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ABC's 'Lost' is losing audience, but not influence

Virginia Rohan
The Record (Hackensack N.J.)

Who are the Others? Where are Michael and Walt? And what about crazy Rousseau?

And now, the really big riddle: Why has "Lost" lost a fifth of its audience since last season?

That question has been generating lots of buzz lately. Not only is average viewership for "Lost" down more than 20 percent since last season, but last week, CBS' "Criminal Minds" beat "Lost" in total viewers. While the ABC drama is still in first place among 18- to 49-year-olds -- it still reels in a little over 16 million viewers -- it has shed 5 million viewers from a year ago (nearly 3 million since the third-season premiere on Oct. 4).

But even as television critics, avid "Lost" fans and disillusioned dropouts debate that baffling offscreen mystery -- a very good subject for another day -- "Lost" arguably remains the most influential television drama in many a moon. And this is not so surprising, actually. Throughout TV history, many groundbreaking dramas, including "Hill Street Blues" and "Twin Peaks," have had a far bigger impact on the medium than their ratings would suggest.

Almost everywhere you zap nowadays, you'll find a show, new or old, that in one or more ways owes a debt to "Lost."

Let's look at its top four contributions to TV today:

FLASHBACKS

Yes, we know: "Lost" did not invent this device. Flashbacks have been used for decades, in shows as old and diverse as "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (1961-66), "Kung Fu" (1972-75) and "China Beach" (1988-91). Even the term is well-worn, associated with, among other things, LSD trips and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But since its September 2004 debut, "Lost" has taken flashbacks to new heights.

Had the drama simply followed the plane-crash survivors' efforts to stay alive on this strange island, "Lost" may have expired before Boone got a chance to die. But in every episode, flashbacks have served as an onion-peeling exercise for viewers, showing us bit by bit who these characters are and how they wound up on Oceanic's doomed Flight 815.

The new shows that rely on flashbacks include ABC's "The Nine," about the survivors of a 52-hour hostage standoff in a Los Angeles bank. Though it's set in the present, each episode begins with a flashback that shows a few more minutes of what happened inside that bank.

CW's recently shelved "Runaway" also used flashbacks, as a way to take viewers back to the old life of fugitive lawyer Paul Rader. And at the end of each episode of Fox's "Justice," viewers get to assess the jury's verdict when a key flashback depicts what actually happened at the crime scene.

Established shows have also been using flashbacks more often lately. Take, for example, ABC's hit "Grey's Anatomy," whose season opener this year flashed back to reveal how Drs. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) met. Another flashback took viewers back to the night when Derek, wounded by his wife's infidelity, stormed out of their New York home.

Sophomore series "Prison Break" and "My Name is Earl" likewise use flashbacks, and "The Sopranos" added the device to its bag of tricks last season. In one confusing sequence, the show jumped back to reveal how Christopher and Julianna Margulies' real estate agent character began their affair.

Even by-the-book "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" departed from its usual format recently, using flashbacks throughout one entire episode to tell the story of how Detective Logan (Chris Noth) came to blows with some New York firefighters.

BIG, BROAD CASTS

"Lost," which at last count had 14 regular characters, is known for its sprawling, ethnically diverse cast.

The new show that most dramatically follows that lead is NBC's "Heroes," a drama about ordinary people who discover they have superpowers. Its multiethnic cast members (11 regulars) play characters from different countries and backgrounds, including a genetics professor from India (Sendhil Ramamurthy) who discovers his late father was working on a theory about superheroes living among us and a young Japanese office worker -- breakout character Hiro Nakamura (Tokyo-born Masi Oka) -- who is able to stop time and teleport himself to other locales.

Just as "Lost" offers English subtitles when Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) speaks Korean, "Heroes" does the same when Hiro converses in Japanese with his friend Ando. "Heroes" is also similar to "Lost" in another key regard: It combines supernatural elements, science and mystery.

Some other series with large, diversified casts: ABC's "Ugly Betty," which is based on a Colombian telenovela and revolves around a character named Betty Suarez (America Ferrera, who's of Honduran descent), as well as "The Nine" and "Prison Break."

STRANGE CONNECTIONS

One of the most intriguing elements of "Lost" is that the characters have previous links and intertwined destinies.

For example, Sayid encountered Kate's father in Iraq, as well as Kelvin Inman, who, after leaving the Army, apparently joined the Dharma Initiative. Kelvin was in the hatch with Desmond, who first met Jack while both were jogging at a stadium the day Jack operated on future-(ex)-wife Sarah (Julie Bowen).

In ABC's new "Six Degrees," which is produced by "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams, the six main characters start crossing paths with one another in Manhattan, the way those Los Angelenos did in the movie "Crash." And in "The Nine," the surviving hostages form a bond as they discover their ordeal is forever altering their lives.

Of the other network newcomers, "Heroes," once again, most clearly pays homage. As the show opens, the seven people who come to realize their special powers -- they include a young New York City dreamer (Milo Ventimiglia) who discovers he can fly, a Texas cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) who learns she is indestructible and a gifted, drug-addicted artist (Santiago Cabrera) who can paint the future -- are strangers to one another. But they're slowly coming together and discovering that their mission is to save the world.

THE OFFSHOOTS

Online extras, multimedia merchandising, non-television spinoffs -- when it comes to such "offshoots," no other show has branched out in as many directions as has "Lost."

We're not just talking about good-old promotional items like T-shirts, trading cards, (Apollo) candy bars and talking action figures but also cellphone episodes, podcasts, blogs, novels (like "Bad Twin," supposedly written by one of the passengers who died in the crash) and jigsaw puzzles that provide clues to the island's mystery. There was also "The Lost Experience," an interactive online game that led fans through Web sites, commercials, e-mails, phone numbers and the like. It was first announced during a fake PSA for the (faux) Hanso Foundation, which has its own Web site -- and a life of its own.

Though not in the same league, "The Office" has had webisodes (as does "Battlestar Galactica" and a number of other shows), and Dunder-Mifflin fans can buy a Dwight K. Schrute bobble head doll, or check out his blog at nbc.com and other characters' blogs at MySpace.com. (That's what the actors are typing when you see their "Office" characters at their computers in the background.)

There are too many TV-character blogs to list here, but one notable one is "Heroes'" Hiro's blog. (In his latest post, the lovable Japanese geek apologizes for breaking "the cardinal rule of being a superhero" in last week's episode by using his powers to cheat in Las Vegas casinos.) Also on nbc.com is a "Heroes" online comic that has guest artists taking "Heroes" fans "deeper into the action."

Yes, it's a brave new TV world, and "Lost" has been among the first to fully explore it, creatively as well as technologically. And so, no matter how long the castaway series survives, its legacy will be lasting.

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