From the Magazine
June 2023 Issue

Lost Illusions: The Untold Story of the Hit Show’s Poisonous Culture

The show was a groundbreaking smash, but behind the scenes it devolved into such toxicity that even co-showrunner Damon Lindelof now says of his leadership: “I failed.” A powerful excerpt from the new book Burn It Down.
‘Lost Illusions The Untold Story of the Hit Shows Poisonous Culture
Art Streiber/AUGUST.

“I got chills.”

A woman I’ll call Theresa was telling me about the early days of the Lost writers room, before the ABC drama premiered in September 2004. She knew in her bones it was special, long before huge ratings confirmed it. The story of plane crash survivors on a surreal tropical island—including Jack, a doctor transporting his late father’s body home, and Locke, a flinty survivalist in a wheelchair—was going to be, she was sure, deeper and wilder and more entertaining than the audience could possibly imagine.

“Someone would say, ‘Well, what if Locke walks?’ ” Theresa remembered. “ ‘What if the coffin is empty?’ As all that was going down, literally you got chills. We started doing the wave in the room, like, holy shit! I’d never seen anything like it in my career—that miraculous creative energy. The writers in that room were great.”

“It was heaven,” said a Lost veteran I’ll call Gretchen, describing an atmosphere in which ideas could come from anyone, regardless of rank.

When it came to the highlights of that gig—the big swings, the fusing of sci-fi mythology, adventure, and rich character building—the only thing Theresa could compare it to was seeing the original Dreamgirls on Broadway. When Jennifer Holliday gave her all to “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” “people were floating in their chairs,” Theresa said. “When something hits a certain frequency and you know it’s magic—that’s what was going on in that room.”

I knew that feeling. I had been writing about pop culture for years before Lost premiered, and when it debuted, I was a full-time TV critic. My whole life there had been good and fun and enjoyable TV, as well as programs that were important. But something big shifted in the early aughts thanks to daring shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Battlestar Galactica, and The Shield.

For a long time, the more cautious broadcast networks struggled to keep up with this cable-driven revolution. Lost changed that. Its pilot, which cost a reported $13 million and was directed by cocreator J.J. Abrams, made excellent use of its Hawaii locations. And dozens of copycat dramas would never quite replicate the magic of its early seasons, which were bolstered by a brilliant structural device. Most Lost episodes focused on one individual, interspersing flashbacks to that person’s previous life. Viewers saw the mistakes and the disappointments many were fleeing—the show’s title was both an adjective and a metaphor—and when Lost was firing on all cylinders, we came to care deeply about not just what was happening but to whom it was happening.

Like the characters themselves, we wondered how a polar bear ended up on a tropical island. We were freaked out by a mysterious metal hatch amid the jungle foliage, and by the shadowy doings of a faction known as the Others. And everybody (especially me) wanted to know what was up with the trippy Dharma Initiative, an organization that left evidence of its weird research all over the island. But what helped Lost win awards, and what kept some folks watching even through slow patches and narrative misfires were Lost’s deeper levels. Through the flashbacks, which evolved into flash-forwards and even “sideways” flashes, the drama asked why these specific human beings arrived in such rough shape, personally or psychologically, and whether they could not just survive this strange island but also transcend the worst things that ever happened to them. The show was allowed to continue down this wildly ambitious path because it was a giant hit. Lost and Desperate Housewives, which also premiered that fall, turned around the fortunes of an entire network.

Early on, when Abrams and others on the creative team gave Harold Perrineau the full-court press in hopes of convincing him to join the cast, he had been in two Matrix films and Romeo + Juliet. He also played a key role in TV’s brave new golden age: He was part of the ensemble on HBO’s provocative prison saga Oz. Lost was not going to be as edgy as shows like Oz, but securing Perrineau was, as they say in the industry, a big get. “Harold had one of the biggest careers of all of us when Lost began,” noted Daniel Dae Kim, another member of the cast. “He’s a very talented actor. And I thought his work was some of the best on the show.”

Part of the reason Perrineau took a chance on the ABC drama was because the creative team said they wanted to tell a story that “was really equitable” in terms of the time it spent on its array of characters. He’d been around long enough to know, as he put it, “where the lines were, and what the ceiling was” for Black actors. But he was encouraged by what he was told and by the cast that was assembled. “We were all really hopeful about it,” Perrineau remembered. “It was a bigger try than I had ever seen on broadcast TV.” When he talked to the press in those early days, his enthusiasm was palpable: “I was shouting about it from the rooftops,” he said. “I was such a believer.”

