of view, presenting him as the most heroic of leading men. That will change very soon (often in frustrating ways), but right here, in this moment, he’s the hero exactly when one is needed.

After seeing the crash, we slow way down and flesh out the cast a little. Jack meets Kate, who in one version of this pilot was set to become the lead after Jack’s death, but in this reality has to settle for being second among equals. We meet Charlie, the British former rock star who has the predictable drug habit to go along with that. We meet Sayid, the Iraqi former soldier (it was 2004, ok) who proves more useful than anyone else on this island. We meet Claire, the very pregnant Australian, and Hurley, who doesn’t really have his kind hearted personality yet and is unfortunately defined by his weight. We meet Sun and Jin, who seem to have some controlling relationship issues even as Jin tries to do the right thing in the camp. We meet Michael, trying and failing to reconnect with his estranged son Walt. We meet Shannon and Boone, siblings who seem to be constantly at each other’s throats. We eventually meet Sawyer, so far defined largely as just “angry redneck”. Terry O’Quinn’s character isn’t named here, but the script calls him Locke, so I’m not considering it a spoiler. He’s just defined as a guy who likes backgammon and giving weirdly intense speeches to kids.

It’s all pretty broad strokes, archetypal stuff. This is a very “diverse for 2004” cast, which is to say there are some people from different backgrounds around the edges while our focus is on the white man and his sidekick, the white woman. And there is something of a “gotcha!” aspect with how it subverts certain archetypes. Sayid is a hero, but he’s a former Iraqi soldier! Kate is the pretty white girl, but she’s the fugitive! But the show gets a lot across about these people in few scenes. With an ensemble this size, it can often take a long time for all the characters to feel distinct, but everyone is someone from the word go here.

Both parts of the pilot, which really feel like distinct episodes in a lot of ways, each spend a lot of time on a respective mission. The first, in which Jack, Kate and Charlie head to find the transceiver while being chased by the unseen monster, feels like an Abrams-style thrill ride, all tension and action. The second episode’s mission, with a wider range of bickering characters frustrated with each other even as they uncover some terrible information, feels much more Lindelof. It’s a tension that Lindelof obviously wins pretty quickly, as he’s the one who didn’t leave to direct Mission: Impossible III, but it nonetheless gives the episode an interesting flavour.

It’s funny that Lost came together almost by accident, pushed by a network executive rather than any creative voices before getting radically reshaped by Lindelof and Abrams, because as a pilot it couldn’t be a more perfect set up. The challenge of any first episode is explaining existing set up, relationships and plot. This problem is quadrupled in a mystery-heavy genre show, and it’s a big part of why the Lost clones all failed. They frontloaded the set up and made the shows nonsense from the get go. Lost, on the other hand, has almost nothing to explain. Most of the characters have never even met before, let alone have any idea where they are. Pretty much the entire set up is “a bunch of people are in a plane crash on an island”. That’s a clean enough premise that anyone can get it. Even a show like Flashforward, with a relatively simple conceit of people getting a glimpse into the future, had to explain every character’s existing lives and relationships in the pilot. Lost had the very fortunate position of being free from all of this. It’s a minimalist pilot in many regards.

There’s a lot about Lost that this pilot doesn’t establish. That’s the nature of television, with those involved leaning into what works and what doesn’t, bringing in new voices along the way. But it gets across several important things instantly: it’s a show about very different people trying to survive together, it’s about the island as a place and the mysteries it holds, and above all else, it’s an adventure show. It’s a first sketch, but the shape of Lost was obvious from the beginning. We’ve arrived on he island.

Notes

  • “Guys, where are we?” has always struck me as a little too obvious a line to end on. Like, we get it. We were already asking that.

  • That the transceiver doesn’t work feels like kind of a cheat, even if it ends up paying off in an interesting way.

  • There’s a lot communicated visually rather than through dialogue. It’s a talent Abrams has always shown, that he can find the cues to telegraph something rather than just having the characters say it.

  • The exception to this, of course, is Jack’s “count to five” monologue, which gets all its power from delivery and couldn’t compare to showing us it. It’s a lesson Lindelof takes with him on The Leftovers.

  • I’ve been somewhat cool on Michael Giacchino’s film career, but there’s no doubt he’s bringing it with the score here. Ramping up the tension in a way you don’t initially notice over the crash scene to a bigger, sweeping sound when the show wants to slow down.

  • Hawaii is, like, really pretty.