Note: This post contains spoilers for the following shows: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, Revolution, and The Walking Dead.
Lost changed everything. Prior to Lost, television was a collection of episodic television series that invoked neither awe nor suspense. Lost was different. It challenged the established notion of what prime time television could be. And, it was wildly successful. The show garnered a massive following of fans who eagerly tuned in every week to find out what happened next. It took the cult genre of science fiction and made it mainstream.
Lost explored many themes. It was an amalgamation of physics, philosophy, and psychology, exploring everything from the nature of good and evil, the dichotomy of science and religion, and the vices and virtues of human nature. It was well written, referencing everything from enlightenment thinkers, to pop culture. Though many were dissatisfied with the ending of Lost, nearly every fan has been waiting for another show like it.
The varying mysteries of Lost kept every fan wanting more. We hunted online for additional clues. We researched every archaic reference and image. We watched every single webisode and we created Lostpedia. The attention to detail in Lost was so impeccable that the bonus disc for the collectors edition was tucked away inside a secret compartment in the lid of the case. A compartment that you could only find if you followed the clues on the packaging and in the other discs’ menus. And that was the entire show, a series of questions and clues that left all of us searching, mostly in vain, for the answers.
Other shows enthralled us in different ways. Battlestar Galactica was a space opera that became a metaphor for our own all-too-real struggles. Debuting in the midst of a post 9-11 America straddling two religious wars, the show struck a timely chord with audiences. Instead of asking us to think deep thoughts about abstract ideas, it asked us to take an introspective look at our own world through the lense of science fiction.
Set immediately following a catastrophic attack that wiped out most of the human population sprawling twelve planets, Battlestar Galactica follows the story of the final survivors as they run from the Cylons, a race of machines originally created to make human lives easier. While the humans believe in twelve separate gods, the Cylons worship a single all-powerful god.
But more than the religious war, Battlestar Galactica shows us the story of a race of human beings that created a regime of robots that would eventually strike back at those that created them. Perhaps the greatest telling line of the entire series occurs in the Pilot and sums up the themes therein: ‘The time comes when you can’t run from the things that you’ve done.’
This line is an indictment of the U.S. foreign policy. It’s pretty easy to see the parallels between the Battlestar Galactica universe and the global landscape of the mid to late 2000s. It was these themes that grounded the show to reality. And, coupled with the believability of the characters and the struggles they faced, the show went on to finish four seasons with a very dedicated audience.
Where are these shows now? In the midst of shows like Jersey Shore, many Lost and BSG fans are looking for that next big show. Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse was a fantastic look at the nature of technology and the destructive courses of human nature. Touching topics from human trafficking, slavery, free will, and the nature of being human, Dollhouse showed great potential as the next big show that forced us to think. But a failure to create a successful story arc early on and a lack of ratings forced Fox to cancel it after a paltry two seasons.
The Walking Dead has earned a significant following of fans despite lackluster writing for much of the first two seasons. The story has picked up in the late second season and in the current, third, season. This is due mostly to character development and not to any thought-provoking plot or themes.
We are left wanting. The studios seem unable to duplicate the success of these shows. And it’s not for a lack a trying. Syfy created several shows that might have shown great success in taking up the mantle of Lost and BSG. Stargate Universe had all the right ingredients for a show that would teach its audience about the cost of survival in a hostile and uncontrollable environment. Unfortunately, it was plagued by the episodic nature of its predecessors. JJ Abrams went on to create several shows that might have taken on Lost’s mantle, but sadly none of them speaks to the audience the way Lost did.
Revolution was built on a solid premise. I, like many, wanted to give it a chance on the premise alone. And, I was willing to overlook terrible acting, and bad plot development for a time. But, it isn’t getting better. And the novelty has worn off.
Perhaps it’s easier to write socially charged television in the heat of turmoil. And, maybe the convergence of so many diverse topics as philosophy, physics, and psychology, only occurs once in a lifetime. But these shows proved the concept that prime time television shows can compete on a level previously reserved for major cinema. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what the next big show turns out to be.