For a number of Lost sources I talked to, the creative highs that counterbalanced the hard parts of the job evaporated fast. A wave of dismissals (the first of many) came not long after the arrival of executive producer Carlton Cuse, an industry veteran who had worked on mainstream ’90s dramas like The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and Nash Bridges. When Lost cocreator Damon Lindelof was starting out as a TV writer, one of his first jobs was on the staff of Nash Bridges. Lost was an enormous undertaking and Lindelof was overwhelmed by his vast new responsibilities, so he asked his former boss Cuse to work on the ABC program with him. Given that Lost was at the forefront of pop culture, Cuse and Lindelof were among the most well-known showrunners in American television for quite some time—avuncular, funny figureheads, fanning the flames of conjecture about certain mysteries, teasing upcoming developments, and, at times, attempting to defuse anger or confusion regarding some of the drama’s twists and turns. There was drama behind the scenes too, and it was also dark and complicated.

Based on conversations with more than a dozen people who worked on Lost in various capacities, it’s clear that the landmark series played right into Hollywood’s most long-standing patterns, in which auteurs wield enormous power with very little oversight. Later, you will hear from Lindelof and Cuse at length regarding the allegations and issues their former colleagues raised with me. I talked to people across all six seasons, half of whom were people of color and more than half of whom were women. Every person I spoke with is justifiably proud of the work they did on the drama, but by all accounts, they worked very hard on a job that could be quite grueling. And scarring.

“All I wanted to do was write some really cool episodes of a cool show. That was an impossibility on that staff,” said Monica Owusu-Breen, who worked on Lost’s third season. “There was no way to navigate that situation. Part of it was they really didn’t like their characters of color. When you have to go home and cry for an hour before you can see your kids because you have to excise all the stress you’ve been holding in, you’re not going to write anything good after that.”

On set in Hawaii, much of the cast got along really well, at least at first. “A lot of us grew very close,” said an actor I’ll call Sloan. “The thing that kind of created a rift in the cast was money.” Perrineau and Sloan told me that the cast had discussions about holding firm and asking for equal pay when salary renegotiations with ABC Studios began. According to both, promises were made to present a united front. Almost a decade earlier, the cast of Friends had done just that and wound up with equal pay for all six leads. But at Lost, the united front quickly crumbled. Ultimately, the cast ended up in a series of compensation tiers, and Perrineau and Sloan said the highest tier was occupied solely by white actors.

“That affected relationships,” Sloan said. But the actor had no relationship with Cuse, who, Sloan believed, “didn’t seem to think much of me.” At least, during a work-related conversation, Cuse never berated Sloan to the point of tears for being “ungrateful,” which happened to another Lost actor Sloan knew.

As the 25-episode first season progressed, Perrineau noticed that a few of his castmates got the majority of the storytelling attention: “It became pretty clear that I was the Black guy. Daniel [Dae Kim] was the Asian guy. And then you had Jack and Kate and Sawyer,” all of whom got a good deal of screen time, as did Terry O’Quinn’s Locke. Indeed, a writer I spoke to who worked on Lost during the middle of its run said that the writing staff was told repeatedly who the “hero characters” were: Locke, Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, all of whom were white. “It’s not that they didn’t write stories for Sayid [an Iraqi character] or Sun and Jin [Korean characters],” the source added. Still, they recalled comments like “Nobody cares about these other characters. Just give them a few scenes on another beach.”

To ensure that his colleague would understand that this observation was not just actor jealousy rearing its head, Perrineau pointed out the storyline disparities to a Lost producer on set in a fairly mild way. He told me he said, “I don’t have to be the first, I don’t have to have the most episodes—but I’d like to be in the mix. But it seems like this is now a story about Jack and Kate and Sawyer.” Perrineau said he was told, “Well, this is just how audiences follow stories,” and those were the characters that were “relatable.”

Malcolm David Kelley and Harold Perrineau in the season two finale.By Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images.

That assertion raised the obvious follow-up question: Why were white people relatable and his Black character, Michael, was not? Perrineau had felt a similar frustration on photo shoots where, especially in the early seasons of the show, actors of color were often asked to stand in the back row or at the edges of the frame. Conversations and experiences like these made the long days seem even longer. “You can feel the energy,” Perrineau said. “You can feel, like, ‘Oh, you’re not as important as these other people.’ ”

When Perrineau paged through the original draft of the second episode of season two, “it was too much,” he said. At that point in the Lost saga, several castaways’ attempt to flee the island on a raft has gone awry, and Walt, Michael’s son, has been kidnapped by a shadowy group called the Others. In this version of the script, Michael is pulled onto the remains of the raft by Sawyer (Josh Holloway), and the episode’s flashbacks revolve around Sawyer. Within those pages, Michael asks about his son early on, just once.

In that version of the script, Perrineau recalled, “Michael’s asking Sawyer questions about his past, about how he feels, but he never again mentions Walt.” Perrineau’s reaction was, “I don’t think I can do that. I can’t be another person who doesn’t care about missing Black boys, even in the context of fiction, right? This is just furthering the narrative that nobody cares about Black boys, even Black fathers.”

