“Pilot” (season 1, episode 1 and 2; originally aired 9/22/2004 and 9/29/2004)
In which a plane crashes onto an Island
After 10 years, after countless blogs and forums and discussions, after the show’s DNA has seeped into everything on TV, the Lost pilot still makes me froth at the mouth to see the rest of the show. I know what’s coming. I’ve seen the whole series and liked most of it (while finding some of it iffy). I know which questions are answered well and which are answered poorly and which are sort of just sidestepped. I know everything. But Charlie’s “Guys, where are we?” at the end of this episode still gets me every time. I want to know, too. And I want to know how these characters are going to get off this island—if that’s even possible.
It’s such a truism of the medium that the Lost pilot is one of the best ever made that to watch it again in the year 2014 is slightly bracing. So many other shows have tried to do what this show did, and so many other pilots have tried to copy this pilot’s best beats. And they’ve all failed. For every series that seemed like it might have figured out some of what made Lost so great, there are dozens of other shows that looked at the show’s most obvious, surface-level elements and struggled to resurrect what made it so very good. These shows failed. What’s the most obvious heir to Lost on the dial today? It’s a drama set in a women’s prison that has no genre elements. That, alone, should tell you everything you need to know about why Lost worked and other shows didn’t: It’s all about character, baby. And it’s all about character in this pilot, too.
“Character” has become sort of a dirty word among the Lost fanbase in the years since the finale. (Don’t worry, newbies. I’m not going to spoil anything.) As the finale approached, there were plenty of people who wanted the show to answer every last question they had, and there were plenty of people who just wanted to find out what happened to the characters, where the story left them. How the show chose to resolve this can still prompt arguments on the Internet, but the major point is this: There were a bunch of people who felt that the show was a mystery show, based on answering complicated questions and producing a grand, unified theory of Lost. There were also a bunch of people who were really into the people occupying the Island. The first group thought the second group was nuts, because the characters on Lost were never as rich as the characters on any given cable drama or even something like, say, The Good Wife. But that was also sort of the point. See, Lost is a grand mash-up of 100 years of American pulp adventure fiction, and American pulp adventure fiction is not really known for its scenes of shocking psychological realism.
Looking back at the pilot highlights this particularly well. Look at how much space there is in this episode. There are three major setpieces. The first is the plane crash itself, which we see through the eyes of Jack Shepherd as he races from trauma to trauma. The second is Kate, Jack, and Charlie’s journey into the jungle to find the cockpit and get the transceiver, an adventure interrupted by the strange Monster that keeps leveling trees and killing Greg Grunbergs. The third features the larger party of people who make their way to a high place in hopes of sending out a message that will attract rescuers to their location. Along the way, one of them kills a polar bear, and there’s some hill climbing action, to say nothing of the mysterious message a French woman’s voice keeps spitting into the ether. But this two-part pilot runs just over 80 minutes, and those setpieces take up maybe a third of its running time. Everywhere else, there’s all of this time and space. And all of that time and space is devoted to sketching in not one, not two, but 15 characters in the broadest of terms, sure, but in terms that suggest enough about the archetypes is playing with for us to have some confidence about where it might be headed.
Based on this account from Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the flashback structure that turned into the bedrock of the series (and allowed it to have an episodic storyline in every episode, even when it was at its most serialized) was arrived at almost by accident in the early days of the show. That’s deeply evident in the pilot, where the flashbacks to the plane in the moments before it crashed aren’t as important to the structure of the episode as the flashbacks would later become for the show. But they do center the story on character, rather than on mystery or even adventure. And they’re also deeply important in establishing the fingerprints of the man who ended up having very little to do with Lost but was there at the start to get the ball rolling: J.J. Abrams.
To look at Abrams’ television work (and even much of his film work) is to see a guy who likes to present two versions of a character, then invite viewers to wonder which version of that person is the “true” one. On Felicity, that meant a girl who seemed often equally in love with two different men, who appealed to different versions of the self she might become. (This being an Abrams show, the series literalized this idea in its final season.) On Alias, it became about a woman who was keeping a huge secret—her true career—from most of the people she knew and the idea of being able to pursue a normal life when occupied with a career like espionage. Hell, Fringe hit its highest heights when it started introducing literal other versions of some of the characters.
