Before J.J. Abrams revitalized revered science fiction franchises like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” he re-energized primetime television by co-creating and directing the two-part premiere of “Lost.” By September 22, 2004, the early critics were claiming it was the year’s best hour of television. By September 23, 2004, the world agreed.
Its premise was quite simple: a plane crashes on a desert island leaving dozens of survivors to fend for themselves. But soon, it revealed itself to be a monstrous mystery that grew more complicated by the week involving flashbacks, flash-forwards, (a terribly frustrating concept called) flash-sideways, multiple timelines, jaw-dropping revelations, red herrings, dropped plot points, and finally, the ultimate battle between good and evil.
Eventually, showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had written themselves into such a complicated corner, they defiantly declared, “Never mind all the mysteries; it’s all about the characters, damn it!”
So in honour of the 15th anniversary of its landmark premiere, we’re going to rank its six trailblazing seasons. Because, no matter what you thought of that final season, the show’s rich complexity and thrilling, long-form storytelling paved the way for the Golden Age of Television we all enjoy today. (And bonus points if you knew that 15 was one of Hurley’s cursed lottery numbers.)
#6 - Season 6
Yes, we start at the bottom with the sixth and final season. We could suggest that maybe the viewing experience bar on “Lost” had been set too high; that maybe there was too much pressure to satisfy all the critics and the fans; that maybe there were just too many storyline loose ends to tie up. But that would be a cheat. All of it — the mythologies, the plots, the character arcs, the riddles—must be laid at the feet of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, or “Darlton,” if you will. They must be praised if you were satisfied with the final season. And they must be blamed if you were not.
Our biggest grievance was the creation of the confusing flash-sideways world. After denying that the tropical island was some form of purgatory, Lindelof and Cuse designed a time-consuming storyline where the survivors never crashed on the island at all. Was this an alternate reality? Was this a parallel world? No, it was a dreamscape (supernaturally) established after they were long dead where their souls could be triggered to remember their quality time on the island and move onto the afterlife. So…. some form of purgatory, then? (If we ever watch the final season again, we’re skipping over all the flash-sideways parts…)
However, the main story was compelling as it set up the final battle between Jacob and the Man in Black—or rather, their human proxies, Jack and the fake Locke. Plus it gave us a couple of mesmerizing origin stories: one good (Jacob grants Richard Alpert eternal life on earth) and one bad (the metaphor of the island as a cork to keep evil from spreading around the world becomes manifest as a literal cork in a shiny pool of magical water that becomes unplugged and threatens to implode the island…).
No, the season didn’t answer all the show’s mysteries, but it answered many. But the most maddening moment of the entire series occurs in the 118th episode, “Across the Sea” (the one where Alison Janney teaches Jacob and the Man (Boy?) in Black about the rules of the island), when Alison’s character, The Mother, utters these fateful words, “Every question I answer will simply lead to another question.” Really, Darlton? Is that your excuse?....
#5 -Season 2
After we all fell in love with “Lost” in Season 1, expectation was high for Season 2. However, the results were mixed. Some new characters deepened the island’s mystery, like Desmond, who had lived in the hatch for 3 years believing he was “saving the world” by punching numbers into a computer. And then there was the lone survivor, Henry Gale, who later revealed himself to be Ben Linus, the duplicitous leader of the Others.
However, for much of the season, the main characters largely fought amongst themselves. First of all, they mistrusted and battled the “tailies” (the other Oceanic Airlines survivors from the tail section of the plane). There was also a lot of discussion about what to do with captured “Henry Gale.” And let’s not forget the long, disastrous efforts of Michael looking for his somewhat-powerful-although-never-fully-explained-but-somehow-special son, Walt.
Despite the continued menace of the Others, the present day was pretty ponderous. Only the perplexing past, with its slow reveal of the scientific research community, the Dharma Initiative, was igniting our interests.
#4 - Season 3
Season 3 picked up where Season 2 left off… and that wasn’t a good thing. Although a lot more time was spent with the Others, little was revealed about their purpose or their past (except for the recruited fertility doctor, Juliet). Meanwhile, Jack was a hostage and compelled to operate on Ben. And Kate and Sawyer were trapped in cages for several episodes. The show even introduced two “new” survivors named Nikki and Paolo, who were so despised by the fans, they were quickly paralyzed by venomous spiders… and buried alive.
Then came the turning point: Lindelof and Cuse pleaded with ABC to come up with a series deadline. While the network was making money, the showrunners didn’t want the overall storyline to flail forever. The show needed an end date.