He knew the risks of talking to his bosses about any of this. “That was the thing that was always tricky. Any time you mention race, everybody gets—their hair gets on fire, and they’re like, ‘I’m not racist!’ ” Perrineau said. “It’s like, ‘Nope. Because I say that I’m Black doesn’t mean I’m calling you a racist. I am talking to you from my perspective. I’m being really clear that I’m not trying to put my trauma on you, but I am trying to talk to you about what I feel. So can we just do that? Can we just have that conversation?’ ”

Despite the risks, he expressed his concerns about the script to Lindelof and Cuse in a phone call. Then he brought up the onscreen equity he had been led to expect when he accepted the job. “At the beginning, it was, ‘Hey Harold, we love you. We love what you’re creating in the industry. We really want you and what you do,’ ” Perrineau recalled. But as a viewer, it is easy to see Perrineau’s point of view: Michael does not get the depth, complexity, or careful storytelling that other characters receive. In that phone conversation, he told his bosses, “If you’re going to use me, let’s work. I’m here to work. I’m good at my job and I’ll do anything you want. Except be ‘the Black guy’ on your show.”

He said Cuse and Lindelof told him that the episode was not about his character. “ ‘Cool, it’s not about me. I’m not making it about me,’ ” he remembered replying. “ ‘I just can’t have this father not care about his son. Could we put in some more lines that show he cares about his son?’ They didn’t. I ad-libbed some lines. I didn’t give a shit at that point.” Weeks later, he got a revised script—the flashbacks were now about Michael’s pre-island life. Perrineau had two days to shoot those scenes, as opposed to the several days devoted to the Sawyer flashbacks. “It was 14-hour, 18-hour days. I was like, ‘If you think I’m gonna fuck this up, I’m not. I’m gonna be really good.’ But I felt like suddenly they were mad at me,” Perrineau said.

As it turned out, soon enough, the problems Perrineau had—with that script and with the writing for his character—were no longer issues he had to contend with. A couple of weeks before shooting began on the second-season finale, Perrineau said, Cuse told him his character would not be returning. Perrineau told me he was taken aback and questioned Cuse about this, and the showrunner said he did not know if Michael would ever come back.

“I was fucked up about it. I was like, ‘Oh, I just got fired, I think,’ ” Perrineau recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s happening?’ [Cuse] said, ‘Well, you know, you said to us, if we don’t have anything good for you, you want to go.’ I was just asking for equal depth.” According to Perrineau, the response from Cuse was, “ ‘Well, you said you don’t have enough work here, so we’re letting you go.’ ” I observed that the response seemed to indicate royal displeasure. Perrineau agreed: “It was all very much, ‘How dare you?’ ”

When Perrineau’s character exited the core Lost narrative for good, he gave an interview to a reporter who he said quoted him fairly and accurately about various topics. “She asked me something, and I said—I don’t remember exactly the quote, but I’m gonna give you a roundabout version of it. I said, ‘You know, for me, as a Black person, the idea that Walt winds up living with his grandmother and not living with his father, that feels like one of those clichés—Black kids who have been raised by their grandparents because neither of their parents are around for them. I would’ve liked to have seen something a little better happen, but that’s not the way it went down.’ ”

In that 2008 interview, the reporter asked if Perrineau was disappointed that Michael and Walt didn’t reconnect before his character left the show. Perrineau replied, “Listen, if I’m being really candid, there are all these questions about how they respond to Black people on the show. Sayid gets to meet Nadia again, and Desmond and Penny hook up again, but a little Black boy and his father hooking up, that wasn’t interesting? Instead, Walt just winds up being another fatherless child. It plays into a really big, weird stereotype and, being a Black person myself, that wasn’t so interesting.”

When that interview came out, it set off a furor among some Lost fans, but the consternation behind the scenes was worse. Perrineau said he was accused by some of playing “the race card.” No one wants to be defined by one aspect of their identity, but neither do people want to feel forced to suppress who they are so that others never feel any discomfort. Perrineau was thrown because, once again, there were no good options on the table for him. “Time out—I get to talk about being Black, you know? ’Cause I am Black. You can ignore it. But I get to talk about it. The response from ABC was like, ‘Oh, we always loved Harold, but he may be just angry that he left the show,’ ” he recalled. “I’m not angry that I left the show. Like, that’s what I think as a fan.

For weeks, Perrineau went round and round with ABC, which wanted to issue a retraction of some kind. “Me mentioning the color of my skin—that just sent everybody off the rails. We came up with something, but it took weeks, because I was like, ‘I didn’t say anything wrong. And she didn’t report anything wrong. Nobody did anything wrong.’ But societally—people so loved the show. They couldn’t hear one thing against it.”

Perrineau had come up against one of the unspoken rules in the entertainment business: You don’t question the dudes in charge. Lost employee Gretchen added that in her experience, under Lindelof and Cuse, the workplace grew less flexible and more autocratic and uncomfortable: “Toward the end of the second season, after all the accolades came, I could see where it could be unbearable for some people to be there,” especially as an industry norm she was familiar with—that those ruling a workplace could be “vindictive” at will—was cemented into place. Lindelof and Cuse had the power to hire and fire, no matter the reason, she noted. “And they used it.”

