"I’ll see ya in another life, brotha": Lost, The Good Place & the afterlife of high-concept genre TV
This is a piece I wrote back in fall 2018 while studying TV writing with Neil Landau at UCLA.
Lost creator Damon Lindelof and The Good Place creator Michael Schur.
A bunch of flawed but well-meaning individuals find themselves in a strange place, with the chance to transcend their pasts and invent themselves anew. However, external forces—and the workings of the universe itself—throw up the question of whether these people really have the power to change anything. At one point they’re even restored to their old lives to try and surmount their personal baggage. The constant is that they always find each other—because they need each other.
That describes two of the most inventive and popular shows in the last decade and a half: Lost (2004-2010) and The Good Place (2016-2019). They’re both high-concept ensemble shows steeped in science fiction and fantasy. They draw heavily on philosophical and metaphysical ideas. They were/are primetime broadcast network shows (ABC and NBC, respectively). And the contrast between them exemplifies what’s happened to high-concept genre television over the past few years that have redefined TV.
The Good Place showrunner Michael Schur has been quite candid about the role Lost had in the genesis of his show:
“The model in my head is ‘Lost.'” […] “I imagine this going in the ‘Lost’ way.”
“I love that show,” Schur said of Lost – so much so that Lost co-creator/showrunner Damon Lindelof was one of the first people he sought out for guidance as he was working on this new NBC series.
A big similarity between the shows is structural—they both intercut flashbacks of a given character’s past life with their present story in the island/good place. This was of course Lost’s big hallmark. The flashback and island story would parallel each other emotionally or thematically in some way. And as both shows progressed, we learned that the character’s personal baggage or flaw is precisely what got them to the island/good place. Sawyer ended up on Oceanic 815 because he went to Australia to kill the man who conned his mother and dominated his life. Chidi died because he couldn’t make decisions as a Best Man and got hit by an air conditioner. What The Good Place does more explicitly is use the flashbacks to show how a character (well, mainly Eleanor) is growing in the present compared to the past. Lost did this sometimes—for instance when Charlie gives up drugs on the island—but most of the time, the flashbacks’ third act payoff would be in the past rather than the present. Lost would create surprise through showing us how the characters present one way on the island but were markedly different in their pasts. The most famous and literal instance of this might be when John Locke is revealed to be wheelchair bound in season 1’s ‘Walkabout’. But as this example shows, it was more about plot and external surprise than a character’s internal growth as on The Good Place.
The shared structure is a natural result of the fact that the shows explore similar themes: free will vs determinism, and whether a person can transcend his or her past and be a different (better or worse) person if given the chance to start over in a totally new and freeing setting (though in The Good Place that setting is seemingly much cozier). Both shows wear philosophy on their sleeves. Lost’s character names include Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Faraday and Hawking (the last two are science). The Good Place name-checks dozens of philosophers, as ethics school is built into the show, never more so than in the Hugo-winning “Trolley Problem” episode.
Lost arguably only really leaned into big themes after it shed the J.J. Abrams “mystery box” trappings of its first couple of seasons. Sure it talked about science vs faith and the idea of “live together, die alone,” but it’s really once we got to season 4 where the show fully embraced its sci-finess (having up to that point dialed it down, perhaps to avoid being tagged as a “genre show”), introducing consciousness travelling through time (in the outstanding “The Constant,”), people travelling through time, the island travelling through time, and then a nuclear bomb seemingly splitting reality into two paths. All of these ideas allowed the show to explore predestination, both in terms of whether you can change history—“whatever happened, happened”—and whether there are certain people we are meant to be with no matter what.
As numerous reviewers have noted, the end of The Good Place season 2, and major points in season 3, parallel big moments in Lost. In the Lost season 5 finale, a hydrogen bomb goes off and after a flash of white, we now see a what-if world where Oceanic 815 landed safely in LA after its flight from Sydney, Australia. The Good Place season 2 finale sees Judge ‘Hydro-Jen’ snap her fingers and transport Eleanor to a ‘what-if’ where she never died; she heads to Sydney, Australia.Good Place season 3 then expands on this, challenging our heroes to throw off the baggage that stopped them from being truly good, without the experience of the good place to influence them, and they all inevitably find each other in order to do that—just like Lost season 6’s “flash sideways.” Season 3 episode 8’s cold open offers the most blatant Lost homage: a man, living in an isolated bunker of sorts, wakes up in the morning with a Mama Cass song. It’s a hat tip to Lost’s memorable season 2 opening where we first meet Desmond Hume in the hatch. Both of these men are living their life according to a routine they feel compelled to follow—in Desmond’s case, to save the world; in Doug’s case, to save himself. Lastly, in both shows, the island/good place are a test that comes out of a feud between two supernatural beings who present as middle-aged white men (Jacob and the Man in Black / Michael and Shaun), who in turn are outranked by a parent-like woman with the power to shape reality (the Mother / the Judge). Whether or not Schur was influenced by Lost, the idea that we are just toys in the playground of petty gods ends up working much better tonally in the comedic Good Place.
