I’ve been watching TV shows created or co-created by J.J. Abrams for the last decade now, beginning with ‘Alias’ and now continuing through ‘Fringe.’ Undeniably, his biggest success to date has been ‘Lost,’ which at first glance doesn’t seem to have a whole lot in common with the other two shows I’ve just mentioned. There’s a key difference, and it begins right in the pilot. Common lore has it that Abrams intended for Jack Shephard to die. With that crucial difference, ‘Lost’ was given a significant nudge in its own direction, and so in that spirit, I’m going to take another look at the series while it’s still fresh in everyone’s memories.
In the pilot of ‘Alias,’ CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) loses the love of her life. In the pilot of ‘Fringe,’ FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) loses the love of her life. Now, obviously, Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly) isn’t any kind of government agent (quite the opposite, actually), and in the pilot of ‘Lost,’ she’s only just met Jack (Matthew Fox). Yet in all three instances, J.J. Abrams fully intended for the central characters to be strong females who lose, at least in the latter cases, what appear to audiences to be equally strong males. A crucial difference to ‘Lost’ is that it was not originally created by Abrams, but was rather a project he was called into fix. He quickly set about much the same course that usually interests him (‘Undercovers’ from this fall represents another trend I’ll get back to shortly), which even his two most prominent feature films follow, to a certain degree (with male protagonists substituting for a more traditional medium, in ‘Mission: Impossible III’ and ‘Star Trek’). It’s fair to say that if circumstances had been different, his original decision to kill off Jack would have stood.
Working in closer collaboration with others, he decided against his usual instinct. But what would ‘Lost’ have been like had Jack not survived? To put it bluntly, Sawyer (Josh Holloway) would have been a whole lot more lucky. In ‘Alias,’ Sydney quickly struck up a relationship with Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), the man who helped her navigate between operations for the CIA and SD-6, an organization steeped in conspiracy. In ‘Fringe,’ Dunham quickly established a unique rapport with Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the man who helped her navigate between operations for the FBI and Fringe Division, a unit specifically set up to explore an emerging conspiracy. And with Sawyer? What’ve you got on ‘Lost’ that would sound similar to the arcs of the other two shows? Kate would grow closer to him while navigating basic survival and the emerging reality of the Dharma Initiative and the conspiracy on the island. One could easily imagine Kate and Sawyer getting pretty comfortable inside that hatch.
In ‘Alias’ and ‘Fringe,’ there are father figures and family histories that cause a lot of headaches. Between Jack Bristow and Walter Bishop, there’s enough drama as it is, but they come packaged with a lot of baggage. ‘Lost’ became known for all of that and more, with a constant stream of explorations for every character. Jack threw off a lot of the balance by surviving past the pilot. As a more traditional lead character, he took on a heavy load of backstory, right from the start, leaving Kate to seem a little less trustworthy in comparison. There was hardly any sympathy in her story, not even when the worst thing she ever did was finally explained in the second season. It’s true that after Jack, Kate got the most face-time in the flashbacks, but it was tough competition, and she couldn’t help but lose.
Now imagine that Jack weren’t in the picture, if the whole show basically revolved around Kate. In the present, on the island, hardly anyone garnered as much sympathy as the easily likable Kate. It was basically Jack who exposed her secret in the first place. What if it had been Sawyer? With Jack around, Sawyer couldn’t be much more than the anti-hero, but in his first big episode, it’s still Kate who makes the first real emotional connection with him. No surprise, right? Without Jack, that’s what the story would have been, Kate exposing Sawyer for the good person he essentially is, and Sawyer making Kate’s past seem better than it actually was.
