Television shows seldom make a graceful exit. Why a hit series is pulling the plug after six years.
Ending a television series usually means you've been canceled.
In the case of ABC's "Lost," though, a hit show is going out on its own terms. After three years of planning, the new season, starting Feb. 2, will conclude its six-year run in May.
Even with the unusual luxury of planning ahead, engineering a graceful exit can be tricky, as "Seinfeld" and "The Sopranos" found out when many fans felt cheated. "Lost" has its own set of challenges. Set on a mystical island after a group of plane-crash survivors are stranded, the show mixes soap opera and sci-fi. It has dozens of complicated plotlines and mysteries to wrap up, and a base of diehard fans who want answers to the show's many still open questions.
The cast of "Lost" talk to WSJ's Amy Chozick about what they'd like to see happen in the popular series' last season.
Castmembers from "Lost" recently spoke to The Journal about which of the TV show's hanging plotlines they would most like to see answered in the final season (watch video). Evangeline Lilly wanted the numbers in the show to be explained, while Jorge Garcia wanted the mystery of the black-smoke monster solved. Josh Holloway requested that the significance of the horse be revealed. Vote on what you think is the most-pressing "Lost" mystery to be answered.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama rescheduled his first "State of the Union" address so it wouldn't conflict with the season premiere. "I don't foresee a scenario in which the millions of people that hope to finally get some conclusion in 'Lost' are pre-empted by the president," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told the press corps during a briefing. "You can quote a senior administration official," he joked.
The show's ratings are still strong, though they have dipped to 11.3 million viewers from a peak of 15.1 million in the 2006-2007 season. "Lost" is an industry leader in DVD sales, video-on-demand and iTunes downloads, which add several million viewers not included in Nielsen ratings, ABC executives say.
ABC has plenty of reasons to want to go out with a bang. President of ABC Entertainment Group Stephen McPherson says that in 2007 he agreed to let the producers euthanize the show after six seasons because the long-term benefits outweighed the short-term financial gains. A large ensemble cast and on-location shooting in Hawaii make "Lost" one of the most expensive shows on television. In addition, actors' standard contracts often allow them to leave a show in the seventh year, giving them leverage to ask for more money. ABC says ending the series was "strictly a creative decision."
Moreover, ABC Studios owns the show and its future on DVD shelves, where serialized shows, best watched from the beginning, are especially popular. A disappointing finale could hurt DVD sales and rerun deals. A successful one is great for convincing people to buy the whole collection.
The mysteries and mythology of 'Lost' are endlessly complicated, but here are some basics for understanding the show.
"Lost" premiered in 2004 with a two-part pilot episode that featured the graphic wreckage of Oceanic flight 815 after it crashed en route from Sydney to Los Angeles. After weeks with no sign of a rescue, survivors try to adjust to life on the island as episodes provide flashbacks to their lives before the crash. In subsequent seasons, episodes provide "flash forwards" that give titillating hints about what happens to the survivors who get off the island.
The two-hour season six premiere picks up right where the season five cliffhanger left off, when spinal surgeon and crash survivor Jack Shephard, played by Matthew Fox, tries to manipulate the island's shadowy time-travel properties. After traveling back to the past, he and other survivors set off a hydrogen bomb designed to change the course of events—so that the plane crash will never happen.
Devising a final episode for a series which has aired for years is daunting enough. But it's especially tough for "Lost," which isn't the kind of show viewers can dip into at will. Fans have lived through dozens of complicated plot twists, many of them mysterious and unexplained. They've encountered time travel, angry island inhabitants, man-eating black smoke and geographically misplaced polar bears. Wrapping up everything seems impossible.
The show's passionate fan base only compounds the danger. Avid Losties aren't shy about telling the writers what they like and don't like via online fan forums and discussion boards. When the show introduced two new characters in season three, fans so despised the good-looking Nikki and Paulo that the couple wound up buried alive in a later episode.
"Fan reaction to our show has been particularly vocal," says actor Daniel Dae Kim, who plays Jin-Soo Kwon on the show, "so I'd be very surprised if you got a consensus that it's the best finale of all time."
