Winter 2005 Critics Poll: Q&A: J.J. Abrams, Creator of ‘Lost’

Jan 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After enjoying cult-level success with The WB’s “Felicity” and ABC’s “Alias,” showrunner J.J. Abrams created a top-rated hit for ABC with “Lost,” an intense, character-driven drama in which a few dozen survivors of a horrific airliner crash try to escape from a mysterious South Pacific island inhabited by an unseen monster.

Since its debut, the show not only has been a ratings success, averaging 17.7 million viewers, but also has gained the admiration of critics.

Some of the excitement has been stymied, however, by an ongoing concern that the show’s high-concept setup is unsustainable over the long term. The subject was first raised by critics reviewing the spectacular two-hour pilot. “The big issue will be the sustainability of the improbable plot,” wrote Debra Leithauser and Amy Amatangelo in The Washington Post. “While a massive monster seems intriguing in week one, by week eight it might have `lost’ its thrill appeal.”

Other critics were even less optimistic. “I had a nightmare after watching the two-hour premiere,” wrote an uncredited critic in the Kansas City Star. “Sadly, creator J.J. Abrams won’t sleep well either once the Nielsens come in. Forecast: canceled.”

So far, Mr. Abrams and his team not only have managed to bring in Nielsens but also have sustained their conceptual high-wire act by delving into each character’s past via flashbacks rather than rushing forward to advance the plot. The monster from the pilot, for instance, has yet to make a second appearance.

In the TelevisionWeek Critics Poll, respondents praised the show’s ongoing ability to impress while still expressing concern that Mr. Abrams and company may have written themselves into a corner. Give away too many of the island’s mysteries and the audience may lose interest; give away too few and viewers may grow frustrated. It’s the same struggle that was fought by the short-lived “Twin Peaks” and the long-running “The X-Files.”

“While I love the mysterious premise, I’m not sure how long `Lost’ can last,” wrote Kevin Thompson of The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post in his survey response.

In this interview with TelevisionWeek Senior Reporter James Hibberd, Mr. Abrams answers some of the critics’ most pressing questions about the show, its impact on reality programming and when that monster is coming back.

TelevisionWeek: So does everybody pelt you with questions about the show’s mysteries?

J.J. Abrams: It’s funny because most everybody asks me a question, then immediately follows it with, `Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.’ They immediately rescind the question.

TVWeek: Which question is the most common?

Mr. Abrams: At first it was, `What is the monster?’ And [the monster] will definitely be making a return. That’s since been superseded by character questions: What crime did Kate commit? Does Locke have a connection to the island other than his own beliefs? Does Michael’s son have some kind of psychic power?

TVWeek: There are times it seems as though you’re making this all up as you go.

Mr. Abrams: Some watch a magician and enjoy the trick, and others like to know how they did it. If you’re like me and watch with a deconstructive mind, there are going to be times when you will see both-that a specific thing was set up long in advance, and other times there will be a new choice, a new idea that we had.

TVWeek: Critics have pitted your show, along with `Desperate Housewives,’ against the reality genre, which is ironic, since the concept for `Lost’ was inspired by a reality show, `Survivor.’ What’s your take?

Mr. Abrams: I don’t think that things change like that. I think over time things sort of normalize and work cyclically. I feel like somebody who was only involved in three series so far [`Alias,’ `Felicity’] and all three have a serialized component, so I’m embracing this momentary shift toward more scripted and serialized storytelling. It’s not the only thing you want in your diet, but I’m thrilled to be a part of a moment in time when people have had their fill of the sometimes mean-spirited reality shows.

TVWeek: Will the use of flashbacks in each episode continue, or will the series enter a second act in which the characters are established and the story is all forward momentum?

Mr. Abrams: The flashbacks will continue. I would like to believe each character is like their own TV series … so one day you can look back at all the Jack episodes and go, `Wow, this is his story.’

TVWeek: Do you read all the Internet speculation about the show? And has anybody come close to figuring it out?

Mr. Abrams: There have been a lot of really smart theories, and some have been pretty close. Others have been really funny and great. But the fact is, though the show has big answers that come over time, it’s like a journey. To do the story we’ve discussed it needs to be earned. For somebody who’s only watching the show just to learn the one Big Answer, that person is going to be disappointed, because they’re not going to get a big final answer in the next 10, 11 episodes.

TVWeek: When the pilot debuted, many critics were concerned the momentum of the story’s setup wasn’t sustainable. Now weeks have gone by and the show has managed to pull it off, but critics are still concerned about the show’s qualitative longevity. What’s your response?

Mr. Abrams: My response is that it will continue as long as it can. That might mean it will `only’ be on for nine years. You don’t know going in what will play out or how everything will work. Each episode lasts about a day. So by the time the season is over, they’ll only have been on the island for approximately 40 days. Given the opportunity for stories on this island-how in our first story meeting we were planning on doing something in the first episode that we will now be doing in the last episode of the season-if you’re lucky, you can find the optimum pace. The island itself is full of surprises and there’s a lot more mystery and story coming up.