Back when Lost was nothing but an outline for the most expensive pilot to date, the writers were struggling to come up with more story ideas. Including stuff like: "Shannon trades sexual favors for sunscreen, which has rapidly become the most prized commodity on the island." That's just one of the revelations from a new detailed account.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who was a writer on Lost for the first two years (and just published a book of essays about writing and television) has published a long and fascinating first-hand recollection what it was like to be in the writers' room those first two heady years. Including some of the awful story ideas they kicked around early on. Besides the aforementioned "sex for sunscreen" idea, there was also "Sawyer builds a still." Also: Hurley reveals that he's an amateur hypnotist, and hypnotizes Charlie to get information.
Also, Grillo-Marxuach reveals, Walt was going to be a lot more clearly psychic (and maybe he brought the polar bears to the island with his mind powers.) And the Smoke Monster was going to be a security system set up by the Medusa Corporation, a RAND Corp.-type entity that was trying to solve an equation, similar to the Drake Equation, on the Island.
Most fascinatingly, Grillo-Marxuach addresses the whole question of whether there were answers for the Island's big mysteries from the beginning — and it's a lot more complicated than you probably realize. On the one hand, showrunner Damon Lindelof didn't want to put anything on television unless he felt confident that he could eventually explain it. On the other hand, Lindelof always told the writers' room that any explanation they came up with was in place "until someone beats it" — meaning, until someone comes up with a cooler explanation. And also, co-creator J.J. Abrams, who at the time was obsessed with the idea of the Mystery Box, wanted them to have lots of mysteries in place regardless of whether they had an explanation, because Abrams believed the journey was more important than the destination.
The main thing you come away with, after reading Grillo-Marxuach's account, is a sense that this show was trying to balance competing demands from the network (nothing too fantastical) and Abrams (more mysteries), with Lindelof as the creative engine who came up with idea after idea. Grillo-Marxuach is pretty fulsome in his praise for, and defense of, Lindelof.
He also addresses how much of the show's big ideas in later seasons were present in the plans discussed in the first two years:
There are also lot of things that developed long after I left the show, things that — when mentioned to me by friends still on the series, or fans whom I befriended during my time there — often made me go "huh?"
For example, while the idea was that the island called out to people and brought them in as part of a greater Manichean conflict, I didn't once in two years and change hear the name "Jacob" or "the man in black." The idea that people were being recruited to come to the island as part of this greater agenda was never brought up during my time on the show, even though by all accounts it eventually became the crux of the series' final arc.
Presumably, as the length of the series increased, the writers needed to find ways to turn mere concepts into dramatic constructs... preferably with the ability to say dialogue.
Also, when I finally revisited the show after for years away, my initial response to the plot of the series finale was "why's Henry Gale still on this show and how did he become the most important man in the universe?"
So, just as most characters don't take on a life of their own until after the actors have brought their skills and interpretation to the table, there are few drawn-in-advance-plans for series television — well or poorly sketched out — that survive the crucible of the writers room intact. Why hire a group of geniuses at great expense, to brainstorm and execute ideas, if you already know exactly what everything is and where it's supposed to go?