As her career progressed, Owusu-Breen heard rumblings that things were not great at Lost. Other writers on the show tried to warn her and her then writing partner, Alison Schapker, about the atmosphere in those offices. But having worked at other male-dominated shows, Owusu-Breen told me she thought they could handle it. And she loved what she had seen of the show. She was especially excited to play in the show’s “global sandbox,” said the writer, whose father is from West Africa. “I never got to write for cultures similar to those of my immigrant family. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this feels so different!’ ”

Yunjin Kim, Daniel Dae Kim, Evangeline Lilly, and Naveen Andrews strategize in season one.By Mario Perez/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images.

In that third season, however, all was not well on Lost. Mr. Eko was among a set of characters called the Tailies, who were introduced in season two and got a rocky reception. When the third season rolled around, the show contained some slow patches and time wasters. Behind the scenes, it did not take long for Owusu-Breen to realize that a lot of people at Lost viewed her and her writing partner as, essentially, Tailies. It became a wry running joke between them, Owusu-Breen told me: “Everyone was real nice to us for the first few days. And then they wanted us dead.”

Most people I’ve spoken to for this book are veterans of film and television productions where off-color humor, barbed banter, and incisive, even stinging, comments are common. None have a real problem with those things, in the right settings and proportions. In fact, humor is not just a form of creativity, it can serve as a necessary pressure-relief valve. And a large percentage of people in the industry, when they go too far, apologize and alter their behavior.

However, even for experienced professionals, what occurred at Lost crossed or obliterated most lines. There was “a coterie” of people who would find it very amusing if a comment or joke was “offensive,” one source told me. “Everything was said with a sort of sarcastic ‘this whole thing is funny to me’ vibe—and also a ‘your discomfort is funny to me’ attitude.” Multiple people said that this sensibility was a cover for bullying or inappropriate remarks of all kinds, as well as comments on race and gender that crossed lines. Laughing at and adding to that kind of commentary, said one, “was how you got to be part of the group. That was the terms of belonging.”

Both showrunners tolerated or even encouraged the overall atmosphere, but its descent into a realm that many sources described in very negative terms appeared to arise from a couple of powerful factors: the “sense of humor” that Lindelof appeared to enjoy and the showrunners’ status as all-powerful entities no one could cross. When Cuse arrived, “that’s when everything changed, in my opinion,” a female source said. “It was Carlton coming in and acting like, ‘I want my people and I want control of those people.’ ” Regarding Cuse, she said, “I don’t think people really had respect for him among the writing staff,” but from “Damon’s or the studio’s perspective, it was like, ‘Oh, we have someone who’s going to put everyone in line.’ ” Over time, this meant that the culture of Lost “turned back to the old Hollywood way.”

But an extreme version. “I can only describe it as hazing. It was very much middle school and relentlessly cruel. And I’ve never heard that much racist commentary in one room in my career,” Owusu-Breen recalled. Here is a partial roster of statements sources heard while working at Lost. The first four were heard by Owusu-Breen, as well as another individual I spoke to:

When someone on staff was adopting an Asian child, one person said to another writer that “no grandparent wants a slanty-eyed grandchild.”

When actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s picture was on the writers room table, someone was told to remove their nearby wallet “before he steals it.”

When Owusu-Breen and others were riding in a van on a trip, in answer to a question about the luggage, one writer—using a Yiddish word—said, “Let the schvartze take it.”

The only Asian American writer was called Korean, as in, “Korean, take the board.”

When a woman entered the writers room carrying a binder, two sources said, a male writer asked her what it was. She said it was the HR manual for the studio, and he responded, “Why don’t you take off your top and tell us about it?”

There was apparently some discomfort around the show’s cleaning staff using the bathroom in the Lost offices, and there were “jokes” about “putting up a Whites Only sign.”

Finally, when Perrineau’s Lost departure came up, Lindelof said, according to multiple sources, that the actor “called me racist, so I fired his ass.”

“Everyone laughed” when Lindelof said that, Owusu-Breen recalled. “There was so much shit, and so much racist shit, and then laughter. It was ugly. I was like, ‘I don’t know if they’re perceiving this as a joke or if they mean it.’ But it wasn’t funny. Saying that was horrible.” She began leaving the room when she couldn’t take it anymore: “I’m like, once you’re done talking shit about people of color, I’ll come back.”

But an inability to accept the vibe was regarded as a failing, Owusu-Breen noted: “My writing partner was told, ‘The problem is, you don’t think racism is funny.’ ”

Owusu-Breen and Schapker were assigned the episode in which Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character, Mr. Eko, is killed off. The actor wanted to leave the show, a situation that can be an inconvenience to producers but is a relatively normal event. The conversation that took place when Owusu-Breen and her writing partner got feedback from Cuse on their episode was not normal. The showrunner, it seemed, had been thinking about how Mr. Eko should die.

