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Lessons from cult TV shows -- ''Lost'''s executive producers talk about what should be done on watercooler shows

We've seen this before, haven't we? The boiling-hot watercooler show, bubbling with peculiar people in a peculiar locale — all harboring so many secrets. Twin Peaks. The X-Files. And now Lost, ABC's unfolding epic about damaged souls with tortured pasts stranded on a menacing, monster-inhabited island that's located on the same parallel as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows and The Prisoner. It's been thrilling, watching TV's next great cult-pop sensation bloom. Thrilling — and nervous-making. Because we all know how this can end, don't we? Marooned on a spit of frustration. Like Twin Peaks. Like X-Files. Shows that come dressed in alluring mystery, but eventually reveal themselves to be sporting emperor's clothes.

Lost's brain trust is keenly aware of this anxiety. ''What we found was that people have this cynical attitude because they felt they've been betrayed,'' says executive producer Damon Lindelof. ''But I identify with that, because I was a fan of those shows too.'' In fact, according to Lindelof and fellow executive producer Carlton Cuse, Lost's writing staff is engaged in an ongoing conversation about what can be gleaned from these cult-TV predecessors. Here are three lessons that they've learned:

Questions Must Be Answered.

''The model is Twin Peaks,'' says Cuse. ''It has become a strong lesson for us in not postulating new mysteries without answering old ones.'' Which means, according to producers, that most of their Big Questions — What's in the hatch? What is the monster? What do Hurley's lotto numbers mean? — have solutions. But how do they know when to disclose them? ''Right now, it's just our gut,'' says Lindelof. ''We have ended up in a place where we would rather reveal too much than not enough.'' Look for the season finale to bring some long-awaited clarifications — and perhaps a new dilemma. ''Depending on the reaction, the backlash could be 'I wish you hadn't told me that!' Then we'll have to adjust again,'' says Lindelof.

Beware of Too Much ''Mythology.''

''What worries us about X-Files as a model,'' says Cuse, ''is that the show ran for nine years. Sustaining the mythology of that show ultimately led to it being frustrating for the fans.'' Lindelof suggests a similar predicament bedeviled Alias (created by Lost cocreator J.J. Abrams), with its dense Rambaldi mystery. ''[Lost's] mythology has to be accessible enough to casual fans, but also involving enough so loyal viewers feel like they're being fed,'' says Lindelof, pointing to a recent Lost outing in which baffling bits of island lore were introduced and deepened through a portrait of Hurley, the show's round mound of dude! Which brings us to the final lesson. . .

It's About Characters, Stupid.

''The bigger lessons to be learned from X-Files and Twin Peaks is not to make a show about questions, but people,'' says Lindelof, who cites Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a superior example. ''When you keep it about characters, the audience never gets bogged in the mire of 'mythology.' On Lost, we [start by saying] 'Whose episode is this?' Then, 'What's happening on the island, and how can it be emotionally connected to this person's past?''' As Lost becomes increasingly character driven (especially with new faces on the horizon; The Late Shift's Daniel Roebuck joins the cast in May), the producers have found themselves looking beyond their genre for inspiration — to The O.C. (a particular staff obsession) and NYPD Blue. ''That show was so much about characters searching for redemption in the face of their flaws and struggles,'' says Cuse. ''That's Lost, too.''

Originally posted Apr 11, 2005 Published in issue #815 Apr 15, 2005 Order article reprints
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