How J.J. Abrams And Damon Lindelof Tricked ABC Into Creating ‘Lost’

Lost was a television show that explored the human condition through charged notions: good vs evil, nature vs nurture, free will vs predetermined destiny, the philosophy of mortality and the redemptive nature of man. The ABC show used devices such as mysticism, scientific exploration, and religion — all permeated by an overwhelming sense of survival — to get there.

Lost also came packaged with its own mythos. Mysteries — some explained and others left unanswered — abounded in the six seasons of the highly popular program. As much as the human element pervaded the series, the show was steeped in a stew of supernatural and metaphysical components that made it one of the most polarizing TV series of all-time. Much of Lost’s charm is owed to the razor’s edge it traversed, from straight forward drama to full-blown Twilight Zone-esque narratives.

As popular as the program was in the form we know, it was almost something entirely different. ABC — like many media outlets — did not want to take chance on something so bizarre and divergent that it would alienate their audience. In order to reassure ABC that their upcoming drama about a plane wreck on a mysterious island wouldn’t stray too far from their sensibilities, creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof created a “series format” document that described a show much different than what they would create. Little did ABC know, the wool was being pulled over their eyes…

The Idea

In 2003, ABC was in dire straits. The network TV company was struggling to find the next great scripted drama after spending much of its budget on reality and game show programming. Lloyd Braun, the chairman of ABC entertainment, had taken a vacation in Hawaii when he caught an airing of the Tom Hanks’ film Cast Away. An idea began to formulate.

And then the notion of Survivor popped into my head. I don’t know why. And I put it all together: What if there was a plane that crashed and a dozen people survived, and nobody knew each other. Your past was almost irrelevant. You could reinvent who you were. You had to figure out — how do you survive? What do you use for shelter, for water? Is it like Lord of the Flies? How do we get off the island, how do you get home? And I start to get very excited about the idea, and I start thinking about the title Lost.

After returning to the mainland, Braun pitched the idea to his fellow executives and in return he heard crickets. The only person to show interest in the idea was the head of drama development, Thom Sherman. The two decided to cultivate the idea, and hired writer Jeffrey Lieber. Lieber drafted a script for the pilot, but it fell short of Braun’s expectations. Since it was already late into the development cycle, Braun was pressed for time to find a writer who could take the concept and create something compelling enough to warrant a hit show. He turned to J.J. Abrams.

Already developing a new series for Braun, titled The Catch, Braun asked Abrams to drop that show and start working on a draft for Lost. J.J. agreed, but even with dropping The Catch, he was still too busy to develop Braun’s idea solely.

Damon Lindelof, a young, upstart TV writer, had been seeking to land a gig writing for Abrams’ successful series, Alias. An ABC executive setup a meeting between Lindelof and Abrams, but it wouldn’t be for Alias, it would be for an ambitious new series that scarce few ABC executives believed in.

Lindelof read through Lieber’s script, and immediately began formulating ideas of his own. The characters would be damaged, many of them having no desire to return to their previous lives off the island. Also, flashbacks would serve the purpose of creating enthralling backstories that would help explain the motivations and desires of the main subjects.

Abrams, who loves to inject his “mystery box” ideology into his works, came up with an idea of a mysterious hatch that would become the island’s rabbit hole, leading the characters to greater discoveries on the island.

The two writers found that they had stumbled onto a great concept that they knew could work despite the deviation from traditional storytelling devices and conventions. All they needed to do now was convince ABC of the same.

The Lie

Abrams, Lindelof and a team of writers spent 9 weeks fashioning a “series format,” that documented the concepts, storylines and characters of their developing project. They had to prove that the show was not just a scripted cast away story, and that the program “had legs.” They knew that they had to appeal to the ABC executives in order to get a green light, but they also knew that once they got that green light, they would throw the document in the trash and create the show they spent long hours imagining.

The job of these writers was, after eight or nine weeks, to present a document to ABC… to try to convince them to order the series.

Since ABC had grown weary of serialized dramas — mainly due to Alias’ highly serialized format — they first promised that each episode of Lost would be “self-contained,” and would be available to anyone who wanted to pick up the show no matter how far along in the season it was.

So, per J.J., we made a very specific effort in this document to say we were not going to be serialized, we were not going to be genre and we were not going to do what Alias had done. So even though I think it was our intention to do all of the above, we needed to put that in the document because the document was essentially a letter to ABC saying ‘Here’s what the show’s going to be.’

There would also be no specific genre: the show could be a police procedural one week, and a medical drama the next.

The next promise, and perhaps the most contrived, was that everything in the show would have some sort of scientific explanation. As we all know, this was not the case in the finalized version, as many of the island’s mysteries were never even resolved by the series finale.

Abrams and Lindelof also assured ABC that the program would hold no “ultimate mystery,” again, another blatant lie.

As for the mysterious smoke monster, ABC was told that the mystery surrounding the creature would be solved within the first few episodes. Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Perhaps appealing to the Gilligan’s Island model, the writers proclaimed that guest stars would frequent the island. Fans of the show know that besides some familiar faces from other TV programs, almost all of the characters on the show were portrayed by unknown actors.

Finally, in what seemed like a measured effort to indicate cost-effective practices, the document revealed that the show would be staged in a “primitive Melrose Place,” that would be able to be built upon a studio lot or sound stage. I’m sure shooting on location in Hawaii was just as inexpensive, right?

The Hit

Three weeks after ABC received the document and green-lit the show, scripts for the first season of Lost had began developing. When the script for the second episode was completed, Arbrams, Lindelof, and the rest of the writing team came to the realization that the 20+ page document that was submitted to ABC would be as genuine as a Robert Blake testimony.

Still wary that ABC would pull the plug on the show after catching wind of their deception, everything changed after the numbers for the first episode arrived: over 18 million people sat down in front of their TVs to watch the exploits of Jack, Sawyer, Kate, and the rest of the survivors. The show was a massive hit, and it would go on to become one of the most successful and critically lauded TV programs of all time.

As for the deception, ABC didn’t seem to mind once they filled their swimming pools with cash.