Finding the Next Lost: What Is an “Operational Theme” and Why Don’t I Have One?

by on May 6, 2014 in Nonfiction | 13 comments

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One of the many perks afforded a journeyman writer/producer in television is receiving scripts for network television pilots as they are being made. It’s like the best possible version of the TV Guide Fall Preview Issue I used to compulsively reread under the covers with a flashlight as a kid. Except that now I have the added thrill: if my agents do their job, if I am good in the interview, if a million other moving parts click in the correct order, I help the people who created these shows realize their vision.

This inside window into the totality of network development puts us journeyman television writers and producers in an interesting position to spot and track trends as they develop, fade, or mature. One trend that persists — almost a decade after its inception — is every broadcaster’s ongoing quest to put on the air the next great serialized high–concept sci–fi show: to find the next Lost.

Of course, it seldom works.

My own modest contribution to the evolution of Lost — and having worked on a number of shows with similar goals in the years since — provides something of a vantage point from which to judge the success — and failure — of these attempts. More often than not, it boils down to the presence or absence of a crucial element I call “the operational theme.”

In high school and college, most of us could pick a lofty word or idea and designate it the “theme” of a play or novel: “power,” “alienation,” “banality of evil,” or (my personal favorite) “the shallowness of modern life.” We could then write a coffee–and–Red–Bull–fueled paper, using choice quotes from the partially–skimmed bit of required reading, and have a pretty good shot at not winding up ashamed to show the report card to our parents in the morning. Sadly, for the professional television writers — even the really astute ones — this is neither enough to create something that will connect with an audience — nor will it survive the production goal of many seasons and possible syndication.

Television is a populist medium with little patience for intellectual phumphering. Hour–long drama is — first and foremost — about creating characters driven by internal forces that, melded to the right situation, can fuel every action, every line, every scene, and every plot for hundreds of successful episodes. This is the operational theme: a situational vector that cleanly delineates the potential variations of action in service of the protagonist’s consistent emotional need. This is crucial to the success of a television pilot. It is crucial to the successful episodes to come. It is, indeed, what television pilots should see as the first order of business to establish. And yet, it is most often the part that’s missing — especially from the sci–fi shows.

In a procedural series, the operational theme of the protagonist is usually pretty cut–and–dry. He or she is — sometimes quite literally — dedicated to bringing about law and order. The reason cops, doctors, and lawyers rule — and will probably always rule — the airwaves in some form or another is that their operational theme is baked into their personality. It is a function of their job — the eradication of suffering and injustice at any cost — and is usually fused with personal obsession brought about by past trauma.

If television is to be believed, the most dangerous thing to be in the world is the spouse of a detective. Most of them wind up dead at the hands of some psychopath who remains uncatchable for the span of episodes it takes to score a lucrative syndication deal for the series. Television thrives on workaholic protagonists who sacrifice — or have sacrificed for them — their personal relationships in favor of protecting people like us — the viewer!

As television has evolved to include more serialized, heavily “mythologized” drama — even in the stock genres of crime, medicine, and the law — the operational theme of the protagonist must remain front and center for the series to succeed. In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s operational theme — “to save everything I love I must become something everyone hates” — creates an endless supply of drama. Every situation Walter enters requires him to tell, develop, and sustain a lie.

This brilliant operational theme requires every single scene in the show to be front–loaded with deception and subterfuge. It’s a recipe for perfect ongoing drama that allowed the show to slowly string out and develop its more academic theme: the seduction of a good man by the infinite charms of wealth, power, and his descent into darkness. But make no mistake, academic is the right word for those themes. It was the initial simplicity of Walter White’s operational theme that consistently opened dramatic avenues episode after episode.

It doesn’t end with Walter White. The current “golden era” of television is littered with very easily identifiable operational themes that burden their protagonists. Tony Soprano wants to remain a sadistic mobster even though his unconscious musters every weapon at its disposal to get him to turn away from his horrific life. Don Draper continually tries to keep up the idealized appearance of the successful mid–century man in the grey flannel suit as his inner demons plague him with the truth that his entire life is a lie. Doctor House wants to be left in peace to be a belligerent drug addict but is forced to put his basic instincts aside and perform the job of genius diagnostician.

Outside of TV, my favorite example of the perfect fusion of situation and character into operational theme is the film Die Hard. The entire narrative is an extended metaphor for marital therapy: a husband trying to earn back his estranged wife. The terrorists are the physical manifestation of the emotional barriers that keep John McClane from familial bliss. As with any person in couples counseling, McClane systematically loses his metaphorical armor as he fights to the point of exhaustion. He ends up shoeless and bloody, blubbering to his “therapist” about his love for his wife — bleeding both thematically and practically.