“Carlton said something to the effect of, ‘I want to hang him from the highest tree. God, if we could only cut his dick off and shove it down his throat.’ At which point I said, ‘You may want to temper the lynching imagery, lest you offend.’ And I was very clearly angry,” Owusu-Breen remembered. Another person who was present also recalled Cuse offering violent imagery of Eko’s death in the trees in a way that immediately made them think of lynching. This person said they definitely heard the remark about the character’s genitals but does not recall if Cuse said it or if it was said by another Lost writer when the staff discussed the episode.

It’s possible, Owusu-Breen observed, that in that moment, Cuse was trying to think up a “painful death” for the character and did not intentionally bring up imagery that evoked lynching—but that in itself could serve as an indicator of just how damaging and toxic the Lost culture was. Racist, sexist, and insensitive remarks were made so casually and so frequently by so many, Owusu-Breen said, that it would not surprise her if Cuse brought that up offhandedly and then forgot he said it. “No one had the ability to call them on this stuff,” she told me. “And it’s terrible to this day that they get credit for any kind of racial sensitivity or inclusion. It sucks to be a person of color in rooms like that.”

“I really felt sick at the thought of a Black actor who was giving a performance of real power and stature” being discussed in this way, one source said. “To toss about his death with this air of gleeful, malicious punishment” was troubling in terms of the treatment of the character and for Lost’s track record on representation. How Eko’s death appeared onscreen was “toned down” from what was discussed, this person said, but the entire experience was deeply “uncomfortable,” in part because, in this person’s opinion, the showrunners “were vindictive toward their actors.”

In any event, not long after that conversation, “we were put in the casting room, and then we were fired,” Owusu-Breen said. She and her writing partner were told by the showrunners, “You don’t fit,” she told me.

Owusu-Breen has been a showrunner herself, and she knows what that pressure cooker is like. “It brings out the worst in you. The person I was in my first showrunning gig is not the person I am now. I have apologized to people, because the stress is hard,” she said. “But this was racism. I don’t know. That doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that happens just when you’re stressed. There was a blood sport” aspect to how that room functioned. Owusu-Breen said her choices on Lost consisted of: “I become a dick and start making jokes at people’s expense, or I’m the humorless fuck who no one could have fun around.”

About four months in, when Schapker found her in the bathroom late one Friday and said the bosses wanted to see them, she knew they were being let go. “I was so happy to be fired,” Owusu-Breen said.

The environment on Lost drove Javier Grillo-Marxuach to quit the show after its second season. He was the only person from the show’s original nucleus of writers still in the writers room in season two. Despite the show’s massive success, Grillo-Marxuach had reached his limit. He told me the writers room “was a predatory ecosystem with its own carnivorous megafauna.” Two years of what could be called the “Tallahassee mentality” was enough for him. The term comes from characters on the show poking fun at the Florida city. One day, the Lost offices got a letter from the mayor of Tallahassee, who gamely invited the show’s personnel to visit and enclosed brochures touting the city’s attractive qualities. “In response, Damon told the writers room to double down on Tallahassee, and when asked why, he replied with a straight face that the only thing funnier than punching someone in the face for no reason is punching them harder when they ask why,” Grillo-Marxuach said. “If you can imagine that as a management philosophy, you can understand what it was like to work on Lost.

“Damon once said, ‘I don’t trust any writer who isn’t miserable, because that tells me you don’t care,’ ” according to writer-producer Melinda Hsu Taylor. During her time at Lost, Hsu Taylor learned to keep eyeliner in her desk at the office: “You don’t want to have to go to the bathroom to redo your eyeliner. If you cry at work, you don’t want people to see that you’ve been crying.”

By the time she arrived for the drama’s last two seasons, she’d heard stories about how it wasn’t unusual for high-level writers to speak “fake Korean”—gibberish that they pretended was Korean—and laugh about it. Given what I know about TV writer culture, I’d guess that sort of thing happened in other writers rooms at the time. A different experience of Hsu Taylor’s—being reprimanded by Cuse after she seconded one of Cuse’s instructions to a director—was also probably sadly common. “He just totally put me in my place,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t need you to comment on anything I’ve said.’ ”

It was the kind of place where the lines of authority were clear. In some ways, that was beneficial. Multiple people told me that Lindelof banned Cuse from rewriting him—a decision they actually agreed with, because most sources said they thought Lindelof was a talented writer and Cuse was not. “At least Damon knew what he wanted,” a writer-producer I’ll call Christopher told me. That said, the Lost room was a “boys’ club” atmosphere that was “cutthroat,” Christopher added.

An editor once made a minor suggestion regarding a story, and according to a Lost employee I’ll call Seamus, Lindelof made it clear her job would be in danger if she ever did it again. “She wrote an almost offensively effusive mea culpa letter—‘I’m so sorry,’ ” Seamus said. Offering storytelling input to Lindelof, Seamus observed, was “an absolute no-fly zone.”

