Greatest TV Pilots: Revisiting the Lost Pilot (Parts I & II)
The Lost Pilot Perfectly Sets the Stage for an Elaborate, Endlessly Entertaining Adventure
What amazes me about the LOST pilot after all these years is how little of the show’s trademark philosophies and storylines exist in the two-part premiere (or how subtly they are presented, save for a few obvious images). Although it’s a bit of a gamble, it actually alleviates a lot of the strain other pilots (comedy or drama) put themselves through, forcing themselves to define a show’s characters, intentions, and formula in the first episode, lest they be passed up by networks.
Even more impressive about this narrative gamble were the stakes behind: in 2004, ABC was lagging behind the competition in just about everything and greenlit a $10-14 million budget for a complex, elaborate pilot to be filmed in Hawaii (oh and don’t forget: transporting an entire decommissioned plane to be ripped to pieces on the beach). Throw in a script that was re-written twice, characters whose roles were changed, shifted, or dramatically re-imagined in the process, and a tight schedule to produce the pilot, and a dramatic, intriguing two hours of television reach almost legendary status, given the situation at ABC and the ambitions of the creators behind the show.
As millions of fans around the world remember, LOST begins with a man in a suit, who awakes on his back in the middle of some trees. He sees a golden lab walking around (spoiler: it’s Vincent), and stumbles out onto the beach, where he’s met with the serene sound of ocean water and the beautiful landscape of huge volcanic-looking islands around him. He hears a sound, turns his head – and then everything goes to shit, as he notices the aftermath of a violent plane crash unfolding underneath him.
It only takes a few minutes before we get our first cameo from Superman Jack: the next five minutes are spent following Jack with a number of tracking and Steadicam shots (trademarks throughout the pilot), as he moves from a panicked pregnant woman, an old black woman who stopped breathing, and a man trapped under a plane engine – and then back to the pregnant girl, who nearly gets crushed by a plane wing.
It’s relentless, mostly wordless, and a decade later, still as heart-pounding as it was the first time around. There’s a young guy walking around, barely cognizant of the destruction happening inches away from him, a blonde girl screaming her brains out, and a whole lot of dramatic explosions and shots of Jack sprinting around the island. It really does a great job grabbing the viewer’s attention quickly, putting aside names (except Jack’s of course; gotta introduce that protagonist) and backgrounds to throw the audience into the same state of shock the characters are.
Once it calms down, the show very, VERY slowly starts laying out its cast and characters. Since it’s a network pilot, we gotta start with the meet-cute between Jack and Kate, which occurs when Jack enlists her help stitching up his side. It’s an important scene, one that both establishes the tone of the show (dramatic swells of music, super intense interactions with long pauses and a touch of a humor) and shows us that while there is chaos all over the world, Jack is the guy we can attach our anchor to. He talks Kate through the surgery, recalling a story of his own first surgery and imparting a very, very important bit of knowledge to her. While talking about his first surgery, he tells Kate “I decided to let the fear in… I made a choice.”
Any fan of the show knows what a cornerstone this particular phrase is: as we’ll learn in the coming episodes, every single character on Oceanic Flight 815 made a choice in their lives, a choice that set them on the path to this island. Whether they recognized it at the time or not, that choice wasn’t the right one – and as we see when it starts raining, and the bald man with the scar on his face raises his hands to the dark sky and smiles (the first of many, many religious parallels made on the show), they are on this island for a re-birth, a chance to make a new choice, one that may lead them on the paths to self-redemption.
I’m getting ahead of myself, of course – the first hour of the pilot hardly introduces us to the cast of merry wanderers before the first night arrives, and all the survivors watch as a strange-sounding behemoth rattles all the trees in the forest, making a rattling, wailing sound and scaring the shit out of everybody watching. It’s about 20 minutes on the dot when LOST begins to shift from what I like to call a “trauma drama” (a pilot where a huge event drives everything), and slowly starts to reveal the many dark mysteries within. Right now it’s just a scary sound in the distance (Walt: “is that Vincent?” uh…. no), but it’s a huge bit of foreshadowing that there are many, many weird things awaiting these unsuspecting people in the future.
