May 6, 2005 — -- Take 48 plane crash survivors stranded on a very unusual island, add an angry polar bear, a seething love triangle or two, and an invisible monster and you've got a surprisingly effective recipe for a television drama that critics call "the next great cult-pop sensation" -- ABC's new hit series, "Lost."
"Lost" averages more than 15.5 million weekly viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show has spawned countless Web pages where millions of avid fans log on and obsess about the show's secrets. Like: Where is this mysterious island? Some guess they're trapped in the Bermuda Triangle. Another theory says they're all dead and in purgatory.
"Lost" co-creator J.J. Abrams appreciates the fans' creativity.
"The purgatory one is a great one, I love that theory -- but it isn't what it is. I'd be frustrated if that were the answer I have to say," he said.
So the survivors are not in purgatory and it's not a dream. And producers say there is a logical explanation for everything.
To Abrams and co-creator Damon Lindelof the biggest shocker is the show's success. At the beginning, there were very few believers.
"Conventional wisdom was that there wasn't a chance in hell that this was going to work," Abrams said.
Lindelof said there was a long list of potential obstacles for the show's success. "From the word go, everybody was kind of saying the show is too weird. Nobody wants to see science fiction. It's on at 8 o'clock. It's too scary. There are too many characters," he said.
The story of how "Lost" blossomed from its shaky roots begins in another palm-shadowed, isolated and mysterious locale -- Hollywood.
Abrams said he got a phone call came from Lloyd Braun, who at the time was head of ABC Entertainment. Braun said he wanted to do a show about people who survive a plane crash on an island, Abrams recalled.
Abrams said he proposed a bit of a twist on the concept -- a touch of sci-fi and a touch of horror.
Braun needed to get a green light on the project in a week, and "Lost" was rushed through production at unheard of speed by a network hungry for hits.
Making the pilot was a high-stakes gamble and one of the most expensive in television history.
Carlton Cuse, the show's executive producer, said he was very anxious. "I thought, 'Oh geez, we will have lost even more money, because we will have invested in spending in all this money on a pilot, on a few episodes, and then it will die. It will be disaster magnified,' " he said.
And pulling together the unusually large cast -- 14 major characters -- was an enormous challenge for casting director April Webster.
Chaotic as it was, they knew any hope for success depended on finding the right cast.
"This was sort of this crazy catch-as-catch-can situation, where we were writing the story as we were meeting people who would inspire the story," Abrams said.
Even some of the cast members were skeptical. Harold Perrineau, who had appeared on the stage and in the HBO prison series "Oz," recalls getting a lot of flattery when he was approached to test for a role on the show.
"My first thought was blah blah blah blah, like Hollywood speak, they love you, you're great and so, like I just didn't pay any attention until the day I walked into the room. ... Suddenly I was 2 feet taller and like, yes, I'm great, that's right, you're right. ... We should be in business together," he said.
"20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas spoke with cast members at their jungle location in Hawaii.
Korean-born actress Yunjin Kim said her first reaction to the concept was, "Either this is going to be the best, one of the best TV shows, or the worst. Something that people will make fun of. Oh, yeah we're sort of like the Survivors. No, we're 'Gilligan's Island.' "
Upping the risk factor, many roles went to young actors who were relatively new to the business. Emilie de Ravin had a background in dance. Ian Somerhalder and Maggie Grace had been models.
"Lost" executive producer Bryan Burk says the youth and beauty of their casting choices set off lots of jokes, one from a friend in the business.
"He says 'So let me get this straight. There's a plane crash, and everyone dies except for the UCLA volleyball team,' " Burk said.
The cast's fresh faces were balanced by some who'd been Hollywood-hardened. Josh Holloway, who plays the tough but tender Sawyer, said he had struggled for eight years to get an acting break and was ready to give up.
"I was done, I'd just gotten my real estate license and I had a conversation with my fiancée, wife now, and I asked her if she would still be with me if I was a forest ranger," he said.
Holloway says he poured his own anger and frustration into the character.
"Girls love a messed-up guy, you know, who's tough and a man's man but somewhere in there he's got a heart," he said.
Sawyer's bad boy plays off the heroic Dr. Jack Shepard, played by former "Party of Five" star Matthew Fox. Jack becomes the leader of the "Lost" flock.
"This idea of a bunch of people being in the middle of an environment in which all the rules of society are taken away is something that's really fascinating to me. So I was really into it," Fox said.
Producers had their male lead. But pressure mounted as the time for location filming closed in and they still had no leading lady. Then they saw Evangeline Lilly, who had done some missionary work in the Philippines and some modeling in her native Canada.