These revelations explain a lot—namely, why a show promising an inclusive, globe-trotting adventure ended up being, in its final season, about a small group of men on interlocking epic quests. This is not a critique of the show’s reliably excellent actors; this is about who got the onscreen focus and why. Of course, characters of color had notable or heroic moments, but over time, they were generally shipped off the island or killed off, and white male characters like Ben Linus and the Man in Black became ever more vital. The showrunners’ “cold” treatment of Michelle Rodriguez and her character certainly stuck with Gretchen: After Rodriguez was arrested in a drunken driving incident, “instead of having empathy or sympathy for her situation, they were just like, ‘Well, we’ll just get rid of her.’ ”

I wasn’t the only critic to point out how uneven the island saga had gotten as it entered its home stretch, but many of us agreed that “Ab Aeterno” was a blast: The episode’s credited writers, Hsu Taylor and script coordinator Greggory Nations, crafted a rousing adventure tale that filled in the backstory of fan favorite Richard Alpert (Néstor Carbonell). The only “problem” was that an episode without Lindelof’s and Cuse’s names on it was so well received.

Hsu Taylor, like most Lost veterans I’ve talked to, is quick to point out that working on the show was an intensely collaborative effort. The grind of making 14 to 25 episodes of TV per season, as the Lost team did, was so demanding that it was not uncommon for a number of writers to work together to get a script across the finish line. That’s what happened with “Ab Aeterno.” “We had such a talented staff,” Hsu Taylor said. “I am so grateful for everything that everybody did—but my name and Gregg’s name were on the script. And I did do a pass to stitch it all together and smooth things out. I wrote a bunch of the scenes too, and I was really proud of the results.”

That’s why she was thunderstruck when, in the anteroom to Cuse’s office, she heard him on the phone with Carbonell. In Hsu Taylor’s recollection, Cuse said to the actor, “Oh, yeah. I wrote that. I wrote most of that script.” “I mean, it was a flat-out lie,” Hsu Taylor said. “My jaw dropped. I just turned around and walked away.” She was devastated.

At one point, the “Ab Aeterno” saga took a turn for the ridiculous: Cuse and Lindelof called Nations and Hsu Taylor into a room, and she recalled that they “basically [told] us how much we owed them for letting us have our names on that script. And they implied it would probably be good if we got them a little present.” So Hsu Taylor went out and bought gifts for her bosses. She can’t recall what she got Lindelof—probably something Star Wars related, given his love of that franchise. She said she bought Swarovski pencils for Cuse.

“As the episode got more and more praise, they started to get more and more tense about it,” Hsu Taylor recalled. “I was up next in the rotation—I was supposed to write one of the upcoming episodes. We were in the writers room. I remember Carlton walking around the table” while doling out script assignments. Hsu Taylor recalled feeling that he was making sure everyone was fully aware that he was skipping her. Later, when the bosses weren’t around, the other writers were sympathetic, she told me: “They were like, ‘Yes, you’re absolutely being punished for having cowritten that script.’ ”

To this day, Owusu-Breen is extremely cautious about what jobs she takes. She talks to assistants, support staff, anyone she can get hold of. “I can’t work for certain people and do good work. I’m a Black woman, and if you don’t accept that…I can’t change,” she said. Lost, she added, was the most “nakedly hostile” work environment she’d ever experienced.

When Owusu-Breen and her writing partner joined the ABC drama Brothers & Sisters, they were required to attend a seminar on avoiding and preventing racial and sexual harassment. Afterward, they went up to the people who ran the seminar and said, “Have you done this on Lost? Because they actually need to be reminded of all this,” Owusu-Breen recalled. “They just walked away from us, like that meme of Homer Simpson disappearing into the bush. They were walking backward, like, ‘No, no, we haven’t done that yet. We’re going to.’ You could tell everyone knew it was a toxic work environment. But it was a huge hit.”

After they were fired from Lost, they had one other deeply surreal experience connected to the show. “We were taken out to lunch by executives and told there was no racism—it was just bullying,” Owusu-Breen told me. “It was fascinating to me, because what do you think racism is?” As she sees it, “We were discriminated against on the daily. Maybe they just didn’t like our writing, but it’s hard to tell if you’re discriminated against on the daily.”

Why dredge all this up years later? Because working on Lost harmed a lot of people, and some are still dealing with the aftereffects of that personal and professional damage. “It’s the sort of place where the voices still ring in your head, even now,” Hsu Taylor said. “You don’t know you’re in an abusive relationship until you’re no longer in an abusive relationship,” said Seamus. In a separate interview, Gretchen said almost the same thing, word for word.

Another reason to go into all this is because, well, Lost is still around. Thanks to the streaming revolution, the shows of the golden age are available with a click or two. Complicating and adding necessary context to the show’s influential legacy is important. Plus, the tendency to engage in hero worship of “geniuses” is very much alive and well. If we don’t question the more damaging aspects of our conception of genius, we are doomed to repeat the past ad nauseam. And we’ll get shittier entertainment.

