How Lost Can Reward Viewers and Strengthen Broadcast Television (Hint: Look to Doctor Who)

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If not for the inescapable influence of Fox's American Idol, I would choose ABC's Lost as the top show of the last decade.

Why this acclaim? I can't think of another scripted series during that time, and perhaps ever, that demanded so much of its viewers yet retained their loyalty, all the while doing so much to alter the perception of what a scripted television series actually could be. Fox's 24 winningly played with the format, but one must go all the way back to that fabulous failure Twin Peaks to come close to the mad complexity of Lost.

Twin Peaks was ultimately a flop, largely because of its legendarily loopy if intermittently brilliant storytelling. Lost, on the other hand, proved to be a pop-culture phenomenon on arrival and has remained a media sensation ever since. Seriously, with its fascinating and frustrating primary story (set in the mid-Aughts); its flashbacks, flash-forwards and alternate timelines; its multiple character arcs and their occasional mind-bending collisions, and its ever-expanding list of questions that demand to be answered but likely never will be, not even to the satisfaction of its most forgiving fans, there has never been anything like this show.

(An aside: I spent time in Los Angeles, New York and New Haven in the days leading up to last Tuesday's season premiere, and everywhere I went it seemed everyone was talking about Lost. I haven't sensed so much excitement about the arrival of a filmed entertainment product since last November during the run-up to the arrival in theaters of The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Who says broadcast television has lost its punch?)

All I can say after watching the season premiere of this already iconic television series (other than to ask if Juliet is really a mass murderer) is that I hope the series finale in May is as satisfying for and respectful of its viewers as The End of Time, the recent conclusion of David Tennant's spectacular four-year run on BBC America's Doctor Who, a science-fiction adventure every bit as exciting and as emotionally fulfilling as Lost. I traveled quite a bit during January, so I only recently caught up with the two-part saga that ended with Tennant's beloved title character regenerating into someone else (as have all of the Doctors throughout this franchise's remarkable 47-year history).

It wasn't exactly a series finale, but it was the end of a cycle that spanned three years in series form and a fourth with four television movies (one telecast in two parts), all starring Tennant and collectively the best flight ever in the hallowed history of Who. (In truth, I'd say the stellar Tennant years were so good they qualify as one of the best television series of all time, though only if they are separated out from the various incarnations of the Doctor Who franchise that came and went during the previous four decades.)

Anyway, during the final 15 minutes of The End of Time, as Tennant's Doctor realized he was about to regenerate into someone new, the character traveled through time and space to bid a mostly silent farewell to the many people with whom he had memorably interacted during the last few years, some of them not seen in a very long time. They included Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), now married to Rose's old friend Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke); Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who was seen drinking in an other-worldly bar filled with unforgettable alien species viewers had met over the seasons (including my favorites, the Slitheen and the Adipose) in a sequence that recalled the legendary cantina scene in the 1977 classic Star Wars; Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who has played this role since an earlier version of Doctor Who way back in 1973); recent travel companions Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), plus a host of recurring characters from the Tennant era.

These scenes were, in a word, lovely. I'll admit they choked me up, in part because of nostalgia, in part because I hated to see Tennant go, in part because I realized I would likely not see most of these wonderful characters again -- but mainly because I was so moved by the obvious affection writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies has not only for his creations but for the millions of viewers who embraced them. Davies, the creative force behind the mid-Aughts revival of Doctor Who (which began with a season starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor) and its spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures is leaving the series as well, so The End of Time was clearly a love note to his legion of loyal fans. (Doctor Who will continue with a new show-runner, Steven Moffat, and a new Doctor played by a young actor named Matt Smith.)

This kind of huge emotional payoff -- a great big "thank you," if you will -- is what I want from the final episodes of Lost. I'm certain that executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are up to that challenge. Under their guidance, Lost has enthralled its loyal audience since September 24, 2004 and engaged fans in a wholly unique way that has yet to be duplicated, though dozens of series have since tried (including FlashForward and V, two ABC freshmen currently on hiatus) and none of them have enjoyed anywhere near its success.

I hope Lindelof and Cuse take as much care with their characters and their viewers as Davies did with his. They can't possibly address every one of the hundreds of burning questions and puzzling observations fans have about the show after five pulse-pounding years, but they can certainly give it a grand and glorious send off that will keep people talking for years to come. If they do, they'll leave millions of viewers satisfied and ready to commit all over again to tantalizing serialized dramas that strengthen broadcast television. If they don't, there will be so many pissed off viewers out there we may never again be able to enjoy a show as complex and uniquely entertaining as theirs. Such is the legacy of Lost.

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