Ten years ago today, Lost premiered on ABC and launched a new world of television, effectively becoming America’s new water-cooler show. The drama remains divisive (the ending!), but there’s no denying the impact it had on TV and the way we talk about TV. Lost was absolutely inescapable; fans shared theories, the cast took over media, and the showrunners became celebrities. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse created such an intricate and engaging show that fans made them just as popular, if not more, than the actors — for better or for worse, as Lindelof even famously quit Twitter. They were praised as much as they were scrutinized, and Tara Bennett’s Showrunners: The Art of Writing a TV Show (a companion to the documentary) remarks on the showrunner-as-celebrity phenomenon. In this exclusive excerpt, WGA Showrunners Training Program Founder Jeff Melvoin and Damon Lindelof himself discuss how Lost changed showrunning and the way we view showrunners.
From Showrunners: The Art of Writing a TV Show: How Lost Changed Showrunning
We all know Lost was a landmark television drama because of its cult following, its expansive mysteries, subversive sci-fi storytelling, and groundbreaking social-media audience engagement. But it was also the first show of its kind to propel its showrunners, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, into the mainstream spotlight, setting a precedent for what a showrunner might be expected to do for the success of their show.
Jeff Melvoin, founder of the WGA Showrunners Training Program, explains that Lost helped prove that social media and television integration was the wave of the future.
I think some shows are much better suited to a digital presence, to a web presence, than others, but even the most straight-ahead drama—that has no necessarily sophisticated component that would naturally lend itself to social media—needs a social media presence. But there are two things that we have to distinguish here. First is the trend that actually said you have to exploit the Internet in a way that supports the show in a content-related way, and I think Lost is probably the best example. Lost found itself riding this wave where suddenly they realized people wanted more information. They were very savvy about it, and they began to create all sorts of branded merchandise, not just on the web. Carlton Cuse said, “Sometimes I don’t feel like a showrunner, I feel like a brand manager,” and I think that was particularly true for Lost. They wanted him to do all sorts of things, including webisodes.
I think that, like it or not, since Lost, it’s simply a fact that part of the job of showrunning now is there’s going to be these ancillary responsibilities that the network, or studio, expect to be handled. The thing you have to be careful about is they are still giving us only 24 hours in a day, and if they expect you to be managing that, especially content-related stuff like extra episodes, or little snippets of episodes, it’s tremendously debilitating and time consuming. You have to educate the network and the studio that this is not what you’re really paying me for. Yes, I can give you webisodes, and then when we shut down, or when the show that we actually put on the air—the mothership—isn’t any good I can tell you why: because I’ve been taking your notes on webisodes.
As a Guild member, and a former Guild board member, I think we have to be very careful about what they’re asking us to do with our time and professional ability. If they’re saying they want your web presence… so you want me to write? What do you want me to write? What are you going to pay me to write? It is part of your day, and if that’s part of your professional responsibility, okay. But I expect to be compensated for it, and I expect you to understand that it’s taking time away from other things that I do. I think if you make them understand that, then they’re going to put fewer demands on the showrunner to do it.
The question is who is going to be responsible for that web content, and I think that the burden should fall on the studio and/or the network. We [the writers] will give you information. We’ll advise you on it, or if you want somebody on my staff to be a liaison, let’s create a position. Let’s fund it. Let’s pay for it, and that person will be the interface, but you cannot expect the creative team, and especially the showrunner, to be doing double duty and creating that presence. There’s always exceptions with people who love that stuff. I mean Kurt Sutter has had a lot of fun stirring the pot. Bill Lawrence has gone out on a limb in many ways to promote his show Cougar Town, and God bless him. I think it’s great. I think Bill would be the first person to say, “I don’t want to create a standard that other people are going to have to follow,” but fortunately or unfortunately, the effort that he put into trying to promote the show this year by going to different cities, and actually paying for his own promotion, doesn’t seem to have helped the cause. I feel bad for him personally, but as he said himself in an interview, “If I succeed, then everybody’s going to hate me because now they’re going to feel they have to do that.”
Damon Lindelof attests to the slippery slope of promotion that came out of his concern that the complicated premise of Lost made it necessary to deconstruct the prohibitive elements of the show so more viewers would buy in.
I think the decision to become frontmen/our own kind of P.T. Barnums for the show, never felt like a decision that we actually sat down and contemplated. Had it been, I don’t think we would have chosen to do that. I think it was more something that just kind of happened to us. J.J. and I were certainly experiencing that when people watched the pilot, across the board, they all had the same reaction, which is, “This is pretty cool, I like this.” But how is the show going to sustain itself? What’s the next episode going to be? You can’t just have the monster chasing these people through the jungle every week. It just feels too complex and too intricate for us to track. So as a result of that being the criticism, it almost forced us into a defensive posture where we had to start going out into the media and saying, “Here’s what we’re actually going to do. We have these flashback ideas, and it’s going to be very character-centric.” People would say, “Is the show going to be weird? Is it supernatural?” And we’d say, “No, it’s not that supernatural.”
Obviously, that evolved over time, but in a lot of ways, we likened it to the idea of after a football game the coach has to put himself in front of the press and explain why the team lost the game, or why the team won the game when, in fact, arbitrarily, he’s just the coach. The team has a mind of its own. There was this demand for us to constantly get out and explain things, and we felt like if we denied our audience, if we basically said, “Sorry. The show speaks for itself and we’re not going to talk about the show at all,” that actually would have hurt the show. And so by making ourselves available, ultimately sometimes to criticism as well as praise or questions or anything, we felt that that was in the best interest of the show.
That evolved to where, by the end of the first season of the show, Carlton and I were asked to do a special that would air before the finale which, basically, recapped the entire season, where we explained, “Here are all the things that you need to know in order to enjoy the finale.” So suddenly, I’m just a writer who occasionally does interviews with the press and then I turn on ABC, and there’s my ugly bald head trying to explain what the Black Rock is. And Carlton and I just turned to each other and said, “How the hell did this happen?”
Carlton and I have a very interesting dynamic. Carlton is the glass-half-full guy, and I’m the glass-half-empty guy. I always looked at doing anything on- camera as a chore, and it was taking our attention away from where it should be, which was actually working on the show itself. But over time I was convinced that it was a necessary part of the job, going out there and saying, “Hey, we stand by our work.”