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January 22, 2007
Executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse promise that they've found the plot twists that will bring Lost's viewers back


By Cindy White


This season, the title Lost could describe what's happened to the viewing audience of the once red-hot show. In an effort to reduce confusing reruns, ABC made the decision to air the third season of Lost in two "pods" this year. The first six episodes wrapped up this fall, leading up to a midseason finale that found Kate and Sawyer on the verge of escaping from captivity with the Others while Jack had their leader, Ben, at his mercy on an operating table.

While some viewers have accused the show of neglecting the characters and narrative threads that made it popular in the first place, executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse urge them to stick with it for the rest of the third season. At the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., last week, they promised that the fans' patience will be rewarded when the show returns on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
What was your idea for the arc of season three?
Lindelof: Going into season three, our mission was "We're going to answer the question in these first six episodes of why the Others have kidnapped Kate, Jack and Sawyer. Why those three? What is the play?" And that's one level of it. And then, obviously, the next level is "Who are these people? Why have they been taking kids? Why were they abducting people? How long have they been on the island? Why were they having book clubs? Who is Ben in relation to Juliet?" And for those of you who have seen season three, episode seven, the new season premiere, we answer a very significant mystery about Juliet, at least in terms of how she came to the island and why. And that begins to posit sort of new questions, some of which will be answered by the end of the season and some of which won't.
A lot of fans are demanding those answers. How do you respond to that?
Lindelof: I think the characters on the show experience in many ways the same frustrations that the fans and the critics do, [and] everybody who is watching the show, in terms of "Why don't the characters talk more amongst each other about the mystery of the island?" The reality is, we've written those scenes, and in some cases we even shoot those scenes. And whether you take our word for it or not, we think they don't work. They're incredibly boring. ... If, for example, everybody got together and basically Sayid said, "Well, I'll tell you, I found this wire ,and I followed this wire," and then somebody else said, "Wait a minute," ... and they started to put it together, it would make for very uninvolving television.

Cuse: It's something we've done intentionally since the very beginning, and I think that's why Lost is not a small genre show, because we don't allow the characters to focus on the mythology. But when we sit down and we work on the stories, we're primarily spending most of our time talking about these characters and how they interact. And I think that if the characters became focused on the mythology, a lot of people would drop out. I think there's a much larger audience that's much more interested in "Who is Kate going to choose?" than the details about who Alvar Hanso is.

Lindelof: To just add one more thing. When [Alias creator] J.J. [Abrams] and I were first designing the show, he specifically said, "Don't make the mistake of having the characters talk about Rambaldi all the f----ing time." And the reality is, you'd be asking a much different version of that question had we gone down that path, where all the characters were more interested in solving the mysteries of the island than they were in sort of getting through the day or who lied to who. Because, for us, yes, the mythology is very important and we don't throw it away piecemeal. But at the same time, we approach every episode as "This is a Jack episode, we're going to explain a little more why the guy needs to fix things all the time" and let the island story support that obsession. Unfortunately, the side effect of that is that the audience doesn't feel they're getting answers to the mysteries in the time allotted.
Do you think you win the viewers back later this season?
Cuse: I think the question is "What size audience does Lost deserve to have? I think that no one expected it to work and have a huge audience. And I think there is a natural attrition due to the fact that this show requires sort of vigilant maintenance. You have to keep up with it. And I think that there are people who fall away because it does require you to really keep up and on the episodes. It's a complicated show. It's hard to drop in and out. You can, but it's not as rewarding as if you watch everything. I think a lot of those people may be watching the shows on DVD. They may be downloading it. They may be watching it streaming on ABC.com. And I think we still have a very large audience, and we are happy with the audience that we have.

Lindelof: The show requires, you know, a very intense and ongoing commitment, as Carlton said. Where you take a show like 24, which is serialized, you can jump on any season you want and jump back off and jump on and sort of understand fundamentally what's going on. Unfortunately, because of what Lost is, it's very hard to jump back on. We, as writers, are constantly trying to make it easier for audiences who have left to come back in by writing exposition into the show and all that. We want those viewers back. ... The [mid-]season premiere sort of revolves around the escape story; it's in many ways a return to season one. More character-centric storytelling that is not a mythologically driven until we pick up the next storyline.

But the reality of it is, as Carlton said, if you look at sort of the 18-49 demographic that the show is getting now, versus what it was getting in season one, the attrition hasn't been that significant. The attrition came from season two when ... everybody was talking about it. Everybody wanted to know what was in the hatch. People were sort of jumping on board. And in terms of getting those viewers back, we want them back. We really believe in the show and the episodes that we're doing. But the reality is, if we were writing towards getting them back, we might potentially be alienating the people that we have.
Did you feel limited by the structure this year and having to tell a story in six episodes?
Lindelof: I think there's a distorted sense of the season in its totality, because we only showed six episodes. If we only showed you the first six episodes of last year, you'd probably be saying, "Has the show just become about the tail section people?" Those characters are basically now all dead. And by the time we got on through the entire season last year, we feel like we covered everyone's story. I think the same will be true when you see the entire third season in its totality. You'll have a much better sense of what everybody's been doing.

