Over ten years ago, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse closed the book on Lost. The serial action drama, which has blended sci-fi and light fantasy elements over the years, ran for six seasons on Network TV between 2004 and 2010. It survived the 2007 writers’ strike as one of the most popular network shows of its time. and took place during the seismic shift in television, with viewers beginning to shift from cable to streaming subscriptions like the then-booming versions of Netflix and Hulu.
12 years later, Lost exists as a rare hybrid breed of gripping serial drama and so-called “mystery box”, a word sometimes used pejoratively to describe the way JJ Abrams and his writing disciples, like the showrunners of Lost, have a penchant for casting it. a bunch of unanswered questions to the audience, sometimes before the writers know the answers themselves. The lost writers’ messy but lovable handling of this aspect of the series helped popularize the online theory fandom that sits behind virtually any popular mystery box show today. As the internet and social media became mainstream in the mid-1990s, people took their water cooler conversation out of their respective offices and onto forums such as podcasts, Reddit, IMDb, or in this case, Lostpedia.
In the years since the Lost shows ended, many shows have been touted as its apparent heir – Flashforward, Dark, Stranger Things, The Event, Castle Rock, The Leftovers, et al. More recently, Yellowjackets shares the same catalytic event of a plane crash leaving survivors stranded. There’s no shortage of attempts, but it’s only now that I find out that we finally have the next Lost in HBO’s Westworld. The sci-fi action drama checks all the boxes for what made Lost special, and most importantly, it’s because it’s kind of an adorable mess.
To be the next Lost, a series must meet a few requirements. First and foremost, it has to be a show that airs one episode at a time. The Netflix model of throwing an entire season in the audience’s lap isn’t conducive to shaping the next Lost. As a distributor, the public does not have time to do theory. As soon as a new season is released, many fans flock to the end, totally avoiding the popular forums where the fandom dwells between episodes. Cynically, this format doesn’t seem to be about giving fans an unforgettable experience. It just gives them something to consume. Like beating a bad video game or reading a lousy book, sometimes it’s nice to start something and get to the end. Netflix and others know this, but to be the next Lost, that breathing space is essential.
To be the next Lost, a show must also carry its mystery box in the hands of compelling characters. Lost’s approach was to dedicate each episode to a single character. We watched their final events on the island they crashed on in 2004, but we also regularly looked back at their life before the crash. It gave a brilliant look at the massive cast of characters, and it’s still odd that no show has seemingly lifted this approach in bulk.
But Westworld has come close at times, like when one of the main reveals of its first season is that the characters William and The Man In Black (sound familiar?) are one, and the events we saw unfolding for them during the season actually came from two different periods of William’s life decades apart. Like Lost’s Man In Black and his brother Jacob, William’s arc touches on the dark and light duality of humanity.
In a way, the centric episode format of Lost got the season-long treatment for William. Through time jumps or similar perspective shifts, we also got to know Dolores, Bernard, Maeve, Charlotte, Caleb and other cast members of Westworld, and because they’re also so convincing, the mystery box is able to persist. and thrive. A show doesn’t need those time jumps to be the next Lost, but it does at least need a long list of great characters, and Westworld certainly has that.
While the mystery box must be supported by a weekly format and compelling characters — without the latter, a show can be doomed to cancellation — a good mystery box series also thrives on another factor: disarray. Lost, for all its accolades and applause, was regularly a mess. What were the whispers? Who was the smoke monster really? Why can the island cross the Earth? These and many more many other questions were often asked by writers who wanted fans to ponder the answers, but often when the show gave us definitive answers, fans felt dissatisfied.
In an example from Season 6, we learned that the Smoke Monster couldn’t directly kill “candidates,” a term for potential protectors of the island, but three seasons earlier we saw the Smoke Monster. tear down Mr. Eko in an instant, and let us know from the show that Mr. Eko was, at one point anyway, a candidate. Was he no longer a candidate when the smoke monster killed him? It’s reasonable, but the show never really explained it. I love a show that doesn’t spoon feed certain things, but even as a Lost superfan, I can point to half a dozen mysteries that have been given answers that clearly don’t match up with some prior events of the series.
Westworld has a similar problem, but be warned, I wouldn’t say either show “suffers” from being messy. What does it take to kill a host? What is the Sublime? Why does Maeve have her emergent, almost supernatural abilities, and no one else does? Perhaps the authors plan to answer these questions in due course. Over the course of three seasons and then a few, however, the internal logic is not always consistent. Some hosts die when they are fatally downed, some don’t. We’ve jumped forward seemingly many years to see William replaced by host copies of himself, but how far into the future, and who cares anyway? Sometimes a series of mystery boxes can get so caught up in the puzzles that they forget to plot the solutions.
Like Lost, it’s reasonable to want – and even expect – answers to all the questions the writers offer. But the series are rarely plotted in their entirety in advance. Even a timer like Breaking Bad was largely invented as it happened – which is pretty remarkable when you consider how intertwined it all is. But it’s a show about ordinary people. Lost is science fiction. Westworld is all science fiction. Keeping things clean and satisfying answers for half a decade or more when a show’s lore bible is constantly rewritten to include things like time travel, robots, smoke monsters, and futuristic dystopias is everything simply a more difficult task because writers do not exist in our world, they are building a new one.
It’s especially difficult when you have legions of fans stalking every inch of an episode for clues like this is Zapruder’s film – a lesson the Westworld team learned first hand when the Fans on the subreddit pretty much accurately predicted the value of the entire first season of events after a few episodes.
Such corny fervor for a show’s plot and themes and characters hasn’t really been seen since Lost, and it only exists now because the show is airing one episode at a time, because the characters are worth knowing, and because a messy mystery makes for a fun fandom.
Westworld exists in a much more fragmented television landscape, so it doesn’t draw the 10 million viewers that Lost once did on ABC, but I’d estimate the spaces where diehard fans hang out to work out theories based on the latest Still – Dolores’ computer screen images are even better populated than similar spaces in 2009 when Lost fans tried to figure out who Jacob was. I hope Westworld reaches its natural end, just like Lost did, because with shows like these, I don’t have to just finish something I started. With shows like these, the messy and thrilling journey with like-minded fans will always overshadow the destination anyway.
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