The next morning, Hurley wants to remove some of the stinky dead people from the plane, and Jack’s concerned about a man with a huge piece of shrapnel poking out of his mid-section. But Jack and company are still in the mindset we hear vocalized by Shannon’s shrilly, bitchy voice, thinking that someone is going to get to them soon. Who wouldn’t? In the modern-day and age, the idea of a “deserted island” completely isolated from civilization isn’t one that enters the minds of many people. But it quickly becomes clear that nobody knows where they are, and they head out to find the cockpit in search of answers.
So they set out in the rain for a little adventure; and for seven or eight minutes, LOST muddles out the beautiful landscapes and turns itself into a wildly effective horror sequence (it’s really J.J.’s finest sequence directing the pilot) as Jack, Kate, and Charlie make an important discovery (well two, if you count Charlie finding his heroin): the pilot is alive, and explains what the hell happened to them – aka, he tells them “we turned around when the radio went out… so we’re basically fucked right now,” with everyone looking for them in the wrong place and whatnot.
Then he gets ripped violently out of the plane (complete with a very B-movie esque blood splash on the window that is fucking terrific), and the three-run out of the cockpit, the camera following Kate as she loses the guys around her and cowers the thicket of trees. She tries Jack’s advice for calming down he explained earlier – another early sign of a connection between them, and reinforcing the idea with the audience that Jack is a leader – and we spend a good twenty seconds with a Steadicam in Kate’s face, a frightening sequence that is undercut with this touching moment of Kate embracing the idea of taking control of the narrative (at least in her mind), something she’ll find herself doing a lot of soon.
Lost has one of the most ambitious and engaging pilots ever produced!
Part two of the pilot really goes heavy into the mystery, adding a few dashes of symbolism as they slowly tease out the true material of the show. The easiest (and most iconic) of these to spot is when the bald, scarred man (yes we all know his name in hindsight, but we don’t learn it in the pilot) meets Walt, a kid who is running on a streak of bad luck with his mom being dead and his dad not knowing his age and all. When explaining the game of backgammon to Walt the man picks up a black and white piece, and the shot frames his hands up at his face, the black piece juxtaposed with the man’s one scarred eye.
It’s brief, but really sums up the show’s entire focus for six seasons: put aside all the twists, characters, and unresolved plot lines, and LOST was about two things: choice and redemption. The iconic opening credits play into this, very reminiscent of images like the opening moments of Rocky, when the white letters of the protagonist’s name crawl across a black background. Rocky is about a man’s redemption and overcoming evil (white over black), and a lot of LOST is about the same thing: presenting the good and the evil in people, and allowing them to make the choice on which to embrace.
Of course, there are many others – but at their core, they all are about the dissonance between two philosophies. Some of these are external (science and faith), others are internal, but they all stem from the differing perceptions in a community – and how it’s impossible to reach the right answer when you’re alone. The show gives us numerous examples of this: a failing marriage; a barely-existent father/son relationship; and of course (the only time I’ll mention anything not about the pilot), Jack and his father, the core emotional dynamic of the show that’s NOT EVEN INTRODUCED IN THIS EPISODE (how crazy is that?!!)
In this fashion, ‘Part II’ is a little more subtler than the first, dropping a few easter eggs here and there that would only become clear with the retrospect of having watched the series. Then again, ‘Part II’ is also the episode that puts the great American debate between rednecks and Arabs, a little sub-plot that felt shoehorned in for the sake of having some kind of post-9/11 attitude thrown in. This will come to a head in later episodes of course, but it’s fairly annoying here, more of a convenient story beat to hit – one that only works because we know nothing about these characters yet (it wouldn’t work if we did, knowing both the characters). But after some shouting, fighting, and Sawyer shooting a polar bear, all the pretty survivors (minus Jack, for once) make their way up the mountain to try and get the Sayid-modified transmitter to work, giving us one of the most dramatic and mysterious scenes ever seen on network television – a scene that captivated the minds of millions of Americans by closing the episode with a question (actually identical to the first part of the pilot; in both, Charlie’s question is the last line of dialogue):
“Guys… where are we?”