We really couldn't do everything we wanted to do in those first six episodes. We were talking this morning about the analogy [where] you go to the grocery store when you're hungry and you buy seven things to eat for dinner, then you come home and you eat, like, one of them, then you go, "Gee, what am I going to do with the other six?" We sort of found ourselves in that situation. We had to service the story of Jack and Kate and Sawyer in captivity. By the time we sort of did that, we ran out of time to do a lot of other stuff in those first six.
Will we see them escape from the Others soon?

Lindelof: It happens immediately coming into the new pod of episodes. The reality is, Jake, Kate and Sawyer's time on the Others' island, on Alcatraz Island, is officially over at the end of episode six as a result of what Jack does. Now we're spinning back towards the beach community and telling a lot of those stories. It doesn't mean that we are abandoning the Others storyline by any stretch of the imagination. It's just we're not committing as much screen time to the telling of that story once we get our hero character back together.
How are you planning to develop the relationships in the next 17 episodes?

Cuse: I think the Jack/Juliet relationship is one that's very interesting for us. And also, I think, the Claire/Charlie story is something where there will be some really good additional [story]. And potentially sex. [Laughs.]
You've introduced some new crash survivors. What was the point of that, and will we see more of them?

Cuse: Nicki and Paulo, the point will become very clear in Episode 314. How about that? Very specific.
Lindelof: You know, all we'll say, in the spirit of what Carlton was saying earlier about "don't go shopping if you're starving," the reality is—and this is something that you guys have asked us about in the past and is a very legitimate point—what the hell is going on with the other 35 people who nothing ever happens to? We saw Dr. Arzt explode, and every once in a while one of those guys will sort of come forward for a fleeting moment, but are they just redshirts? Are they just monster food? [Laughter.]

What has their experience been? And why are they participating in the primary decision-making on the island? So we thought we had this really cool idea, which is, we'll introduce Nicki and Paulo. ... If you go back and look at your season-one DVD, we weren't thinking about Nicki and Paulo back then, but the idea of giving voice to some of those characters. But we knew we were never going to be able to do their entire story in the first six. But they had to have a significant story somewhere in the first six, so they would make an impression. So we put them on the trek in the same episode in which Mr. Eko dies so that when we pay it off in episode 314, the audience won't go, "Wait a minute. I have never seen those guys before." At least you will be able to look at the previous 13 episodes and sort of pick Nicki and Paulo out of the crowd.
How long do you want the show to go on?

Lindelof: The most honest answer we can give you is, for as long as it's good. I think I speak for everybody at this stage when I say none of us want to be doing a show that is the stalling show, that is the show [where] we're building sand castles this week and we're not evolving.

Cuse: Not that that wouldn't be a good episode.

Lindelof: Maybe as a B story.
Is it going to be difficult working out an end date with the network while your ratings are still going strong?

Cuse: Well, I think that if you look at the history of mythological shows on television, I mean, you think about it, X-Files ran for a long time, but that show had the benefit of being both a mythology show and a franchise show. They had stand-alone episodes where they chased the monster of the week, but they had an ongoing mythology. And I think that it was a great show that probably ran two seasons too long. And I think Lost is a show that has sort of a short half-life. If you take it back to Twin Peaks, I think people think that it ran longer than it did. What was it? 18 episodes, Damon?

Lindelof: It ran no more than 20 episodes, because their first season was incredibly condensed.

Cuse: And think that we're now filming our 62nd hour of Lost is extraordinary, given the fact that we're not resetting our mythology every year, like 24. And I think that Lost has broken a lot of rules of television in its run. I think that it's set a standard for the way shows that could be made that were different. I mean, large, sprawling cast, complicated, complex storytelling. I think that actually being able to determine an endpoint and an ending for the show on our own terms would, I think, be actually the appropriate and right finish for this as an experience.

Cuse: Honestly, if we answered the larger questions, if we started really giving answers about what is the nature of this island, what is the sort of innate underlying meaning of the numbers, those things are sort of series-ending questions. I think once the mythology of those is made explicit, I think the mystery goes out of the show.
Have you considered that when the promos promise that questions will be answers, and then they aren't, you might be alienating your audience?

Cuse: Audience are trained to have a certain level of cynicism about promotions. I mean, you know, "Save the cheerleader, save the world?" I mean, great, but was it really the grand apocalyptic event that was promised by that campaign? It was a great campaign, but I think that's the nature of promotion. Their job is to basically try to make it as exciting as possible to get viewers to come to the show. Are we answering questions? We believe we are. ... If you were to go back and look at a lot of the things that we've set up, we do feel like we've answered those questions, and yet it's hard to even achieve a level of satisfaction with the audience where we believe the audience is going to go, "Oh, that's great. Now I'm feeling like I know everything I need to know."

Lindelof: In the defense of the publicity department, there have been times in the show, specifically at the end of season one, going into season two, where everybody was saying, "We need answers. We need answers. That's what we want. That's what we crave." And then we came into season two and revealed Desmond. In this case, I think what the audience wants is more beach stories, more sort of season-one stories, a return to the sort of early Charlie, Claire, Sun and Jin of it all. In that case, I think the publicity is wildly accurate, and we deliver on every front.