Lilly beat out hundreds of candidates for the role. Producers liked the video she sent. And something clicked at her first encounter with Abrams. "At my first meeting with him, we got into a conversation about how I love to climb trees and then I kind of got wind of the notion that Kate's character is going to have a fairly high-profile role," she said.
Lilly still seems stunned by the remarkable change she's experienced in the past year. "A year ago I was driving a beat up, rusted-out, old Toyota Corolla with the back window busted out and covered in duct tape in pouring rain. I was driving to university, working a serving job, doing extra work on film sets. You know, hanging out in Vancouver, British Columbia," she said.
With very little acting experience under her belt, Lily was nervous when she landed the role. "I had never had a speaking role in film and television before. So I was terrified," she said.
They were all scared, and for good reason. By most predictions they were on a flight through the dark "Heaven's Gate" to failure and oblivion.
But they landed in a magical place a world of popular appeal and critical praise.
What's the secret behind this long-shot success? The cast and crew have some theories.
One primary reason for the show's success is the characters. Fans became fanatically attached to the group. None has more of a following than the self-described "Everyman" Hurley, played by Jorge Garcia.
"We're not a cop drama and we're not a hospital and we're not lawyers. Our characters are people you want to know more about and want to, you know, come back to," Garcia said.
It's a diverse collection of souls, among them a spoiled brother and sister, an estranged father and son, a pregnant Australian woman, a brittle Korean couple and a former Iraqi soldier, Sayid.
Naveen Andrews, who plays Sayid, said this diversity adds to the show's appeal. "It's this group of individuals from all different walks of life -- different races, cultures, backgrounds -- and it's a kind of microcosm of society at the moment," he said.
"What's interesting is that you find characters are suddenly set free from the way they were defined in the other world," he added.
That's certainly true for the character of Jin, a Korean who speaks no English. The actor who plays him, Daniel Dae Kim, says it's a character that breaks the movie stereotypes of Asian men.
"Very rarely have we been in a position to be seen in a positive light. Asian men tend to be made fun of and jokes are made at their expense. And we rarely see them as heroes or romantic leads. ... I've worked in this business now for 12 years and this show gave me my first on-screen kiss," he said.
Another character, Charlie, was a fading rock star and heroin addict who stole from his girlfriend's family. He's played by Dominic Monaghan, who made a splash as the hobbit Merry in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
"There's a lot of characters in the show that seem to be having to face their demons, you know? The thing with Charlie is that through his addictive kind of lifestyle, he now has issues with women and with trust and with intimacy and I think, for want of a better word, Charlie is lost," Monaghan said.
Character development is crucial, the show's creators say.
"The complex storytelling -- moving backward and forward in the character's lives -- shows an attitude toward the viewer some say is unusual in network programming. The audience is intelligent. They are very savvy and you can't talk down to them," said.
The creators say another reason for the success of "Lost" is that they draw from powerful influences. They use a story structure associated with movie suspense master Alfred Hitchcock: The audience knows things the characters do not.
For example, we know that the mysterious John Locke, played by Terry O'Quinn, was an office drudge at a box company and in a wheelchair before the crash.
The characters on the island know him only as a survival-savvy hunter. Locke is one of the most popular characters among show fans.
O'Quinn said he thinks the audience likes Locke because "he's enigmatic, because they don't, they can't pin him down. He seems to know a lot, and he knows about people."
Locke also seems, more than any character, to feel like the island is mystical -- that there's something supernatural about it.
In a cast kept in the dark about the island's mysteries O'Quinn is the only one who got a hint about the invisible monster. But even he doesn't know what it is, and he appealed to Lindelof for guidance.
"I said to Damon, 'Look, you gotta tell me something. I'm looking up at something. What am I looking at? Give me a hint.' And he said, 'It's the most beautiful thing that you've ever seen.' "
The monster is the kind of supernaturally flavored mystery "Lost" producers loved in the movies and television shows that influenced them.
Echoes of Hitchcock's style and themes from films like "Rosemary's Baby" run through "Lost," but perhaps the biggest influence is Rod Serling's classic television series "The Twilight Zone."
"He did inspire all of us to tell the best stories that we could tell. And, you know, talk about issues and events that a lot of people like to not talk about," Burk said.
Producers say another reason for the show's appeal is that the series reflects some serious social issues.
"In the sort of post-9/11 world, the sense that we all live with some lurking threat out there -- I think that hangs over all of our lives," said executive producer Carlton Cuse. "And I think that the people on this island have that, too."