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Sci-Fi Assassin: How Lost Snuck Into The Mainstream And Why We Should Stop Looking For A Replacement

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It’s time to put away the notion that there will ever be another Lost. The series ended in 2010, and even before the castaways walked into the light, networks were trying to recapture the magic. There’s never a new anything when it comes to television shows; something we sci-fi geeks should accept.

Seinfeld left, and was replaced by nothing. But we can find solace that eventually there was The Office, Modern Family, Community, among other great network comedies. Someday there will be a huge network hit that delves deep into sci-fi mysteries.

It could be said that Lost was the next X-Files.This is because we’re not talking about a show full of mysteries as the harbinger of TV greatness. There are scores of those shows each year; all vying for your attention with sound bites that vaguely remind you of a program about some interesting people who survived a plane crash. What people really mean by “the next Lost” is a science fiction based network program that garners attention from everyone, including the CSI and Law & Order watchers. The networks aren’t looking to find the next engaging sci-fi program; they’re looking for the mega ratings.

We already have the next Lost in spirit with Fringe. But where Lost was a stealthy assassin, coming upon you slowly from behind with its crazy science and hoodoo; Fringe let its freak flag fly from the start. What Lost proved about the general public is that you have to sneak sci-fi into the mainstream audience’s blood.

Science Fiction is great when it hits the metaphors with precision, neatly dissecting the way we perceive our world using the filter of aliens or other sci-fi clichés. Thousands of geeks will expound the brilliant explorations of humanity by the greats: Heinlein; Wells; Asimov; Clarke; Sagan, etc. But equal to the task are some of TV’s great writers and creators: Moffat; Davies; Abrams; Carter; etc.

So with all of the available talent, and some – like J.J. Abrams – with major studio backing, how is it so improbable to manufacture a new uber hit? The reason is simple, most sci-fi shows are filled with gobbledygook and mumbo jumbo. What most science fiction fans don’t understand is that their cherished stories sound like confusing pseudo science jargon to the average person.

For the former homecoming queen, now waiting tables at the age of 27 to bring in barely enough money to keep the mortgage payments current, when you start a show with an alternate reality premise or a huge “what if” scenario she’s going to see what the kids on Jersey Shore are doing instead. It’s not even that she’s stupid, or unwilling to watch a more intellectual program. Time vortices and sonic screwdrivers are not in her wheelhouse of entertainment.

Lost was able to transcend the dividing line between sci-fi and generalized human story to become something that was distinct. It did so not by creating great characters, which so many sci-fi shows already have, but instead by leaving the gobbledygook for a future time. First we’ll get to know the people who survived a harrowing plane crash, always good for a water cooler conversation. As people bicker over who’s their favorite survivor, whether Kate is cute or annoying, or Sawyer is really as dreamy as his scruffed up image leads you to believe, they’ll fall in love with the show. Quoting their favorite Hurley lines, and holding their breath as Jack doesn’t give up and brings Charlie back to life.

Meanwhile in the background the foundation is laid for the true science fiction story to begin. Then there are numbers, a hatch, and a button to be pushed. And for those of us who stuck around for the entire run remember, it’s at this point that the general populace began to slowly slough off until we were left with the die hard fans. Once it went full sci-fi, Lost never recovered its season one fan base.

While Fringe has every right to be the new king, especially coming from the man (Abrams) who found the key, it got too sci before the fi had a chance to hook viewers. Whatever the next Lost is will have to sneak up on us. We may not even realize we’re watching a sci-fi based show at first glance. But if you want that 20 million viewer stamp of approval you have to cut through all the jargon and get to the story. For now it’s time to stop looking for that show, and just enjoy the great stories that surround us on a weekly basis.

Comments

  1. Anon says:

    If I may offer a polite rebuttal, there are 2 things relevant to the discussion that are being overlooked:

    1) LOST isn’t unique as a sci-fi show, it’s unique as a TV show. There really had been nothing else like it before. And when it dropped in the ratings, it’s because people lost faith in where the story was going, not due to sci-fi elements.

    2) There have been successful sci-fi launches since LOST with huge numbers, it’s just that the shows weren’t that great and the audience lost interest, just like they do with any kind of TV show. V started out with 14 million viewers and it did that with big, glaring sci-fi things like aliens and spaceships.  FlashForward had 12 million. These are HUGE numbers if not quite as great as LOST’s 18 million.  The fault isn’t their sci-fi-ness, it’s their boring-ness.

    There is absolutely room for a big, mainstream sci-fi show in the TV world. It just has to be GOOD.

    • JT says:

      Polite rebuttals are always wanted and welcome!

      You raise some good points.  I think it’s hard to really gauge though because so few few GOOD sci-fi shows like Lost are really ever given a big launch.  The ones that are put on the air never even start out with good ratings. 

      What we do know is that whether the sci-fi show is good or bad, if it really feels like sci-fi, it always seems to end up dead.  That’s even true of the ones you mentioned. Maybe they failed because they were bad (and they were) or maybe they failed because audiences tuned in hoping for Lost where the sci-fi is hidden… and they got in your face sci-fi instead.

      Sure there are some awful ones like V and FlashForward, but there are also the Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, Firefly, etc which are great and just never get any mainstream attention at all.  The very few which do survive, like Fringe, seem to survive mostly by flying under the radar.

  2. getut says:

    Sci-fi is slowly gaining popularity as the older generations who see sci-fi as stories for children moves to the old folks home. I still don’t have enough faith in humanity to say that reality television is going to die (it should…. it should be burnt with fire), but at least sci-fi has room to grow with the newer generations who have been raised with it.

    • JT says:

      If it has room to grow though, it doesn’t seem to be using it. There isn’t a single, mainstream, successful sci-fi show on television right now.  Fringe is the closest thing to that, and it’s pretty low rated and not really part of the mainstream consciousness.

  3. John Evans says:

    If the “mainstream” doesn’t like sci-fi…why bother? Why not just make good sci-fi shows for small audiences?

    Eventually any show will be available on DVD or Netflix, so anyone who wants to watch them will be able to. I’d rather have 2 good shows that anyone can watch than 1 good show that the mainstream liked but then gave up on.

    • JT says:

      Well the big problem with that is budgets.  Sci-Fi requires a lot of money to really be done right.  Even successful sci-fi shows have a hard time getting enough money to keep going week in and week out.  AMC, for instance, is slashing The Walking Dead’s budget for the second season… that’s going to have a negative impact on the show.

  4. JaySin420 says:

    I think Lost was just a drama that used mystery, romance and sci-fi elements to steal fans from every genre. Which was pretty genius if you think about it, but then it all fell apart at the end.

    I don’t think it will be impossible for someone to copy that formula, but have a better ending in place from the start.