On Lost, this idea is best exemplified in the character of Kate, who ends up being the secret heart of the pilot (co-scripted by Abrams and Damon Lindelof from a story that also credits Jeffrey Lieber, who never worked with the two). Though Jack is the ostensible lead—as he’s the guy we follow for most of the first hour—he takes more and more of a backseat as the action goes on, while Kate takes control more and more. And it’s easy to see why. As of right now, Jack isn’t really torn between two versions of himself. What you see is what you get with Jack. But with Kate, what we see is a strong, capable woman who seemingly doesn’t know how to use a gun but is willing to run toward danger if the need arises. The person we meet in the flashbacks, though, is a fugitive being dragged back to the United States by a marshal. The gap between those two, the seeming inability to resolve those differences, is where Abrams does so much of his best work, occasionally to a fault. (We can also see it with Charlie, who is torn between a lovable everydude rock star and a drug addict who will seemingly do anything to get back his heroin from the crashed plane’s bathroom.)
These flashbacks, then, are vitally important, because they suggest that everybody else in the story is going to have a similar sense of history, even if we don’t know what that history looks like just yet. Abrams and Lindelof’s script is terrific at suggesting this vast reservoir of mystery that every character stands poised above, constantly at danger of falling in. But that mystery isn’t of the rather shallow “What’s in the box?” version that too often gets mistaken for exciting storytelling nowadays. No, the mystery on the show is far more often about that question of which version of the self the characters actually are. Boiled down to a fundamental question, it’s this: What person would you become if you were given the opportunity to completely reinvent yourself in whatever image you liked? The Island gives that to the characters on Lost, and the series presents it both as nightmare and as wish fulfillment.
The pilot introduces the following mysteries that I would call plot-based mysteries: Where/what is the Island? What is the Monster? What’s up with the French woman’s message? What (if anything) caused the plane to crash? (I was never terribly invested in this mystery, but plenty of fans were, so I include it as a nod toward them.) Then consider all of these character mysteries: What is Locke’s secret? What did Kate do? What is Charlie going to do if he can’t get more heroin? What’s with the relationship between Boone and Shannon? Why is the relationship between Walt and Michael so strained? What’s in that letter Sawyer reads quietly to himself? What state is the marriage between Jin and Sun in? What happened to Rose’s husband? How was a soldier in the Iraqi Republican Guard on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles? (The question of why everybody was on the plane is another character-based question.) Already, the show is teaching us to watch it not as a show where the big questions will be the most important thing. They’re a fun spice in the overall mix, but everything the pilot does comes back to those 15 people. And when they’re confronted with a grand, mysterious Island, their impulse isn’t to investigate but, rather, to figure out some way to get off and get back to their lives.
This is another part of the genius of Lost’s early episodic structure: Everything that happens ties back to some question of survival on the Island. Here, the setpieces always tie back into that need to survive. Treating the crash victims is an obvious example, but so is trying to use the transceiver to place a message that may draw a rescue party to the Island. The plotting in this episode is always about getting from point A to point B, but it does so with a ruthless efficiency and a great sense of forward momentum. Every time it seems like something is flagging, the script introduces some other element entirely, and individual scenes vacillate between drama, action-adventure, and comedy. There’s barely a wasted moment here, and even the moments that allow us to breathe are important for understanding those character arcs outlined above.
What strikes me the most about watching the Lost pilot all of these years later, however, is the way that the show promised in the first episode is very different from the show it became in the finale. This isn’t necessarily a problem—I’m a big fan of this show throughout, and I think the finale is a genuinely great, ambitious piece of television that has flaws around the edges—but it is a little interesting to notice how concrete this episode seems. The questions introduced are all ones that could have very simple answers, should someone take a moment to simply answer the questions. The Lost of the pilot is a boys’ adventure tale, possessed of a fun, pulpy momentum and the kinds of quickly sketched characters that the writer Stephen King excels at. It doesn’t feel like the more mature, adult epic the show would become, but there’s good reason for this.
