TV pilots are tricky things. By their very nature, they are designed as sales pitches, to ease the mind of money-conscious executives. As such, they are inherently deceptive. Once the series has been sold to a network, any number of things could happen. The pilot for Lost must have made some executives sweat. It cost $12 million to film it, the most ever at the time. Not only that, but the show was going to be shot on location every week, and the principal cast had an impressive fourteen members. The sticker shock was so intense, it resulted in the firing of the ABC executive who commissioned the series. (Interesting note: that executive, Lloyd Braun, became part of the Lost legacy by contributing his voice to every episode. You hear it as “Previously, on Lost.”)
It makes sense that the cost would make ABC nervous, but it’s very difficult to argue with the results onscreen. All $12 million is on display. The whole pilot has a very professional and cinematic feel, undoubtedly contributed by TV veteran and eventual film-director J.J. Abrams. There are many moments that are thick with atmosphere, like the scene in the damaged cockpit, that make great use of lighting and sound to immerse us in what is happening. I also noticed that there isn’t a lot of dialog or incidental music in this episode. It is content with images much of the time, and is much stronger for it.
The series hits the ground running, with the immediate aftermath of Oceanic Flight 815. This is an impressive scene for a couple of big reasons. First of all, it looks terrific. When the guy gets sucked into the engine and it explodes, you really feel it. It simulates the chaos and fear of that situation to a very effective degree. Secondly, that cast of fourteen characters is all on display right off the bat. Since it’s a chaotic situation, you often don’t get more than a beat or two to meet them, but those moments are never wasted. This actually holds true through both parts of the episode. If characters aren’t introduced during the crash, they are introduced a little while later, usually without any dialog. Shannon stands in the middle of the wreckage screaming, because that’s exactly what Shannon would do. Charlie aimlessly wanders around until a chunk of wreckage suddenly drops behind him. Later on, we see John Locke rapturously look to heaven as the rain pours down, and everyone else seeks shelter. Little moments like this give the characters depth, and are very in keeping with what we will see of them later on.
Of course, the episode is the first utilization of flashbacks in Lost, something that the show would use in some form through almost its entire run. The pilot focuses on Jack, Kate, and Charlie. In later episodes, the flashbacks will occasionally seem like filler, but they really work here. Knowing what characters were doing right before the crash says a lot about them. Jack comforts Rose when she is nervous, Kate is a convicted criminal being escorted by a US marshal, and Charlie was in the bathroom doing heroin. The flashbacks add depth to what we see in the “now” of the show, and the best flashbacks in future episodes will continue to do this.
Of course, even at this early stage, Lost can’t resist throwing little crumbs of mystery around the island. There’s an isolated white tennis shoe hanging from a tree. A polar bear on a tropical island. A mysterious French broadcast that’s been looping for 16 years. And of course, some kind of creature or threat that shakes the trees at night and roars. Those who have watched the whole series know what all of those are, but at the time it was a tantalizing tease. Lost was always at its best when you understood the characters and their reactions, but not the situations they were in, because at that point, we are operating on the same level as the characters. It’s easy to paint yourself into a corner that way, because at some point you need to offer an explanation, and Lost tended to do that in a way that only raised further questions. Your mileage may vary on whether that hurts future episodes or not.
But for now, it’s hard to find fault with the pilot episode. It establishes the world of Lost, it’s characters, and the first pieces of mystery that will prove to be the bread-and-butter of the entire series. When you get to the final line, when Charlie asks , “Guys…where are we?” the audience is right there with them, dying to find out the next step in this exciting story.
Wreckage (observations about the episode that stood out when I watched it):
- Locke tells Walt about the game of backgammon, describing it as a game of “two sides, light and dark.” Foreshadowing ahoy!
- Kate mentions that she saw some smoke in the jungle. She assumes this is the cockpit, but I like to think she saw something different.
- It’s been said before, but the show was very forward-thinking in its diverse cast, including two characters who don’t speak English, and an Iraqi. The moment where we (and Hurley) discover that Sayid was in the Republican Guard is profoundly uncomfortable, and it plays very well even six years out.
- I’m not what you’d call a “fan” of Boone, but I like that he goes to get a pen to clear out Rose’s breathing passages, and brings Jack a variety to choose from. Nothing if not a helper.
- Interesting subtext on Shannon: very talented, but with a very low view of herself. She claims she can’t speak French, but she can do so well enough to translate the transmission. It’s something I hadn’t noticed about her earlier, but it makes me appreciate her a little more.
- Tune in on Tuesday for my review of “Tabular Rasa.”