What TV show is going to be the new Lost? People keep asking. But the sad fact is, it may take a few years before we see anything like the island-castaway show again. Real-life spoilers ahead.
What do people mean when they say "the new Lost"? It's not just a matter of a show with a sprawling storyline, weird signifiers and rich layers of weirdness. (In retrospect, Lost never had mysteries; it had signifiers, which is probably better anyway.) But there's more to it than that — Lost got crazy good ratings, even late in its run, and became part of the national conversation in a way few other genre shows have achieved.
So "the next Lost" can't be a cable TV show, even a basic cable show. It probably can't even be on The CW. (Among cable shows, the closest things to Lost heirs are probably True Blood and the upcoming Game Of Thrones and Walking Dead adaptations.) It would have to be on one of the "big four" networks, which are showing signs of weariness with genre TV right now.
That's the thing - the networks have been trying to create "the next Lost" ever since Lost first became a runaway hit. And the viewers haven't developed a taste for any of these imitation fish biscuits. Just off the top of my head, there were Threshold, Life On Mars, Surface, Heroes, FlashForward and a half dozen other shows that tried the "sprawling cast, enigmatic clues" formula. Of those, only Heroes managed to last more than one season.
So the networks do have a few shows that could surprise us all and turn into a new mass addiction that gets everybody talking. NBC has The Event, in which an ordinary guy stumbles on a secret conspiracy that could change the fate of the human race - it looks more like "the next 24," but it could develop more Lost-like layers. The time travelers in Steven Spielberg's Terra Nova could be the new castaways. Fringe actually deserves to be the next Lost, but it seems consigned to "cult hit" status. Maybe V will amaze us all in its second season. The Cape, about a cop-turned-superhero, could turn out to... actually, I can't think of a way to finish that sentence. Moving on.
And chances are, "the next Lost" won't look anything like Lost. It'll be another one-off, a show with a formula that's not a formula. We won't see it coming until it takes the zeitgeist by storm and suddenly 20 million people are all watching it and freaking out about it. We may not even realize it's a science fiction or fantasy show at first, or that there's more to it than meets the eye.
We've already written before about all the weird ingredients and crazy luck that would be needed to make another show into a Lost-like phenomenon. Lost had a simple concept at first: "Plane crashes on an island, survivors must work together to survive." But it also looked very familiar - at first.
Television is a conservative business, and it's only getting more conservative with time. Reality television has matured in the past decade, into something that looks remarkably stable. Few scripted dramas even get the green light any more, and most of those seem mortally wounded before they even make it to air. To have a network's total confidence, a show has to look like a sure-fire hit - which means looking like something that's already been a hit.
We often forget that when Lost started, it looked sort of like a drama version of the hit show Survivor. It was like a reality show, except with actors who admit they're actors instead of pretending to be real people. It was only because J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof introduced the idea of the island full of castaways having a jungle full of secrets and whispers that Lost became something else.
A lot of the shows that wanted to be "the next Lost" tried a different tack - they copied the look and feel of police procedurals, or "police science" shows like Bones or CSI. The trouble is, it seems like people are only interested in watching experts solve problems, if those problems are somewhat down-to-earth. The moment the experts are delving into weird science or strange phenomena, everyone tunes out. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the "police procedural with a paranormal spin" formula is never going to hit big.
So yeah, "the next Lost" might be a supernatural or sciencey spin on Dancing With The Stars. Or it'll be The Biggest Loser, only post-apocalyptic. Think about the way Glee took the key elements of American Idol and reshaped them into an hour-long comedy with enough weirdness for ten other shows, and hit big. Or it might be a hospital show, like ER or Grey's Anatomy, only with a hospital where weird shit happens. (Although I think they tried that, with Kingdom Hospital.)
I'm not saying the "next Lost" will necessarily look like a scripted spin on a reality TV show, or that it'll look like a copy of an existing drama hit, exactly. But it'll probably have a simple, relatable concept at first. (Everybody can wonder what they would do if their plane crashed on an island and they had to get along without creature comforts. It's something I think about way too often.) And it'll probably have at least some familiar-but-remixed elements. Or I know - it'll be the Leno-Coco war, except Coco's a druid!
But really, the "next Lost" isn't coming any time soon. The networks are going to need some time to lick their wounds from the last half-dozen big-budget failures, and someone's going to have to come up with a pitch that just sounds irresistible, with a logline that you can explain to a four-year-old in the time it takes to tie the kid's shoes. And then you'll need to cast McDreamy in the lead role. I give it five years, at least.