The bathroom confession in Die Hard could have just easily been an episode of HBO’s In Treatment: a man denuded through adversity of all the trappings of macho pride, forced to confront his raw emotional wounds.

It seems obvious, and, frankly, inevitable — in the way that a Mark Rothko painting, or an Arne Jacobsen chair, appear inevitable — that simple operational themes are the key to serialized success. And yet, by and large, most attempts at serialized, mythologized sci–fi fail to pull off this trick. Think of all the genre series that have attempted to capitalize on the serialized mystery/heavy–mythology vogue triggered by LostFlash Forward, Kingdom HospitalSurfaceThe EventInvasionVThresholdAwakeJourneymanDollhousePersons UnknownTerra Nova, the American remake of Life on Mars — the list goes on and on.

Most of the sci–fi shows we now regard as classics — and the majority that are currently successful and truly long–running, like Supernatural — are not Lost clones. Rather, they are straightforward procedural franchises with simple operational themes.

The brothers Winchester, Nick Burkhardt in Grimm, Mulder and Scully in The X–Files — even Buffy, the Vampire Slayer — are all basically cops: rolling into a new case week after week, interrogating suspects, finding lore that matches the methodology of the villains, confronting evildoers, serving justice, and moving on to the next week’s transgressor. In the best of these series, an overarching theme buttresses the set–up: Mulder and Scully’s dynamic was defined by opposing viewpoints which fueled every scene. In addition to being thrust into stories by their occupation every week, they always had a basic ideological conflict that spoke to their character.

Even the beloved crew of the Starship Enterprise are hyper–competent trouble–shooters placed into stories weekly by dint of external mission as opposed to internal need. In the best Star Trek series, this necessity was supported by an interesting character dynamic: Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are a three–man representation of the ego, superego, and id. The drama of the series lied in watching these three archetypes integrate into a coherent solution to the planet–of–the–week’s problem: McCoy would shout, “dammit, man, we gotta do something!” Spock would reply that “to do something would be illogical.” Kirk would eventually say “I have a plan.”

Compare that infinitely fruitful character interaction with the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation — a long and tedious stew of underdeveloped, under–thought characters kept afloat by the exigencies of a procedural franchise. On Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first two years there was always a potentially interesting issue with the planet–of–the–week. But it took almost two years for the characters to become anywhere as interesting as the show’s premise. (It’s a miracle of the extant love of Star Trek in the core audience, or the innate intrigue of the show’s premise, or the economics of first–run syndication in the late eighties — or maybe some combination of the three — that the show survived long enough for its characters to find their way into being fully–realized people who could carry a story like “The Inner Light,” “Chains of Command,” or “Tapestry.”)

Had the writers merely dropped the original characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation on a desert island — a place with no innate sense of mission — the series would have surely collapsed.

Lost succeeded in telling a longitudinal story because it managed to create a central operational theme for every single one of the characters in its voluminous ensemble. In the earliest days of the creation of the series, the creative team behind Lost — co–creators Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams, with the assistance of Paul Dini, Christian Taylor, Jennifer Johnson, and myself — came upon the idea of using flashbacks to develop the operational themes for each character. The flashbacks to the crash of Oceanic 815 first presented in the pilot transformed into full–blown plots extending through the course of the series. The island stories were presented in direct contrast to who the characters were in their former everyday lives. Every action in the island — present became an attempt to compensate for shortcomings in the past’s real world.

The operating theme of Lost is simple and applies to every character: who do you say you are when you can reinvent yourself with impunity? Every member of the Lost ensemble was living a lie on the island. These lies dictated their behavior and led them to try — either successfully or unsuccessfully — to remake themselves into their most desired version of themselves.

Jack strove to lead in spite of a life of personal failure and the scorn of an unloving father. Kate yearned to prove herself a good person in spite of being a wanted criminal. Michael tried to be an able parent after being absent from his son’s entire life. Charlie struggled to be a caretaker to Claire and her unborn child while concealing his drug addiction. John Locke — mysteriously healed of his paralysis by the island — was hell–bent on proving himself a man of action and principle after a lifetime of meek submission. Sun pretended to be a dutiful Korean wife, concealing even her fluency in the English from the brutal husband — whose brutality itself was a smokescreen to conceal a deep yearning for his own broken dreams — whom she was preparing to escape. The list goes on. What’s important is that every character had the same operational theme. The synthesis of personal desire for reinvention in contrast to the reality of each character’s previous life propelled one story after another for the course of Lost’s first two seasons: forty–eight hours of television that cemented the show’s place in the popular culture.

The operational theme of Lost — obvious as it seems in retrospect — did not become clear to the creative team until after the pilot had been shot and we were tasked with figuring out how exactly the series would work in episode after episode. We were very close to falling prey to the fallacy that makes for the downfall of most of the proposed serialized sci–fi pilots that come down the pike: we were almost — almost — seduced by a shiny concept — the mysteries of the island, from the smoke monster to the presence of ghosts from the past in the present. We almost focused on the mystery instead of the operational theme of the characters.

