Much like their featured protagonists, TV shows can either die a hero, or live long enough to become the villain.
The mid-2000s were undeniably one of the most noteworthy periods of all time for television. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes, and The Office all got their starts between 2004 and 2006. Premiering alongside them was Lost, the iconic ABC series created by Jeffery Lieber, J.J. Abrams, and Damon Lindleof. The series was incredibly influential not only on television itself but on pop culture as a whole, with Lost’s mainstream cult following preceding the massive popular fandom boom that happened in the mid-2010s.
Simply put, Lost captivated millions of people during its six season run, and while the end of the series was (and still is) incredibly polarizing, it still seared itself into the brains of fanatics and casual watchers alike. Its mark on the landscape of science fiction television is a big one, and while that means the show will likely never fade into obscurity, it also means that the less-great parts of its influence are going to run free for longer than we ever wanted them to.
In the years following the end of the series, the “Lost Clone” was born. These types of shows were maybe not direct copies of Lost, but the influence was there all the same, often for the worse. Whether it’s a group stranded in some sort of remote wilderness, a plane that goes missing for an indiscriminate amount of time, or something that’s even more derivative but still clearly influenced by the mystery box that Lost had cultivated throughout its run, each sought to capitalize on that popular plot structure.
It’s not like the Lost Clone has completely overtaken sci-fi TV in the years since Lost’s cancellation, but it has been a major irritation. You can always pick them out on a crowded dial, and oftentimes it isn’t even worth it to get invested because they are typically canceled before whatever long plot thread they’re chasing after is solved.
Though it may not look like one at first glance, the first show I remember seeing that could fall into this category was Fox’s 2011 drama Terra Nova. The series follows a family as they travel back in time to the Cretacous with a sect of humanity that is charged with trying to prevent the damage that human driven climate change and overpopulation has done. Terra Nova was primarily canceled due to its budget and production challenges, but when stripped down to its baser elements of the tropical setting, time displacement, and overarching mystery of who the Sixers are and what they want, it’s similar enough to Lost that it can be counted as the first of the show’s post mortem lookalikes.
Terra Nova was followed by two NBC series, Revolution in 2012, and Believe in 2014, both of which were executive produced by J.J. Abrams. While both shows are less similar to Lost than some that would come out in the following years, the style of mystery they present is very similar to Lost’s. These shows are set in a version of the “real world,” and the mystery they aim to solve is something that would be considered supernatural to us in the reality we live in day to day. That element itself is a hallmark of the Lost Clone. Terra Nova pushes that boundary just a little, but at the end of the day it is grounded in the worry many people have for the future we’re creating, and that ties all these shows together.
The late-2010s and early-2020s have brought a new wave of Lost Clones that take a way more obvious page out of Lost’s book. NBC’s Manifest premiered in 2018, following the Stone family when half of them reappear after five years of being presumed dead in a plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean. Of the Lost Clones, this is by far the most obviously similar, and it is also the most commercially successful. Despite the series being canceled by NBC after its third season and initially being rejected by Netflix in the mission to find the show a new home, saved the series for a fourth and final season after its long lasting stint on the platform’s Top 10.
Manifest is in some ways worse than Lost, but where it manages to succeed is by three seasons in, it actually seems like we’re going to get answers for the questions the show is asking. Sure, the answers may be ridiculous, but they’re answers all the same, and that’s more than can be said for a lot of the loose threads Lost left us with over a decade ago. Still, it will probably never reach the same level of glory that Lost did because it fails to read as a truly serious drama. Manifest may know what it is more than Lost ever did when it comes to what happened to the passengers of Flight 828, but the tone is campier.
While my attitude towards most Lost Clones is that their sloppy take on a now well-worn concept is generally irritating, and they take space away from science fiction and supernatural stories that might actually do something interesting, there are a couple of series that can tentatively be placed in this category that don’t make me want to pull my hair out. The Wilds—released by Prime Video in 2020—follows a group of girls heading to a women’s empowerment retreat, who are stranded on an island after their plane crashes on the way. While the inciting incident of the show is the same as Lost’s, the series is so different after the girls crash that it doesn’t remind you of it every week like Manifest does. In a similar vein, Showtime’s Yellowjackets also follows a group of teenagers (mostly girls) who are trapped in the wilderness after a plane crash, and again, this show is able to make a name for itself outside of the shadow of Lost because it only really shares a similar inciting incident. Even with the lurking potential of a supernatural element in the series and the clear factions that are going to appear as the series goes on, the influence of Lost isn’t some blaring neon sign in these two shows like it is with Manifest, or its lesser known cousin on Peacock, Departure.
Ultimately, Lost and its copy-cat spawn have put a weight on sci-fi and supernatural TV that will probably never be lifted. The mystery box elements of Lost made a series that was enthralling at the time, but we should let it go, at least for a while. Lost did change the game, but in retrospect, it was never the great epic it seemed to be when it was airing—and that kind of hindsight would serve a lot of Lost Clones very well in their development stages. Lost was a kind of learning experience; it provided very good examples of successes and failures in a drama, but we should seek TV beyond pale imitations. The show created this legacy because it was different from what we had seen before, and despite assured network pressure to recreate its popular effects, the next big hit is unlikely to come from a wannabe clone.
Kathryn Porter is the TV Intern for Paste Magazine. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter
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