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Five Lessons Alcatraz Should Learn From Lost

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J.J. Abrams's new island-mystery series could learn from its predecessor's mistakes.

by Rick Paulas

Whether or not FOX likes it — and judging by the ads, they seem to — their new show Alcatraz is going to be compared early and often to Lost. The show not only has a sci-fi concept and takes place on a mysterious island, but it also features J.J. Abrams in a producer capacity and even stars the ultimate "That Guy From Lost," Jorge Garcia.

While Abrams's previous stay off the mainland was a no-doubt-about-it cultural touchstone, Lost's ultimate legacy is still unsettled after the controversial finale. Sure, it was exciting during its six-season run, but can we look back on it and truly consider it a great show? Was it simply fodder for the water cooler, or a show of actual significance? However history ends up viewing it, Lost's imperfections give the folks behind Alcatraz a roadmap of missteps not to take. They'd be smart to consider the following.

1. Don't be beholden to your own formula.

Midway through Lost's first season, it was clear the show was going to be a long trudge to get through. Once the creators fell in love with their (admittedly clever) formula of focusing each episode on one particular character — half on the island, half as a flashback to their life before the crash — viewers could know within the first minute whether or not the episode would be one to drop everything and focus on (Locke-centric episodes), or if it was all right to have the laptop out (Boone and/or Shannon episodes). It wasn't until the change in format at the end of the third season, flashing forward instead of back, that viewers were forced to hold their judgments, because the rules could be broken. 

2. …but have actual rules.

Speaking of rules, here's a challenge for hardcore Losties out there: Come up with a succinct list of the rules governing the Island. Go ahead, I'll wait.

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Done yet? The reason you're having trouble is because it's impossible. Even the writers didn't have a specific set of rules as to what exactly the Island could, and most importantly couldn't, do. Sometimes it wouldn't let people kill themselves, sometimes it couldn't be tracked by satellites, sometimes it let former occupants travel the world as ghosts. And crazy magnetism things! (No doubt, the show's unpredictable science is what panicked the hearts of the Insane Clown Posse.) The only rule was that the Island could do whatever it wanted, as long as the writers wanted it to. Which just doesn't cut it. The people behind Alcatraz need to focus on making a specific set of rules for their world. If their rules are vague, they'll risk the wrath of former Lost fans who're tired of shows that cheat.

3. Keep the show inviting for latecomers.

Though it didn't work out in the end, The X-Files had one of the greatest formulas in TV history: three-quarters stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes, one-quarter episodes advancing the series-long arc about how the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Mr. X., and other shady characters were planning to force-mate bees with aliens (or whatever it was — like I said, it didn't work out). Lost prided itself in being able to tell self-contained stories — see the amazing episode "The Constant." But if you tried to get into it in the fourth season, you'd be totally bewildered. The entire mythos was already too far advanced. Alcatraz should mix it up, more X-Files-style than Lost.

4. Ignore the fans.

In the third season of Lost, the creators introduced new characters, Nikki and Paolo. This had actually been part of the plan for a while. But fans of the show started going ape-shit on message boards and blogs, demanding the creators stop wasting time and start delivering answers. The creators, who apparently spent a lot of time on said fan sites, obliged by burying the two characters alive. Results notwithstanding (actually, that was a great episode), this was indicative of a deeper problem: bowing to the fans. As soon as that becomes a show's modus operandi, trouble is on the way.

5. Know your end game.

Basically, Lost was created when J.J. Abrams walked into a roomful of writers and said, "So, a plane crashes into an island, and weird shit happens. Go!" Which is fine. It's the job of TV writers to retrofit reason into a high-concept setup like that. They're paid to figure out what the Smoke Monster is and who's behind that mysterious hatch. But what they didn't know, and still might not, was/is the biggest question of the series: what was the Island? In the case of Alcatraz, the central premise is that inmates from the infamous prison went missing years ago and are now reappearing in the present day. So the two things the creators have better goddamn know now is (1) why it happened; and (2) where they went. Everything else can be figured out later. But if they don't have these two central answers, don't be surprised if they start the second season by introducing an autistic kid who carries around a snow globe.