ABC show's creative team rushed to make pilot

Lost” was never intended for the faint of heart.

Just ask those responsible for the ambitious ABC drama’s existence. Remembering how, in early 2004, the creative team had a mere 10 weeks to write, cast and shoot the entire pilot, co-creator J.J. Abrams is still amazed the show about plane crash survivors on a South Pacific island ever took flight.

“We were just desperate to get the pilot made,” recalls the exec producer, who also directed the influential first episode. “Looking forward meant the next day of shooting, not 100 episodes down the line.”

Flash forward five years as “Lost” reaches that milestone. An instant hit for ABC and an Emmy and Golden Globe winner, “Lost” now ranks among the most respected — not to mention dissected — dramas in TV history, thanks to its artful balance of complex mythology and nuanced character development. Then, of course, there are those patented whiplash-inducing plot twists.

“There’s generally one point within each meeting where I’m like, ‘You want to do what?'” says Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment Group, of his state-of-the-union sit-downs with co-creator/exec producer Damon Lindelof and exec producer Carlton Cuse,, who’ve steered the show together since the early days of season one. “The fact that they’re not afraid to take those risks is what makes ‘Lost’ so innovative and exciting.”

“Lost’s” boldest development didn’t play out on camera, however; it unfolded behind the scenes three years ago when the network announced that the series would wrap after six seasons in spring 2010. The move was almost unheard of in network television. Typically, networks milk a hit series until the ratings run dry, and at the time producers were in discussions with McPherson and then-ABC Studios president Mark Pedowitz, and “Lost” was perched comfortably in Nielsen’s top 15 and dominated its timeslot in key demos.

What producers were asking for, as Cuse puts it, was the “demise” of “Lost,” something they felt was the only way to preserve their show’s creative integrity and placate fans who worried that they were spinning their wheels with the increasingly labyrinthine mythology.

“Over the first three seasons, the audience was literally asking us, ‘Do you know what you’re doing? Is there a plan?'” Lindelof says.

“We needed to express to the audience where the bookmark was in the novel,” adds Cuse. The book metaphor is apt: Part of the producers’ inspiration to ask for an end date came from J.K. Rowling, who announced early in her Harry Potter series that the saga would end after the seventh book.

“By announcing the end date,” Cuse says, “we signaled yes, we have a game plan, so you can rest assured that your investment in the show is going to pay off.”

McPherson and Pedowitz agreed. “There was a real sense with this show that there was a beginning, middle and end,” McPherson says. “The concern, which we heard loud and clear, was if the middle is infinite, then you’re going to be diminishing its creative legacy.”

Adds exec producer Bryan Burk: “We feel a huge responsibility to the people who have stuck with the show all these years, and our job is to do the best we can. We take that very seriously. … On a financial level, I’m sure some people would prefer to keep the show going forever, but on a creative level, you don’t want to stay past your welcome.”

The move could prove to be a precedent-setting one.

“There are certainly shows that lend themselves to setting end dates,” says McPherson, though routine procedurals need not apply. “Shows where you’ve just got the case of the week don’t really need to have a timetable.”

The impact of the decision on “Lost” was undeniable and immediate. Weeks after securing the end date, Lindelof and Cuse — who, at the same time, signed new contracts keeping them at the helm of the show until it goes off the air — unveiled their now trademark flash-forward device in the third-season finale to show crash survivors Jack and Kate were living off the island. The series has moved at a brisk clip ever since, rallying the fanbase and liberating its writers.

“The end date literally made all the difference,” Cuse says. “It meant we could step on the accelerator pedal.”

“When we announced the end date, people would say to Carlton and I, ‘Wow, three more seasons? That feels like a lot,'” says Lindelof with a laugh. “Now, in season five, people have started saying, ‘Do you think you have enough episodes left to do everything you need to?'”

They do and, they insist, they will. With season five winding down, the two are already starting to map out the intricacies of the sixth, which Lindelof calls “emotional.” “Suddenly, we’re doing things that we first started talking about years ago,” he says. “We’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is it. We’re really ending it.'”

Not that they regret their decision.

“There’s never been any sense whatsoever of ‘maybe we made a horrible mistake,'” Lindelof insists. “It’s exactly the opposite. There’s this real feeling of closure and a sense of excitement. It’s been quite a journey.”

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