“The next Lost.” For the past seven years, it’s been a TV industry grail quest, and, for the past 18 months since Lost left the air, a felt need for those who not only miss the Oceanic 815 castaways and the Island but the sense of community that the show spawned. From the moment ABC’s saga about redemption-needy souls trapped in a mystical, tropical purgatory became an instant phenom in September of 2004, the leading purveyors of small-screen entertainment have been trying to replicate the success of a cult pop property tailored to our Comic-Con culture that somehow managed to connect with a whole host of non-geeks, too. Key ingredients: Mystery. Monsters. Morally ambiguous heroes and misunderstood villains who belong to a world gone strange, fighting or surviving supernatural beings, strange science and/or secret history, debating things faith and reason, fate and happenstance as they go. Toss in some quips, sex appeal, and a smattering of literary and philosophical hyperlinks, and DUDE! you got yourself another Lost. Right?
Among the wannabes that launched during the span of Lost’s six-year run, Heroes came closest to achieving Lost-like glory, though its critical and popular regard quickly waned after its first season. Fringe — developed by Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams and launched late in Lost’s run — is a critical favorite that remains on the air, but has never cracked the code for mainstream acceptance. Since Lost self-terminated in 2010, cable hits like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story have engendered the kind of intense following that Lost engendered and received the Cool Thing! anointing that Lost received, yet they will most likely will never produce the kind of weekly viewership numbers that Lost produced. This past fall, ABC introduced Once Upon a Time, a fantasy from two of Lost’s key producers that has aggressively courted old Lost watchers, with promos that touted the Lost pedigree and episodes sprinkled with Lost Easter eggs like Apollo candy bars and McCutcheon whisky. The family-hour fairy tale ranks among the season’s top-rated rookies, yet many media folks — often allergic to earnestness and partial to Buffyesque grim — haven’t been able to wholly embrace it. Here at EW, we’re constantly getting e-mails from readers that go something like: “I love [Insert show here] – but it’s not the same as Lost.”
The pursuit to fill that Island-shaped hole in our hearts will continue in 2012. Coming soon: Alcatraz (Fox, premieres Jan. 16), another high concept crypto-thriller from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot; The River (ABC, premieres Feb. 7), a sort of ‘Amazon Horror Story’ from producers Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) and Steven Spielberg; Touch (Fox, previews on Jan. 25 and premieres on March 19), a supernatural drama starring Kiefer Sutherland, created by Heroes exec producer Tim Kring; and Awake, a parallel-world head trip from Lone Star up-and-comer Kyle Killen starring Jason Isaacs. Let us note that it remains to be seen just how much these newbies will emulate or evoke Lost, and let us also note that there are those who hope these shows won’t even try. Earlier this month, critic Heather Havrilesky, writing in The New York Times Magazine, blasted mystery serials like Homeland, American Horror Story, and The Killing for the seemingly haphazard way they spin yarns, and compared their fans to lab rats in a meaningless maze, chasing after arbitrarily placed “pellets” of seemingly rich mystery that actually possess no nutritional value at all. Ignoring all other factors, Havrilesky blamed Lost for this kind of storytelling, calling the show a “dirty bomb that [has] made the world unsafe for serial dramas to this day.” She’d rather see TV emulate more “nuanced” dramas like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. (Memo to Matthew Weiner: Hurry the hell up with that next season, because clearly people are getting cranky from the wait.)
NEXT: Even a fat and happy rat can use a break from mystery pellets.