Brian Lowry

Don't blame James Poniewozik. The Time magazine critic (whose surname looks like someone sneezed while typing) wrote a perfectly respectable "Lost" sendoff -- and then his editors mucked the piece up by overreaching to assert the ABC show "changed the way we watch television."

Balderdash. "Lost" has been a wonderful program and deserves the accolades thrown its way. But the need to register such sweeping claims in conjunction with its farewell -- many brimming with attributed social significance -- says more about us media folk, frankly, than it does about TV.

As fate would have it, "Lost" is one of three long-running, Emmy-winning hits that will say goodbye over the next few days, the others being "24" and (barring a last-minute reprieve) "Law and Order." And while each can rightfully be lionized in various ways -- "24" for its relationship, first unwitting and then periodically intended, to the events of Sept. 11 -- it detracts from them not at all to say that their accomplishments are almost without exception at least as notable for their impact on the commerce of television as its art.

The producers of "Lost" deserve enormous credit (and, to a lesser extent, so does ABC, which signed on reluctantly) for recognizing their high-wire act couldn't be sustained indefinitely, lobbying to designate an end date three years in advance. As it is, many viewers lost patience, as the show's audience dwindled from cultural sensation to respectably large cult following -- a more comfortable zone for such a demanding construct, anyway.

Had producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse not done so, it's likely the herd would have thinned even faster, creating an uncomfortable scenario (see "Heroes") where there would have been no way to gracefully craft such an exit. In other words, there was considerable pragmatism in announcing the show's conclusion early to slow that exodus.

In doing so, "Lost" isn't the first series to tell a complete story over a multiyear arc ("The Wire" and "The Sopranos," however infuriating, come to mind), any more than it was a pioneer in primetime fare that spawned rabid Internet fans who speculate wildly about its mythology -- a TV term coined during the heyday of "The X-Files."

Nevertheless, the ABC series' uncompromising nature can't be ignored -- and, even with audience fragmentation, won't be replicated often in the broadcast space going forward.

Like "Lost," Fox's "24" broke ground with its commitment to intricate serialization as well as a scheduling pattern (which ABC also adopted) that recognized the absurdity of interrupting such storytelling with reruns. By that measure, both owe a considerable debt to the maturation of the DVD market for TV series. To this day, in fact, there are those who prefer gulping down whole seasons of "24" (without commercials, about 17 hours) in immersive weekend-long marathons.

Finally, there's "Law and Order," whose achievements are many but from a historical perspective primarily boil down to fertility and longevity. The former can be witnessed in the staggering roster of spinoffs the franchise launched -- five in all, including the short-lived "Trial by Jury" and reality-TV incarnation "Arrest and Trial" -- paving the way for CBS' "CSI"/"NCIS" alphabet soup.

As with "The Simpsons," which happily stumbled into immortality -- hey, animated sitcom kids never age! -- the makers of "Law" found that a steadfast focus on the cases made it possible for the series to weather cast turnover. That template also eliminated contract holdouts by actors (see Sheen, Charlie) that frequently make a veteran show prohibitively expensive -- especially once the ratings start to sag.

The show's ripped-from-the-headlines approach also yielded one unforeseen consequence: speeding the demise of made-for-TV movies that had already come to rely excessively on true crime, the nadir coming when networks offered three competing movies about "Long Island Lolita" Amy Fisher. Producer Dick Wolf's minions could get there quicker, without being constrained by cumbersome fidelity to a fact-based account.

"Law and Order" could also be callous about character departures, occasionally treating them like mere afterthoughts. Yet one reporter actually asked NBC during a Sunday conference call about a wrap-up to provide fans "closure." How would one do that, exactly, short of blowing up the precinct?

These shows will understandably be missed, some more fervently than others. But unless you're hungry for a headline, as they say, the beat goes on.






Television - Media Overreaches As 'Lost' and Other TV Series Finish Up