“This sort of environment doesn’t only poison the dynamic behind the scenes, it shows up onscreen in the attitudes of the characters, their dialogue, and the stories themselves,” said Grillo-Marxuach. “It’s no surprise to me that the main Latinx character in the show was frequently portrayed as feckless, ignorant, and gluttonous—and therefore the butt of countless fat jokes. It’s very easy, especially 20 years after the fact, to think, Well, it can’t have been that bad or someone would have done something. Let me say it loud and clear: It was that bad, and no one did anything because retribution was a constant and looming presence.”

What remains a foundational pillar of the industry is the fact that those responsible for huge hits often get enormous passes regarding their actions, attitudes, and management styles. Very few people who are put in positions of power get the training or oversight they need to make the workplace a positive—or at least non-miserable—experience for everyone involved. If some powerful people want to act like despots and cruel dictators, no one will stop them, despite the fact that being a decent and accountable human being in this industry is “not all that hard,” Owusu-Breen observed.

“Simple decency and managerial experience,” Grillo-Marxuach said, “are not mutually dependent.”

I’ve known Damon Lindelof a long time. My career has prospered over the years for a number of reasons, but one thing that has certainly helped is knowing that powerful people like him tend to return my call, text, or email. They want to promote their projects and they hope for good coverage, but in many cases, there’s more to it than the merely transactional. We often wonder about the same things: why some stories work and some don’t; why some careers prosper and some founder. We can lose hours gossiping about various industry trash fires. In any event, having conversations with industry people is not just useful, it’s often pleasant and even illuminating.

We had two conversations for this book; all in all, he spent a couple of hours talking about what went very wrong at Lost. “My level of fundamental inexperience as a manager and a boss, my role as someone who was supposed to model a climate of creative danger and risk-taking but provide safety and comfort inside of the creative process—I failed in that endeavor,” Lindelof said when we spoke in 2021. In that conversation, he also addressed Hollywood tokenism that was common at the time—and is still not hard to find.

That’s “what I saw in the business around me,” Lindelof observed. “And so I was like, okay, as long as there are one or two [writers] who don’t look and think exactly like me, then, then I’m okay. I came to learn that was even worse. For those specific individuals, forget about the ethics or the morality involved around that decision, but just talking about the human effect of being the only woman or the only person of color and how you are treated and othered—I was a part of that, a thousand percent.”

After that first conversation, I kept talking to Lost veterans, and I heard awful things. It was not an easy process because airing all of this out can feel, as Owusu-Breen put it, like revealing “Santa doesn’t exist. People just love Lost so much.”

I talked to Lindelof a second time, in 2022, and shared additional allegations I’d heard, many of which touched more deeply on matters of race and gender. Multiple sources—including some who heard it said in their presence—had told me they’d heard Lindelof say he fired Perrineau because he felt accused of racism by the actor. I told him the two versions of this remark that I’d heard ended with “so I fired him” or “so I fired his ass.” “What can I say? Other than it breaks my heart that that was Harold’s experience,” replied Lindelof, who said he did not recall “ever” saying that. “And I’ll just cede that the events that you’re describing happened 17 years ago, and I don’t know why anybody would make that up about me.”

Lindelof said the rapid growth spurt of Malcolm David Kelley, the actor who played Walt, Michael’s son, factored into the showrunners’ thinking about what to do with both characters. When I shared Perrineau’s comments about Black families, missing Black boys, and Hollywood stereotypes, Lindelof replied that there was “a high degree of insensitivity towards all the issues that you mentioned as it relates to Harold.”

Lindelof added that by the second season, “every single actor had expressed some degree of disappointment that they weren’t being used enough.... That was kind of part and parcel for an ensemble show, but obviously there was a disproportionate amount of focus on Jack and Kate and Locke and Sawyer—the white characters. Harold was completely and totally right to point that out. It’s one of the things that I’ve had deep and profound regrets about in the two decades since.” All in all, Lindelof said, “I do feel that Harold was legitimately and professionally conveying concerns about his character and how significant it was that Michael and Walt—with the exception of Rose—were really the only Black characters on the show.”

Lindelof told me he didn’t remember any negative incident with an editor, adding that he seeks out input from collaborators and that he’s “never threatened anyone’s career.” Lindelof also said he had no recollection of anything Hsu Taylor said about events connected to “Ab Aeterno.” He said she was a “great writer who executed at a high level” and he’s “stricken” that she was made to feel the way she felt at that time.

Regarding the other allegations leveled at him and the show, Lindelof said he had no memory of the incidents and comments I related. He told me he was “shocked and appalled and surprised” by the incidents I described to him, and said more than once that he did not think anyone was making anything up. “I just can’t imagine that Carlton would’ve said something like that, or some of those attributions, some of those comments that you [shared]—I’m telling you, I swear, I have no recollection of those specific things. And that’s not me saying that they didn’t happen. I’m just saying that it’s literally baffling my brain—that they did happen and that I bore witness to them or that I said them. To think that they came out of my mouth or the mouths of people that I still consider friends is just not computing.”