This brings us to tone, that pivotal je ne sais quoi of TV. While these two shows explore similar themes and explicitly draw on similar narrative devices, they differ significantly in their tone. Wait, what? A drama and a comedy differ in tone? Somebody get this guy a Pulitzer already. Bear with me; there’s a more specific point I’m making here. The fact that the heir to Lost is a sitcom tells us a lot about how TV’s changed.
The Good Place is above all else designed to be funny. Everything else gives way to that. So, whereas Lost would take its mythology and magic systems seriously (or at least try to), The Good Place will take shortcuts if it’s funnier. Case in point, the explanation for how time works in the afterlife as “Jeremy Bearimy.” For me, the show’s retreats to silliness to get out of inconsistent world-building or contrived twists can make it less satisfying. Granted nobody cares about this minor detail about the passage of time, but in a larger sense, for me The Good Place is filling a particular gap in my TV diet: a soft-genre fantasy show with big ideas and a metaphysical bent (and what’s more, one that tells a satisfying story in an hour). Shows of that kind used to abound: The X-Files, Alias, Heroes, Fringe. But as TV has become more niche, “what-if” shows set in a heightened version of our reality (as opposed to space or a totally imagined world) are either painfully dark (Handmaid’s Tale), moody and slow (The OA, Counterpart) or very simplified (Stranger Things). The only recent shows that have truly captivated me in the same way as the ones I’ve mentioned are Westworld and The Leftovers. Lindelof’s second show was, like Lost, an inspiration for The Good Place (it is sort of the flipside of the show, in that it is about the “guilty remnant”—all of us who didn’t make the 2% cut for the supposed rapture).
How to explain this disappearance of fun, mythology-rich sci-fi-lite / magical realism dramas? They were network shows, and maybe it’s just symptomatic of networks dying out. Maybe these shows were a product of smaller budgets, and now totally fictional worlds can be created on screen so we get full-on sci-fi and fantasy. Maybe we’re saturated with sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s no longer interesting enough simply to have a show about “what if X weird thing were real”. Or we are no longer compelled by shows about being powerless to amorphous external forces—we expect everything to be the result of motivated choices by characters, including our villains. Maybe these shows with their conspiracies awed us because of ‘90s and post 9/11 distrust of government, and now our distrust is more about pressing social injustices rather than libertarianism. As TV has started to tackle tougher social subjects, maybe these shows have become seen as frivolous, and so we only see real-world-set sci-fi/fantasy if it’s allegorical and dark rather than escapist (e.g. Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror); nostalgia-driven and avowedly childhood-rekindling (Stranger Things); or…a comedy! Maybe TV drama’s got darker because the world feels f***ing dark right now! Not to disparage those shows at all—they’re excellent. And even I have struggled to get excited about NBC’s would-be-Lost show Manifest. You could argue that it shows what was wrong with the old guard of TV: characters were frequently just vessels for plot and concept, and we were often expected to care because of telegraphed plot surprise moments. This no longer works because we’re now so used to stories coming organically from character. But equally, I think it’s just not that good in its own right. As Alan Sepinwall put it:
The problem with Manifest, Flash Forward et al isn't the lack of answers. It's that none of the story or characters are interesting enough to make waiting for the answers feel worthwhile. Lost, whether you hated the ending or not, was fun a LOT of the time. The ripoffs never are.