Once that was decided, “Lost” picked up steam again and raised compelling new threads such as how pregnant women mysteriously died on the island, how Ben, long ago, eliminated the Dharma Initiative, and how the world thought everyone on board Oceanic 815 had died. That meant, no one was looking for them… except for Desmond’s lost love, Penny Widmore.
This last fact led to the show’s greatest pair of season-ending cliffhangers. First, after successfully shutting down a jamming signal that made contact with the island impossible, Charlie learns that a boat heading towards the island did not belong to Penny. (So who were these people? And did they have good… or bad intentions?)
The other— even greater—revelation was that Jack’s final flashback of the season about his miserable life at home was really a flash-forward, meaning Jack and Kate (and maybe others) successfully left the island! And they had to go back!
#3 - Season 4
Season 4 was a full-fledged war built from the battlegrounds established in Season 3. Our survivors were now unhappily divided into two (thematic) camps led by Jack, the man of science, vs. Locke, the man of faith.
And yes, the Others were still a menace (often fronted by the never-aging Richard Alpert, Ben’s second-in-command) — but the real enemy came courtesy of the freighter, funded by Charles Widmore, Penny’s father, and Ben’s rival for control of the island.
Sure, the freighter folk had scientists like Daniel, the physicist, who studied the island’s mysterious and magical properties; but it also had mercenaries led by the hardnosed Martin Keamy. And just like Ben’s annihilation of the Dharma Initiative years earlier, the mercenaries were eventually eliminated by Ben, the survivors, and the (rather helpful) Smoke Monster.
But the true joy of Season 4 was witnessing the future lives of the Oceanic Six, the six survivors who escaped the island—but soon buckled under the tremendous burden of living the lie that they were the only survivors. Because Season 4 certainly forged the underlying message of the entire series: that the Island and its inhabitants had to be protected at all costs (which really came to play in the remaining seasons).
#2 - Season 1
By many respects, Season 1 should be ranked #1. After all, this was the spectacular start of many strange things to come. The premiere episode revealing the aftermath of the Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 plane crash was the most expensive pilot episode of its time. And it showed. This was big screen entertainment exploding onto the small screen.
Season 1 introduced us to the key survivors, with spinal surgeon, Jack Shepard, soon emerging as their leader. Flashbacks further developed the characters, gleefully revealing their past lives: Jack had daddy issues. Kate was a fugitive. Sawyer was a con man. Charlie was a heroin-addicted rock star. And Locke was inexplicably living in a wheelchair just prior to the crash.
If that wasn’t enough, there was evidence of other island inhabitants: the manic Rousseau who stole Claire’s baby, the hostile Others who emerged from the jungle to kidnap Walt from the rescue raft, and the sentient Smoke Monster who occasionally attacked and killed survivors (albeit discriminately). And then there was the hatch; the season one smoking gun that proved that Jack and his friends were not the first to explore and cultivate the powers of the island.
But yes, it was just the start. What made “Lost” so confounding and engrossing was fully realized later in the #1 ranked season…
#1 - Season 5
Yes, Season 1 had the premise and the promise; but Season 5 had the payoff. Season 5 was when “Lost” became more epic and more mythic than anything else anyone had ever seen on television.
Season 4 definitely gave us some stunning moments: Desmond could somehow time travel while Ben could physically and miraculously move the island. But by the 5th season, any lingering devotion to actual science was now off the table.
The main storylines were simply mind-blowing. In the future, Ben and Locke had to convince the Oceanic 6 that they all had to rejoin their friends and foes on the island (which apparently can move through time and space). Meanwhile, the remaining survivors repeatedly time jumped to different periods of the island’s history, offering many manic moments when present characters collided with past characters.
Then… some of the survivors remained stuck in the 1970s at a time when the Others were kept at bay and the Dharma Initiative flourished. And then Ben killed Locke off the island! And then Locke was suddenly resurrected when he returned in a coffin! And Sayid shot and almost killed a young Ben! And “The Incident” that ruptured the island’s magical properties — and had been referenced since Season One — was actually started by our time-jumping survivors! And wait a minute, Jacob, the godlike protector of the island, was real? And then Ben and the new Locke killed him??? And…? And…?
Yes, some riddles were answered in the fifth season while many more materialized. But that’s what watching Season 5 was all about — we had characters in the past, present, and future, all working together propelling the fans forward to one big fantastic conclusion. It was all going to be tied up in the sixth and final season. Right? Riiiiiiight?!