Nets should protect cult hits from mob mentality

SUBMITTED FOR YOUR APPROVAL: “Lost,” the insanely twisted ABC drama, really shouldn’t be as big a hit as it’s been. Its runaway popularity is an anomaly — a rare instance where a cult hit somehow attracted a mob.

Assuming that proposition holds, the lessons of “Lost” need to be reconsidered when evaluating every serialized, open-ended mystery that has followed, especially those with a vague or overt sci-fi sensibility.

Now, given that the networks have seemingly bet the silo and barn, if not the entire farm, on serialized narratives owing debts to “Lost” and “The Twilight Zone,” such an observation might fall into the “Thanks, now you tell us” category, and I do feel guilty for not having experienced the epiphany sooner. The best defense available is that all those stupid, short-lived reality shows this summer clouded my mind, so if you work at a network, it’s actually your fault.

Anyway, “Lost” remains a terrific series, one whose Byzantine layers and pathways continue to take bold, unexpected turns. Yet watching the season premiere, it was hard not to feel air escaping from the balloon — the sense that those viewers who aren’t hanging on every last wrinkle soon would begin to lose interest in connecting the dots.

Anecdotally, several ordinary people (“the folks,” in O’Reilly-speak) have confessed just that, albeit somewhat sheepishly, saying they are wearying of the whole “Lost” phenomenon. Since the marooned passengers pried open that hatch, the show has evolved in fascinating ways, but the sci-fi elements unleashed simultaneously opened doors for hardcore fans that render the program less accessible for more casual ones.

This isn’t a knock (far from it), but rather recognition of the limitations imposed by episodic television. Indeed, a similar progression occurred on “The X-Files,” which gradually blossomed into a huge hit, only to see its increasingly arcane mythology (sorry, when are the aliens returning to colonize the Earth?) chase away much of that inflated viewership, ebbing back to the insanely loyal “philes” where it probably belonged.

VIEWED THROUGH THIS PRISM, ABC shouldn’t panic if “Lost’s” still-formidable ratings dwindle somewhat, just as realistic expectations should inform the networks’ views on new programs such as NBC’s “Heroes,” CBS’ “Jericho” and perhaps ABC’s “The Nine,” which have gotten off to strong if less spectacular starts. Assuming rating levels for those shows settle near their present performance, network execs should turn cartwheels and slap high-fives, not fret about how they can raise them toward that “Lost” horizon.

Accepting a more humble definition of success also should deliver a wake-up call to critics, who sifted through a better-than-usual development class and deluded themselves into thinking the laws of TV physics — i.e., “80% of everything fails” and “Quality is no assurance of longevity” — somehow wouldn’t apply.

At its highest-volume peak, TV is still a meat-and-potatoes operation, from the cops-and-corpses “CSI” franchise to the soapy charms of “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” to one of the few comedies drawing numbers of any note, “Two and a Half Men.” So while it’s fine to love more unconventional fare like “The Office” and “The Wire,” let’s remember their fine cuisine comes served on linen in a business that historically yearns to ask, “Would you like fries with that?”

There’s no shame in this schism, beyond a degree of self-deception. Yes, Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” is a brilliantly executed program, tackling contemporary politics and issues through its science- fiction lens; nevertheless, it’s still a series with one-eyed robots set aboard a space-roaming fortress, meaning a lot of people won’t watch no matter how much drool Entertainment Weekly showers on it.

Of course, programmers haven’t exactly preserved “Lost’s” uniqueness by collectively copying it as fast as they could, but what else is new? The bottom line is that if execs don’t grasp what separates a cult from a mob, they won’t be able to distinguish a modest hit from a migraine headache.

‘PITY’ PARTY: In the interest of brevity, 13 words about “I Pity the Fool,” TV Land’s staged unscripted series premiering tonight that features Mr. T as a motivational do-gooder: It’s unclear who the fool is, but while watching it, I pitied myself.

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