Being a script doctor is not exactly thankless work — the in-demand ones are thanked to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars — but you’re typically the second or third or fourth person brought in on a screenplay, a process that Lindelof, a born collaborator, likens to “raising someone else’s child with no overlap.” So when Ellenberg called with the prospect of another TV show, he jumped at it, even though — or perhaps because — he was still not quite over what happened after the final episode of “Lost.”
“Lost” was both a critical and a popular hit when it debuted in 2004. The show began with an irresistible premise — a planeload of people are stranded on a mysterious island — then piled on the clues, red herrings, misdirection, blind alleys and smoke monsters. Six seasons later, when the much-anticipated, much-podcasted, much-blogged-about final episode finally arrived, Lindelof and his fellow show runner, Carlton Cuse, felt they had brought the series to a satisfying close. The show’s main character, Jack, dies while saving the world, and there was a well of light, and also the afterlife. The show’s most vocal fan contingent was not pleased. After the finale, they took to Twitter, where Lindelof was an active and lively presence, to tell him how he ruined their favorite show and wasted six years of their lives. Critics similarly decimated Lindelof and Cuse; one declared that “Lost” “ended in the worst way possible.” George R. R. Martin, author of the “Game of Thrones” novels and a co-executive producer on their HBO adaptation, summed up the magnitude of the disappointment when he told The New Yorker his biggest fear in ending his own series: “What if I do a ‘Lost’?”
Lindelof was devastated. He’s a zealous consumer of culture writing, and those critics who blasted “Lost” were ones he otherwise respected and agreed with. He tried not to care, to remember that he loved the ending and maybe that’s all that should matter. “But it’s like no, that’s not all that should matter,” he says. “I didn’t make the [finale] up in my head and sit in my room and basically weep and applaud myself for having designed this great TV show in my brain. I put it out on the airwaves for millions and millions of people to watch, with the intention of having all of them love it, and understand it, and get it.”
That didn’t happen. Sure, a lot of people liked the ending. But four years later, the negative reaction to the ending still haunts Lindelof. Until last year, his Twitter bio read: “I’m one of the idiots behind ‘Lost.’ And no, I don’t understand it, either.” There, he welcomed his detractors, retweeting their most virulent insults.
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“The tweets were unbearable,” his wife, Heidi Fugeman Lindelof, told me. “ ‘You ruined the last six years of my life?’ He was flogging himself constantly.” Then came the finale of “Breaking Bad,” which he watched at his house with Peter Berg, an executive producer on “The Leftovers.” Following the episode, Lindelof signed onto Twitter to say how much he loved the show and to read other fans’ reactions. His whole feed, however, was full of fans spurred by the finale of “Breaking Bad” to start in all over again on “Lost.”