Imagine Sawyer and Kate running the show. Half of what Locke had to do was necessary because Jack would never be rebellious enough to do half the things Locke did. If you stop to think about it, a lot of Locke’s frustrations came from having to do things other people weren’t willing to do, which is exactly what Jack as the leader of the crash survivors forced him to continue doing, even as he struggled to find a new spiritual significance, his connection to the island. Kate, along with Sawyer actively supporting her, and seeking answers to her own troubled past (imagine a ghostly Jack guiding her along, as Jack’s father Christian did for him instead), stumbles into the hatch, and perhaps a more active residual presence of the Dharma Initiative. Again, with Jack around, constantly questioning everything, a cooperative Desmond was not at all necessary. Complications only bred more complications on ‘Lost,’ challenges worthy of a more traditional hero.
In ‘Alias,’ Sydney was always running into problems, but the challenge was always to introduce twists that she couldn’t anticipate. The biggest one of the series was the big reveal about her mother. The second biggest nearly derailed the show, when she lost three years of memory and had to figure out what had happened during that time. In ‘Fringe,’ Abrams had refined his interests, and learned from prior experiences, to more deliberately layer the intrigue, leaving much of it right in front of the audience the whole time, with answers revealed in stages. Peter Bishop, after all, became the key to the alternate realities, and his father Walter the man behind much of the weird science investigated on a weekly basis. John Scott (Mark Valley), meanwhile, the lost love killed off in the pilot, was purposefully set up as a red herring, a twist between ‘Alias’ and the original intentions for ‘Lost,’ but perhaps owing most of all to the revisions of the Michael Vaughn character in the later seasons of ‘Alias.’
Kate had no obvious qualifications for surviving on the island, other than her instincts, which she’d been relying on for years while she was on the lam. It was still more than Jack had, and yet he was always in charge, simply because he had leadership skills. Sydney Bristow and Olivia Dunham both came to rely on male counterparts, and that would have been Sawyer for Kate. He didn’t lack leadership potential. He lacked a basic sense of tact, and the fact that Jack was always there to provide a different example, a better one, to follow.
‘Lost’ itself tried to demonstrate what it would have been like to follow someone less virtuous than Jack, when it tracked the fate of the tail section survivors in the second season. None of those characters ever came to quite the same amount of depth established for Kate and Sawyer in the first season, but even what we did see, and for Ana-Lucia and Mr. Eko, there was plenty, was never very convincing. They had basic character flaws to overcome, not tragic circumstances. I wouldn’t for a moment imagine that Kate and Sawyer would have led the survivors to the same kind of vulnerability and ruin, and I’m not suggesting the Tailies were meant to represent what the show might have become without Jack.
I wouldn’t even begin to suggest that the show would be substantially different in its outcome in these altered circumstances. I would suggest that ‘Lost’ explored a lot more of its potential than ‘Alias’ did (which is something ‘Fringe’ has also sought to do). What Abrams learned on ‘Lost’ was to switch up his instincts. ‘Undercovers’ obviously represents an attempt to replicate ‘Alias,’ but without all the melodrama, and one of the basic signs of this is that the lead characters are happily married, and both still alive by the end of the pilot. It’s another step beyond ‘Fringe,’ in that regard, lessons learned and other possibilities explored. It might be said that a lot of what Abrams does is explore the possibilities represented by a singular kind of experience. ‘Lost’ helped motivate that in a number of unusual ways. While he was famous before it, and is basically the reason he was given the opportunity to work on it at all, Abrams shot into a completely different orbit after ‘Lost.’
Therefore, examining it through comparison is extremely useful. Imagine for yourself what it might have been, with that small difference, Jack dying in the pilot, and Kate as the de facto lead character. A lot of things would still be different about it, a far larger cast to juggle and account for, but when you look at ‘Lost’ this way, you begin to realize the ways it essentially remains very similar to the other work of J.J. Abrams. Instead of a vast and confusing mystique, a show that seems unlike any other show you’ve seen before, and therefore subject to a completely different set of criteria for analysis, and so easy to dismiss as convoluted if it occurs to you to reach such a conclusion, you can return the focus back to where it all began, with the characters, and whatever weird things might happen to them in a given set of circumstances.
Whether it’s Kate or Jack, the mystery was always the island, and the way it developed connections in the most unexpected places. How any one life revolved around such a story, that’s what was always so compelling about ‘Lost.’