Speaking of character, and getting back to contrasting Lost and The Good Place, one of the most marked differences between the shows is their main protagonist. Both shows’ very first image is the main character opening their eyes as they wake up in the series’ central location. But who they are is very telling. Jack Shephard was Lost’s moral center—an exceptionally dedicated doctor trying to do the right thing. His biggest flaw was needing his father’s approval. While many of the characters around him had shadier pasts—conmen, murderers, torturers—Jack was the good guy. Eleanor Shellstrop, by contrast, is a decidedly uncaring, selfish person adrift in a sea of saints. And that’s what makes her relatable: she’s flawed like us, imperfect compared to the perfectly annoying angels around her. Maybe this reflects the fact that TV has been through a long antihero phase. Of course she ultimately is decent, because the show is about her growth, and it’s a cozy network show from the creator of Parks and Rec. And her “crimes” are being generally boorish and thoughtless rather than, say, genocide. Were this on FX it might have had her be much darker, and so too if it were a drama (even on a network). But I’m not sure we could buy into a “good place”-type world in a drama. We can accept it in a comedy (particularly where characters’ flaws are readily relatable like Tahani’s sibling rivalry or are absurd like Chidi’s indecision) because it’s trying to be funny rather than actually take a stab at what the afterlife looks like. Lost’s final season and ending are the closest thing to a drama “good place,” and it alienated a lot of people. I think one of the reasons it was so unsatisfying to many fans is that it tried to offer a vision of purgatory and the afterlife that was vaguely rooted in Christianity but portrayed itself in a secular way that felt totally unspecific and not thematically connected to the rest of the show. (In retrospect, The Leftovers’ episode “International Assassin” suggests that maybe the “flash sideways” in season 6 are the “in between” stages cited in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.)
I enjoyed Lost’s ending because it did what a show of its kind needed to: bring everybody together one last time. And I enjoyed the “flash sideways” at the time, but I was disappointed when they turned out not to be a parallel universe where Oceanic 815 never crashed, but rather a post-island purgatory. It might have been better to show us how these characters would have been if they’d never gone to the island, and contrast that with how they’ve changed. It’s more meaningful if the characters’ primary growth is because of the island rather than some place they went to afterwards. Exposition from Jack’s father (“the most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people on that island”) doesn’t have the same impact. They could still all have met in the alternate universe (as the Good Place folks did in season 3), and as the heroes on the island took up their roles in the big endgame of Jacob vs the Man in Black, we’d see that the non-island universe is missing that and ends up worse for it. Equally, this might have backfired, as viewers might have felt that the “flash sideways,” by not ultimately having “happened,” was less real or worthwhile. But as things stand, a lot of people (wrongly) thought the island ended up not being real! Ultimately this is all a product of Lost having lived from season to season, and its run being expanded because of its success. So it lacks the natural progression and cohesion that, say, Westworld or The Leftovers, and indeed The Good Place, have. The Good Place is constantly reinventing itself but it feels natural.
It's hard to pick which show I prefer. Lost had an intensity and ambition that’s rarely been matched. It had me emotionally invested in its characters and excited by its mind-bending sci-fi mysteries. The Good Place is hilarious, smart, utterly imaginative, and poignant. But, at least for me, its comic tone means it can't quite reach for the same lasting emotional impact as Lost.
As someone who was inspired to get into TV writing because of mythology-driven network “genre” shows with broad appeal—shows like Alias, Fringe and Battlestar Galactica——I can’t deny that these are very much the old guard, and TV has moved on dramatically from this, in many ways for the better. Nonetheless, there are two ways to still explore those kinds of concepts now.
The first is, high-concept premises have recently been making for great comedy. It’s not just The Good Place, but also The Last Man on Earth and People of Earth. I can’t help thinking Manifest would be more interesting as a comedy than a drama. Might the imaginary, outlandish conflict (being five years younger than everyone else) be more compelling if it made us laugh? And, because no serious fictitious explanation for the missing plane reappearing is going to be satisfying (especially when the real-life MH370 disappearance makes it a little tone deaf), a comic explanation like airline stupidity would be more relatable.
The second take-home is that you can still have high concept, mythology-driven drama, it just needs more specificity. The Leftovers and Westworld have that. They also go deeper into character than plot (although a lot still happens in episodes of those shows, unlike a lot of needlessly glacial current TV). Twists come organically out of choices that characters make, rather than plot machinations by shadowy forces. Concepts are easy, but execution is all about character.
* With a little The Leftovers thrown in for good measure.  https://variety.com/2016/tv/news/the-good-place-kristen-bell-ted-danson-michael-schur-1201828975/  https://deadline.com/2016/08/the-good-place-like-lost-michael-schur-ted-danson-kristen-bell-1201797470/  https://www.bustle.com/p/why-the-good-place-season-2-finale-hit-lost-fans-right-in-the-feels-8105100  https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a23494263/good-place-season-3-episode-1-recap-review/  https://twitter.com/sepinwall/status/1044378654275440640?lang=en