Already, fans are flooding "Lost"-devoted Web sites to plead for answers to mysteries. Why was this group of people brought to the island in the first place? What do the strange set of numbers that pops up throughout the seasons symbolize? Who is Jacob, a mysterious figure who appears to have lived on the island for centuries and may have special powers?
Shows that ABC hoped would pick up where "Lost" is leaving off, such as "V" and "FlashForward," are flagging, making a strong showing these next few months even more important. A well-managed finale could be a ratings smash. The final episode of "M*A*S*H" in 1983 remains the highest-rated show in television history, with 122 million people tuning in to see what happened to the Army medical division as the Korean War came to an end.
The show's producers admit they won't be able to tie up everything. "To over-explain and demystify [the island] would be detrimental," says executive producer Carlton Cuse.
Mr. Cuse and fellow executive producer Damon Lindelof praise the ambiguity of the final minutes of another series, "The Sopranos." It left some viewers grumbling about not knowing exactly what happened to the New Jersey mob boss who quietly sat in a diner with his family as the eight-year epic faded to black.
But they liked that viewers got to go with their own interpretation. "If you want him [Tony Soprano] to die," says Mr. Lindelof, "maybe you extrapolate that there's an approaching gunman, or maybe he's just having another onion ring with his family."
The producers say the series finale will not try to set up any future "Lost" incarnations. "We are ending this story with these characters, and that's all we have planned. We're not setting up a sequel. We're not planting elements for future shows. We certainly understand and absolutely respect that ABC and Disney have an incredibly valuable franchise and they want to do more things with 'Lost,' but the story we're telling ends in May," Mr. Cuse says.
ABC says it has no plans at this time for a "Lost" sequel or spinoff, nor any "Lost"-related items like comic books, additional action figures (there are some out there), or an island-inspired theme park ride. But executives don't rule anything out.
J.J. Abrams, who created "Alias" and co-created "Lost" before handing the series over to Mr. Lindelof and Mr. Cuse in season one, says the intricate plots of "Lost" make it doubly difficult to step back and provide a sweeping, predetermined dénouement rather than a random snip of the ribbon.
"Suddenly in episode five you're in a different place than you were in the pilot," he says. "The goal is to find a moment that feels like it would fit into the pantheon of great moments of a series."
Consider the 1998 "Seinfeld" finale. It stayed true to the spirit of the show with Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer sitting in a jail cell discussing a button on George's shirt. But after a nine-year run, the conclusion didn't seem monumental enough to some. Last year executive producer and co-creator Larry David poked fun at his own ending in the HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The "Seinfeld" cast returns to remake the final episode. "Larry, we already screwed up one finale," Jerry Seinfeld says.
A finale that convincingly resolves unanswered questions can help the longevity of a series in syndication and DVD sales, says Jeff Wachtel, head of original programming at NBC Universal's USA network. His own network's "Monk" had Tony Shalhoub's character solving his wife's murder. "You don't want to throw the audience a curve ball," he says.
When Ricky Gervais ended the British original of "The Office" in 2003 he made sure some light shined into the dreary lives of his characters. "We dragged people over the coals and gave them a depressing, existential look at white-collar workers," Mr. Gervais says. "We wanted there to be some hope."
Historically based series have other issues. Michael Hirst, creator and executive producer of "The Tudors," told Showtime the costume drama had to end after the fourth season, premiering in April, because King Henry VIII had "simply run out of wives."
In 1990 "Newhart" star Bob Newhart woke up in the series finale to find himself in "The Bob Newhart Show," a sitcom that ended in 1978. The entire "Newhart" series had been a dream in the mind of Mr. Newhart's 1970s character. Although some think the dream device is a cop-out, this one was well-received.
"That was a stroke of genius," says actor Michael Emerson who plays villain Benjamin Linus on "Lost." "What you want is to make your audience go, 'Yes!' "
The "Lost" producers have promised not to "snow globe" the audience, a reference to "St. Elsewhere," when it turns out that the entire series took place in a child's snow globe.