One of the biggest arguments about Lost in the years leading up to the finale was whether or not everything was planned out. I think showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof were pretty clear that it wasn’t; the fact that Mr. Eko left the show and that Ben ended up being a major player and that they were willing to discuss both those things is proof of that. 

Now Cuse has given an exit interview to SciFiWire, and it’s riling some folks up all over again. Which raises the question of ‘Should showrunners plan everything out in advance?’

The obvious answer is of course not. TV is a longform narrative medium, and it requires a certain amount of freedom. Actors come and go (sometimes even tragically), and storylines unexpectedly hit with the audience or shockingly sink. It’s important that a TV show be loose enough to roll with the punches as well as to explore the sudden moments of genius – these two actors have amazing chemistry, so we need to get them together, for instance. To say that a TV show have a complete storyline utterly mapped out to the last detail is silly; even novelists rarely walk into their work with every moment mapped out. Art is about discovery.

Here’s how Cuse explains it to SciFiWire: “There was a big, mythic architecture which included a lot of what’s in the finale, in terms of where we end the show, that we knew way back in the beginning. And then, before each season, we’d have a writers’ mini-camp and spend a month without any pressure of writing other scripts, figuring out the architecture of the upcoming season. That’d sort of take the artists’ rendering and turn it into blueprints, and then, during the season, episode by episode, we built the structure. We allowed ourselves a lot of flexibility to change things around as we were doing construction. It was impossible to have everything planned out, and so it was kind of built in stages.”

That makes a lot of sense. It’s a strong way to create a show like Lost. But why does it feel like this isn’t what happened?

The cautionary tale of Lost is, in the end, the same as The X-Files, but to the nth degree. Lost - and Cuse and Lindelof in particular – actively promoted fan speculation and investigation, getting people to pay lots of attention to the details and the way things fit together. But like The X-Files, there was no big, mythic architecture. They literally made it up as they went along. They didn’t know what the Smoke Monster was when they introduced it. It seems like they knew there was a hatch in the jungle from day one, but now what was in that hatch. That’s a problem. A huge problem.

Storytelling is about building a structure. The structure, in the end, has to be able to hold itself up. It should also, ideally, have a grace to it. There should be symmetry and there should be beauty in that structure. TV storytelling is different from movie storytelling; your movie structure should be tight and compact. Like a novel (or a good video game like Red Dead Redemption), a TV show structure will be more sprawling. Some wings will more or less lead to dead ends, but they should feel worthy of exploration even though they’re branching out from the main part of the structure. A good longform TV narrative will be slightly sloppier, but that’s part of the beauty. It’s why novels are almost always better than their film adaptations; like life itself, story feels better when it has some room to breathe and take tangents.

But any structure has to include some planning. And the reality is that the Lost writers did almost none, and the planning they did seems to have not taken into consideration what they already built. It’s almost mind-boggling that they would introduce major elements and not know what they meant. There was no need to have Smokey’s final days planned out from episode one, but knowing what the Smoke Monster was – in a most basic way – from its first appearance would have made its actions over the six season run of the show seem less arbitrary. I mean, if Smokey is planning on manipulating the Losties to get off or destroy the island, why would it wantonly kill everybody it met? When Smokey finally showed up in human form, people reacted to him predictably – they hated him and wanted to get away from or destroy him. 

That was the essential problem with The X-Files, that the mythology wasn’t being thought out as it was introduced. The writers weren’t looking beyond that week’s episode, and sometimes weren’t even looking into the past to see how the new revelation impacted previous knowledge, or if the new revelation was even compatible with what went before. There’s a vocal subset of comic writers who hate the continuity of shared superhero universes, but readers know that half the fun is the continuity, and the same goes for longform TV. If you tell us this a show that has a storyline, we are going to pay attention to that storyline. 

I don’t think Damon Lindelof needed to know in season one that the Losties would end up in the 70s. It’s like demanding a jazzman knows every note he’s going to play all night long. Part of the joy is the improv, the chasing after a thought that catches the artist’s fancy. You don’t judge these things by how well they’re planned, but by how well they’re executed. That jazzman needs to bring everything together in a cohesive whole, to figure out how to get that riff back to the main structure of the piece and rejoin the other musicians. And within that riff he needs to understand how the notes work together so that he’s not just playing random, cacophonous noise. It’s partially a high wire act, but that’s the fun, and that’s why you go see live jazz. And it’s why you watch a longform TV show – not because you’re interested in a story so vast it needs 120 hours to tell, but because you like that feeling of fun and surprise  that comes when an artist has the room to improvise. 

And it’s about trust. You trust that jazzman is going to understand each note he plays and how it relates to the next, even if you don’t think he has the whole bit in his head in advance. And you trust that the writers understand the elements they’re introducing, that they’re not just sitting in the writer’s room playing an elaborate game of Exquisite Corpse: “The main character walks into a room on the space station and sees his dad, who has been dead for 30 years! The end, it’s your turn to figure out what happens next.” That’s a fun game to play, but not as much fun to watch. 

It’s not important that a TV show know where it’s going from the start. I don’t care whether or not the writers knew that Angel would one day run a Wolfram & Hart office when they introduced that evil lawfirm on Angel, I just care that when they made that happen they had some idea of what they wanted to do with it and why the hero’s antagonist suddenly wanted him on their side. Just as people get down on George Lucas for not having 14 Star Wars movies planned out in advance, they’ll continue being down on Lindelof and Cuse for not having all of Lost mapped out in advance. But those people are wrong on both counts – it’s not that Lucas and Lindelof and Cuse didn’t have it planned out, it’s that they couldn’t execute what they set out to do. If the Prequels had been made up on set but had turned out to be the most satisfying story ever told, nobody would give a shit that Lucas didn’t have a magic ledger with all the details set down in 1975. And if the ending of Lost had worked, nobody would care that Lindelof had no plans for Walt back in 2004.