In 2004, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s new sci-fi thriller, Lost, debuted on ABC. More than 12 years later and the show remains one of the most watched — and the most important — in television history.
It wasn’t just that Lost was a smart show that brought up philosophical discussions among its characters, or included a giant riddle that viewers tuned in weekly to try and solve. These were important aspects, but the reason Lost was as instrumental in television’s future was because it turned a rabid cult fanbase into a rabid mainstream fanbase. It wasn’t just TV nerds talking about the show; it was everyone.
Abrams, Lindelof and Cuse were becoming household names — a first for showrunners that weren’t Norman Lear — as they did weekly spots on Jimmy Kimmel to talk about what was happening on the show. Lost went from being a TV show to an event, but it didn’t just signal a new era of viewers that were ready to embrace a series as more than regular entertainment. They were ready to discuss characters, story arcs and theorize about what was happening on a regular basis.
And that could only be done in 2004 thanks to the rise of blogging, social media television’s basic supply and demand economics.
When Lost debuted in 2004, blogging was a revolutionary thing, and our modern social networks hadn't taken off — or they still hadn't even been invented. Newspapers were starting to take internet content and coverage seriously as more people flocked online to get their news and talk with other people who shared similar interests.
As television critic Alan Sepinwall wrote in his book The Revolution Was Televised, Lost didn’t invent the discussion of television shows online, "but it may have perfected it." Lost was the type of show that encouraged nightly recaps — now a staple of entertainment coverage online — and more importantly, Lost encouraged fans to create elaborate theories and the internet community encouraged people to share them with thousands of others and discuss. ABC and Abrams endorsed an official forum — The Fuselage — for fans to join, although many other fan-created sites opened up alongside it. Lostpedia, the official wiki for the show, has more than 6,000 articles and 2,500 users detailing every minute detail about the series.
Lost didn’t necessarily succeed because of its online fanbase — the series premiere debuted to 18 million people, a record high for the early aughts — but it was kept at the top of conversations because of it. Full-time writers like Michael Ausiello (the editor-in-chief of TV Line) got their start writing blog posts about Lost and jumping into the heart of the fandom, scouring the different theories and seeing what people were saying, trying to piece together what was going to happen next.
"There was this unforeseen confluence of events where we were making a show that was perfect for discussion and debate, just at the moment where the internet was evolving into a place where people were forming communities where they could have those discussions and debates," Cuse told Sepinwall.
Westworld has picked up where Lost let off.
Between 2004 and 2010, Lost had become the internet’s show. Now, in 2016, it seems like networks are catering to the internet community, trying to find the next show that will inspire the same kind of discourse among its fans. While that exists with Game of Thrones, no other show has approached Lost’s level of investigative fans as quickly as Westworld.
In Vox’s impressions piece on the first four episodes of Westworld, Todd VanDerWerff asked if the show was just a rip-off of Lost, supplying the audience with "endless questions to solve." It’s a point that the show’s own community has made on its subreddit recently; one user reminding people to keep a hold of their crackpot theories because, "more than likely they will be wrong." The show has only been on the air for five weeks, but the subreddit has grown to more than 70,000 people, actively posting their different theories, screenshots and diagrams trying to figure out what’s going to happen.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what happened with Lost. Reddit was born in 2005, and the Lost community quickly found refuge on the site along with their regular forums. They uploaded screenshots featuring potential Easter eggs and drew maps that they shared with each other, asking for input. Even when the show was off the air, the community forums remained strong, thinking up theories about what could happen the following season, keeping track of interviews with Abrams, Cuse and Lindelof that could provide any kind of hint.
Westworld has picked up where Lost let off. There are already podcasts dedicated to the series popping up, and video breakdowns being uploaded to YouTube the day after an episode ends going over all the important — and hidden — aspects of what fans just saw. Commenters are engaging with one another again about the things they’re seeing and what it could mean, and while this isn’t an element unique to just one particular series in 2016, fans have pointed out that Westworld’s community feels awfully similar to Lost’s.
"It's a way of being engaged in the series for a longer time without resorting to only rewatches," one Reddit user said. "I love reading different theories and also reading the debunking of those because it gives me more to think about whether the theory will turn out to be accurate or not. Just like Lost."
Lost changed how people watched television. It went from being something you enjoyed for an hour every week to something that needed to be figured out and debunked. Westworld capitalizes on that and does the same thing, but has learned from the mistakes of Abrams’ predecessor series. Westworld wants to focus on the philosophical elements more than Lost ever did and unlike ABC’s hit series, HBO’s doesn’t promise answers to every little mystery.
Based on the speed and volume of chatter the show generates on Twitter most days, but especially Sunday nights, it’s clear that the Westworld community is only going to grow. Much like Game of Thrones’ fanbase, the quest for knowledge is bigger than the series itself, and being included in an investigative conversation makes the show feel like more than just entertainment.
Westworld begins with the question, "Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" It’s that level of philosophical storytelling and dedication to giving the audience something to chew on every single week that makes it feel like Lost’s younger brother.