And that’s where it ends: with a small group of the 40+ survivors facing the knowledge that someone else was stranded there 16 years ago – and probably never was rescued. They’re stranded, 1,000 miles off course, on an island that nobody is looking for them on: in other words, they are royally fucked, and there’s only one way for them to survive: together. Notice how nobody does anything alone in this episode: from the moment Jack enters the sea of bodies, explosions, and (white) smoke on the beach, he – nor anybody else – is ever alone. Call it a convenience of introducing a huge cast in an effective manner – but I call it exactly what Charlie has written on the tape wrapped around his fingers: fate.
To call LOST a ‘great’ pilot is really selling it kind of short: it’s one of the most ambitious and engaging pilots ever produced. Backed by Michael Giacchino’s masterful score (he’d later lend that same knack for emotional swells and compelling arrangements with his Oscar-winning score to Up), LOST clearly was holding all its character-based ammunition back for the first season, instead, playing heavily to the traumatic events of the first 48 hours of the island, setting the stage for an elaborate, endlessly entertaining adventure to follow.
– Kate tells Jack she might throw up on him, so he tells her a story about nerves “like angel hair” and spinal fluid leaking out of a patient during surgery.
– to calm down Boone, Jack tells him to go get a pen (Boone’s lifeguard training taught him to shove ink-filled objects in people’s throats). Later, he comes back to him with five different pens.
– Hurley provides most of the comic relief in the episode, especially when he tries to tell Jin that he’s not interested in eating fish.
– we spend a few brief moments with an Asian couple, where a dominating husband has left a woman with a buttoned top and a tendency to stare at things.
– Rose recognizes the sound in the woods: “I grew up in the Bronx” she says. The sound she’s referring to is an old taxicab meter indeed used in the sounds of whatever is hiding out in the woods.
– LOST’s version of a sexy-sex, audience-grabbing, trailer-friendly scene: Kate washing her dirty clothes in the ocean, complete with gratuitous body shots as she stares off into the distance, thinking deep thoughts.
– Jack likey alcohol.
– Rose’s husband went to the bathroom as the plane went down, and she sits on the island with her wedding ring in hand, wondering where he went.
– Charlie’s reaction to the sounds in the woods: “Terrific.”
– I laugh so hard every time Hurley passes out during the marshal’s surgery.
– Love how they play out the in-plane flashback from three different perspectives, establishing the show’s rampant use of flashbacks, and allowing for little crossover moments like Charlie running away from the attendant, plus the harrowing image of the plane ripping in half from the turbulence. That shit is hard to watch.
– The writers go out of their way to make us hate Shannon: she’s fucking tanning on the beach a day after a plane crash! Boone calls her out in wicked fashion, too: “You’re being worthless.”
– Kate reaacts soooo slooowllly to everything that happens around her, so the camera can stare at her photogenic face for periods of time.
– the bald man: “One is light…. one is dark.”
– there’s a long pan of Kate looking up the mountain they need to climb, and you can just see what’s she’s thinking through the 15-20 sec ond long shot: “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”
– Sawyer: “I just shot a bear!!”
– that French recording has played 17,294,533 times without anybody hearing or responding to it. If that doesn’t put dread in your heart, I don’t know what does.
– I really love Jin’s journey in the first few seasons, but it takes some time to get moving. Early on, some of the “look how traditional and borderline-absuive their Asian marriage is!” is a little tedious.
– Charlie + Driveshaft = greatness. Every time.
– BLACK SMOKE.
– it is weird to watch pre-Ben and Desmond episodes? They’re such integral parts of the show, and nowhere to be found until season two.
– watching the first scene of the pilot always reminds me of the last shot of the show, and I get sad for a few moments. Can’t help it: I’m human, damnit!!!
– they present Locke as a mysterious character, but barely spend any time with him. Really burying the lede with that one.