To this day, I thank god we had the epiphany early.

By dealing with the unknown, beguiling, and generally spectacular (aliens! robots! vampires! alien robot vampires!), sci–fi as a genre has the sneaky ability to fool otherwise extremely capable writers into believing that a nifty concept with a lot of unanswered questions is enough to carry a television series. It isn’t.

To have something spectacular take place — the arrival of aliens, a space/time conflagration that causes everyone to see a few minutes of their future, a plane crash in a mysterious island — and then spend twenty–two episodes showing how the characters figure out merely what happened, how, and whether it can be fixed, is not only the biggest failure of the imagination possible in sci–fi drama, it is also an insult to the genre. It assumes that sci–fi is somehow “easier” than a deeply character–driven kitchen–sink narrative (like Mad Men) that requires the protagonist to have a rich inner life in order to motivate conflict.

The island on Lost served the same purpose as the ad agency on Mad Men: it was a space where the protagonist sought to invent a new life in spite of all evidence to the impossibility of that endeavor. The conspiracy inOrphan Black is nothing more or less than a perfect physicalization of a young woman’s struggle to define her own identity: one which just so happens to cause her to come into conflict and allegiance with numerous clones of herself, all of them living vastly different lives with remarkably different outcomes.

Many big and shiny ideas can tap dance around a lack of an operational theme for a while — the length of a pilot, maybe even a season of decompressed cable–style narrative. But no amount of spectacle can obscure the truth that a protagonist or ensemble with a stark, robust, and recognizable operational theme is the source of all televisual drama.

Ironically, sci–fi, the genre that most often suffers from underdeveloped characters on TV probably demands more character from its characters than any other genre. Why? Because it is, at the core, a metaphorical exercise. Sci–fi poses a question that extends beyond the easily understandable stakes of the cop, doctor, or lawyer. How are the aliens, robots, mysterious islands, viral outbreaks, and vampires an external manifestation of your main character’s self–concept?

If you are writing a genre pilot and your premise can’t answer that question — while placing your protagonist in a place where the pursuit of their most prescient emotional issue is in consistent, discernible, and direct opposition of those aliens, robots, islands, viral outbreaks, and vampires — then, like any other writer in any other genre, you have to dig deeper. Because the privilege of having a scholar find and explain your lofty thematic concern like “power,” “alienation,” or (still my personal favorite,) “the shallowness of modern life” doesn’t come right away. Scholars and bloggers don’t proclaim the deep meaningful metaphors of your creation you have done the hard spade–and–trowel labor of putting an interesting main character on the screen. You must first put your characters in the one, singular (and preferably, for my money, science–fictional!) situation that mostchallenges their true self. That’s your operational theme: challenge your character’s innermost identity, do it week after week, then have your agent call my agent.

image010Though best known as one of the Emmy Award–winning producers of Lost, Javier Grillo–Marxuach is a prolific writer of TV shows, movies, and comic books. His credits include seaQuestThe PretenderCharmed,Boomtown, The Chronicle, Jake 2.0, Medium, and SyFy’s Helix. Grillo–Marxuach is also creator of The Middleman graphic novels and ABC Family TV show, and co–hosts the Children of Tendu podcast, in which he dispenses advice on breaking into and staying in the TV business with fellow writer/producer Jose Molina.

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13 Comments

  1. Well said, sir.

    Any thoughts on the one current SF show that has perhaps fused the operational theme and the mystery-reveal most successfully to date – Person Of Interest?

  2. What a wonderful essay! I have not read anything like this that so clearly explains what really makes for a successful TV series. This is one that any hopeful screenwriter should be required to read. Thanks.

  3. Nice insights. You put into words what many writers feel on a gut level.

    Related to the series operational theme, it’s helpful for the writer to identify a unifying story/series thematic statement.

    When asked what the theme for a particular work they created is, writers often come up with nebulous meanderings about “being human,” or exploring “what freedom is” or similar unfocused thoughts.

    A thematic statement is a great way to help make sure the story is cohesive. It should be a sentence – a real statement.

    Assuming the story works on multiple levels, there should be more than one valid thematic statement. However, only one core thematic statement is needed to make sure all plot elements tie into it and unify the tale.

  4. Lost is the show that ruined television for me. Ever since it’s finale, I just can’t get into another show the way I did with it.

    I think part of that comes from how I saw Lost as being less like a TV show, but more like a novel. There was the promise of a finite ending, characters informed by specific themes, and sure there was that “operating theme,” you’re talking about, but I don’t think it felt as obvious as Buffy or Law and Order. Every episode felt so connected that it was like coming back to the same book week after week, rather than checking in with Buffy to see what she monster she beat up this week.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it just felt important.

