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‘Lost’ found the path to an equation that changed the future of TV

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — ABC was struggling to find hits in 2004 when the network introduced two of them: “Desperate Housewives,” a new take on a primetime soap opera; and “Lost,” a sci-fi-tinged mystery that fast became a fan sensation, from its cryptic numbers to what really happened to that crashed plane and its passengers.

Of the two, though, it was “Lost” that fundamentally changed television and the relationship between the creative talent behind TV shows and the networks that carried them – fueling what might be called the novelization of television – not in the way the series began, but rather how it ended in 2010.

The roots of that actually began several years earlier, when the show’s executive producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, recognized that the twisty, mysterious series’ ratings were beginning to suffer because of the open-ended nature of viewers’ commitment. When would we get some answers, fans wanted to know.

At their urging, in what Variety called a “paradigm-shifting play,” ABC allowed them to announce an official end date for the series, ordering 48 episodes over three seasons to complete the story.

The announcement served notice that the series was indeed building toward something, that a payoff awaited those who were sinking all this time – and graduate-school-level thought and analysis – in the show, and what it all meant.

Until then, the prevailing wisdom in television was, in essence, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Series ran until the audience stopped watching them, not when the creators said, as if they were novelists who had reached the conclusion of the story.

“I think for story-based shows like ‘Lost,’ as opposed to franchise-based shows like ‘ER’ or ‘CSI,’ the audience wants to know when the story is going to be over,” Cuse stated at the time, spelling out the novel comparison by adding, “When J.K. Rowling announced that there would be seven ‘Harry Potter’ books, it gave the readers a clear sense of exactly what their investment would be. We want our audience to do the same.”

Producer J.J. Abrams, who co-created the series with Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber, at the time called the decision “the right choice,” crediting ABC for having “real foresight and guts to make a call like this.”

Since then, arguably, a different kind of television has emerged and taken root, giving creative talent more latitude to decide the shelf life of their stories. That has included the growth of limited series that offer the promise of closure and finality, creating arcs with a clear beginning and end.

Others followed that example, from “Game of Thrones,” with its two-season conclusion, to “Stranger Things,” to most recently “The Boys,” which announced that superhero satire’s fifth season will wrap up the story.

That equation has made TV richer and more ambitious, as well as able to wrestle with different kinds of serialized storytelling.

In the immediate aftermath of that, the children of “Lost” – plentiful at first, as they always are when something unexpectedly succeeds – benefited from that appetite, as networks ordered more projects with mysteries baked into them, even if few of them could live up to its promise.

Tellingly, even “Lost” didn’t stick the landing, yielding a finale that answered many of its questions but felt frustrating in its resolution. Knowing when to end isn’t exactly the same as knowing how.

By then, though, the show’s legacy was secure. Bringing that full circle, all 121 episodes of the show are appropriately landing on Netflix, where they can be rediscovered – and binged in a more concentrated fashion – by those who don’t have to wait years to see how it all ends. Welcome to the 2020s.

The “Lost” finale might not have conjured an ending worthy of all the hype. By then, though, it had helped point TV toward a new approach to telling stories, which, never mind the numbers (for the record, 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42), might be the formula that really matters the most.

“Lost” premieres July 1 on Netflix in the US.

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