See, the reason we’re gathering to talk about all of this is because the pilot for Lost didn’t flop, as it might have been expected to. ABC put a lot of promotional money into the show, and the combination of that and the fact that the series looked and felt like nothing else on television meant the pilot drew huge numbers—huge numbers that then sustained throughout the first season, which was the kind of out-of-the-box success the network needed. That meant that the show would necessarily have to deepen and grow more complex, that the characters would need to gain shades they couldn’t have possibly suggested in this pilot. It would become a better show than the one promised in the pilot, I think, but it would also become a show that could never hope to answer every question it raised in a satisfactory fashion. Becoming a hit meant that Lost could become one of the best TV shows of all time, but it also meant it largely had to leave behind the fun-filled action-adventure tale drawn directly from the cover of Boys Life magazine in order to embrace something darker and more nuanced. I’m glad that happened, but sometimes, I miss the Lost of the pilot, the one that trusted us to keep up with these 15 archetypes, the one that moved with all the ruthless energy of a shark.
- Welcome to the TV Club Classic reviews of Lost! I’ll be reviewing the first season of Lost over the next 12 weeks (collapsing all of the season finale, “Exodus,” into one review), and if you guys stick around to read about it, we’ll move on to seasons two and three over the course of the next year or so. I really love Lost, and I’m happy to be writing about seasons I haven’t gotten to cover in the past. (My first season covering the show for someone other than myself was the fifth—the show’s best, I think.) It’s okay to talk about future events on the show, but please mark your spoilers clearly, as I will in the spoiler section below.
- I was trying to remember who my favorite character was after viewing the pilot for the first time, and I really think it was Kate. That turned out well for me.
- I mentioned above that this show looked like nothing else on television at the time, and that’s sort of damning with faint praise when it comes to Abrams’ Emmy-winning direction of this episode. There are shots that are just gorgeously executed here, of Locke watching thunderheads roll in, say, or the characters working to clean up the beach. Yeah, the Hawaii locations help, but Abrams’ framing and camera movements are executed perfectly to maximize what he’s working with. Check out, for instance, how long he manages to keep the plane crash from us simply through camera placement.
- This was the most expensive pilot ever filmed when it was made, and the amount of money sunk into it apparently contributed to the ouster of ABC president Lloyd Braun. (To his credit, Braun’s successor, Stephen McPherson, realized what he had and promoted the hell out of the show.) That expense is also why the pilot is so long: Had it flopped, the studio could have sold it as a movie in foreign properties and recouped some of its budget. And that expense still pays off today, as seen in the shot of the plane’s tail breaking away late in the episode. The visual effects still work very well 10 years later.
- We get our first mention of Charlie’s band, Driveshaft, and its big hit, “You All Everybody,” which still occasionally gets stuck in my head.
- I love how comfortable the pilot is with being silent. Nobody speaks for an astounding amount of time, and the first major dialogue scene comes almost 10 minutes into the episode. Before that, it’s all plane crash action.
- Please suggest recurring sections we can have some fun with down in the strays. This seems like a show that would benefit from that.
Spoiler Station (Don’t read if you haven’t seen the whole series):
- Because it’s almost impossible to watch this series without thinking about all of what’s to come (at least if you’ve seen all of what’s to come), we’ll be doing these weekly spoiler sections for those of us who’ve seen the whole show. I found myself smirking at Jack being Claire’s brother and at the thought of Titus Welliver tearing down all of those trees in the jungle.
- The most obvious link to future events in this episode is in the very opening sequence, which the finale mirrors, as Jack stumbles to his death in the same place where he woke up, his eye fluttering closed instead of open. (At least when he dies, Vincent comes to lie by him. Aw.)
- I think we’ll be talking a lot about how the show had to alter some of its most obvious plans in the weeks to come, but it’s tempting to think about what the Kate character might have become if Evangeline Lilly had been up to the challenge in the early days of the show. She’s grown into a more than capable actress, but there are places in season one where she seems completely over her head, and I think that’s why Kate’s character arc was ultimately so disappointing.
Next week: We get a look at Kate’s past in “Tabula Rasa,” and the show wins fans for life with the stunning “Walkabout.”