  5. Sam and Dean Winchester are the reason fans keep coming back to Supernatural. No matter the plot line of the season, these characters stay true to who they are.

  6. Lost moves the characters forward from the point in time of a disaster, while Thornton Wilder’s novel “The Bridge at San Luis Rey,” with its spokes-of-a-wheel plot structure brings them all together for one common end.

  7. First off: this is good advice. BUT. The author buries a lot of the practical application of the concept under layers of impenetrable jargon. He seems so happy with himself for coming up with a catchy, clinical new term that he doesn’t even bother to walk you through the process of developing your own “Operational Theme.” He doesn’t even give you a single tip or piece of advice on how he does it.

    I think this is just a fancy way of saying that you, and your main character, have to have a motivating perspective. Which… Duh. That’s something we already know! And it’s really hard to execute! Devising a new term for it without helping us understand how to develop it ourselves is utterly unhelpful. Without any practical tips, this reads like the author is jerking himself off for successfully identifying a trend.

    If your goal is helping writers be better writers, YOU HAVE TO GO ALL THE WAY. You can’t just stop when you identify the pattern. You have to go an extra step further and at least say, “and this is how I do it.” Otherwise you just spent an entire essay blowing yourself.

  8. I think it’s really worthwhile to take a look at Continuum, which is genius in the respect of operational themes.

  9. Of course, even if you have an operational theme, if you bungle the shiny concept, people are still going to say you failed (in an SF story, that is). E.g., the creators of Lost quite clearly felt a shiny concept that resolved at the end was *an* essential ingredient, and they made a serious effort to supply answers to the mysteries and did in fact supply them–unfortunately the answer to virtually every shiny concept mystery turned out to be “It’s magic!”

  10. Phenomenal article, but I have to say, there has been a successful “next Lost”, only 1, and it’s Once Upon A Time, of which Lost shares not only the flashbacks format but much of the character complexity and “operational” themes you are talking about. In fact there is more room for layering the themes of power and uneven family dynamics (parent/offspring) in Once than Lost, themes that have dominated the most critically praised shows of this era like Sopranos/etc Note two major differences between the flashback shows is in Once the magic is in the characters, in Lost it’s on the island. And in Once in the flashbacks everyone knew each other, while in Lost they were strangers. Because the magic is in the characters in Once, this allows them to abuse power, to unleash huge consequences on others by following their own selfish desires, trying to fill their need to be loved (everyone on the show feels unloved), etc. The characters want the magic in the first place to fill something in themselves, then can’t let go of it. As for the histories this also allows a deeper “consequential affect” on each other – characters did things decades or centuries ago to each other that has an impact much later etc., which creates a more layered non-literal family or community dynamic. In addition to admittedly how the show has made tons of characters related to each other and leaned on the ‘bad parent’ leading to the next generation of unloved characters.

    The flipside in Lost’s favor is it’s actual plot… and how cool it is to have this crazy island… is a little better than what Once has to work with after they blew up their best series arc at end of S1. Since then for the overall seasonal arcs they’ve had to bring in regular big bads, which I think start to got weary by the end S3.

    Nevertheless 90% of the difference in how the shows are received critically, water cooler, etc. is Lost was cooler to like and had people take it more seriously for surface reasons.

  11. Wow, this is a topic I’d love to hash out over a few beers.

    One of the few “mythology” shows that truly impressed me was “Fringe.” Rewatching it on Netflix reminded me that after a bit of fumbling in season one, the show managed to have a heart while still juggling a mythology that was truly complex. The ending was pitch perfect: honest emotions, a storyline that wrapped up the mythology and viewers were left with the feeling that this story was at its logical end.

    As for the “Lost” finale, I don’t know that I’m the best judge of it, since I loved the “Seinfeld” finale. But as much as I enjoyed it, it also ruined the show for me and I stay away from the reruns.

    I agree that finding the operational theme for “Lost” was the factor that allowed the show to thrive and I wouldn’t change any of those flashback segments that filled out the characters. My problem with the finale was that everyone involved with the show kept talking in interviews about how much time they spent tracking the backstory and all of the mythology so that it would be consistent. Then much of it was discarded as “just facts” in the end.

  12. Great post. I totally agree. Since Lost ended, I always lament how many shows come and go that seem to be trying to capture that same “big mystery” magic without actually putting the heavy lifting into crafting interesting empathetic characters.
    I know you mentioned Journeyman in your post, and honestly I felt like Journeyman was one of the few shows that got it mostly right. I really enjoyed that show for its short run, and was sad to see it go.

  13. Yeah, this is a great essay. But it never explained how the show’s writing managed to decline over the years or how it failed to maintain steady writing, instead of flip flopping in quality.

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