For his part, Cuse said he was not present for, nor did he hear, the litany of offensive comments that I brought up, and he added, “I deeply regret that anyone at Lost would have to hear them. They are highly insensitive, inappropriate, and offensive.” Cuse (who supplied written answers to my questions through a PR representative) also stated he had never made an actor cry.

Cuse’s comments were similar to Lindelof’s on the matter of Kelley’s growth spurt and how it collided with the island drama’s plot. Kelley’s rapid growth created continuity problems for Lost, hence the need—cited by both showrunners—to write him out of the narrative. And if Walt was gone, Cuse said the only thing to do with Michael was to make finding the boy his “primary mission.” However, since Kelley was not coming back, that was not a storyline they could “resolve for the character,” Cuse added. “We did not know how to solve this problem other than to resolve Michael’s story at the end of Season 2.”

Cuse also stated that he never discussed matters touching on race at any time with Perrineau, and that race had “nothing to do” with the character’s storyline. “I do not believe he is in any way personally to blame for the way his role changed,” said Cuse, who also noted that Perrineau’s feedback about that script was relayed to him by Lindelof—Cuse did not recall discussing those specific concerns with the actor—and that revisions of the script were in part intended to address Perrineau’s input. “We heard his concerns and made changes to address them in the second episode of Season 2, and as we moved through Season 2 we reflected Michael’s character as caring deeply about finding his missing son at every possible opportunity,” Cuse wrote.

In his responses, Cuse disputed that Perrineau was fired; he said the actor was bumped down to recurring status, but that does not line up with Perrineau’s recollections. The actor said after season two, he was released from his Lost contract and took other jobs. As the opening credits show, he was not part of season three at all. Perrineau did appear in several episodes of the strike-shortened fourth season, and he also appeared once in the final season.

As for Cuse’s remark to Owusu-Breen about Mr. Eko’s death, this was Cuse’s response to a query about it: “I never, ever made that statement above, and this exchange never happened. To further add to this lie and suggest that someone was fired as a result of a statement that I never made is completely false,” adding that the implication is “completely outrageous.”

Hundreds of people were employed in various capacities by Lost. Some had, at times, genuinely positive experiences, and that was and is a good thing. But in the engine room of the show—where decisions about theme, story, and focus were made, where characters and plots duked it out for attention—the atmosphere was often demeaning, unpleasant, and confounding. At least to some. One person said of their bosses and some of their coworkers, “I think they were having a different experience of reality, which was, ‘Wow, I just have a bunch of funny people I work with.’ ” This source felt “silenced,” because it felt as though every pathway—other than accepting the cruelty, sexism, and racist commentary—was blocked.

I kept a running list of words sources used to describe the show’s work atmosphere, a word cloud I shared with Lindelof and Cuse. Among the adjectives that came up a lot: cruel, brutal, destructive, racist, sexist, bullying, angry, abusive, and hostile. “It breaks my heart to hear it. It’s deeply upsetting to know that there were people who had such bad experiences,” Cuse wrote to me. “I did not know people were feeling that way. No one ever complained to me, nor am I aware that anybody complained to ABC Studios. I wish I had known. I would have done what I could to make changes.”

I also asked Cuse the following question: “It’s my understanding that there were several tiers of compensation among actors on Lost and that, after negotiations during the show’s run, white actors were in the top compensation tier. Why was that?” Cuse wrote that he and Lindelof “steadfastly believed” that the actors’ “compensation should all be the same. While we did not support changes to how the actors were compensated, ultimately those decisions were made by ABC Studios.”

He wrote that he did not recall withholding a script from Hsu Taylor, whom he called “an invaluable asset” to Lost, nor did he remember claiming credit for “Ab Aeterno” or implying that she should buy presents for the showrunners. (He called the latter claim “absurd.”) “Regardless of our level of rewriting on ‘Ab Aeterno,’ we never sought credit for our work on the episode,” Cuse wrote. As for the high writer turnover—which he acknowledged especially affected early seasons—he wrote that the complexity of the show’s narrative, themes, and logistics made it “very difficult for us to find writers who could accomplish all the many things we felt we needed from them. Looking back, I can understand that the high degree of writer turnover caused hurt, resentment and frustration, and I am sorry for that.”

After I read the word cloud to Lindelof, he was silent for about a minute. He finally answered, referring to his behavior in the present: “The way that I conduct myself and the way that I treat other humans who I am responsible for and a manager of is a by-product of all the mistakes that were made.… I have significantly evolved and grown, and it shouldn’t have had to come at the cost and the trauma of people that I hurt on Lost.

Lindelof asked, “Would it shock you to learn or believe that, despite the fact that I completely and totally validate your word cloud, that I was oblivious, largely oblivious, to the adverse impacts that I was having on others in that writers room during the entire time that the show was happening?” He also asked, “Do you feel like I knew the whole time and just kept doing it?”

I gave him a variation of an answer I have given—or wanted to give—to powerful people many times: I think he knew enough and chose not to do anything about it. But in our culture, phrases like “I didn’t know,” “there was so much going on,” and “mistakes were made” are common ways to frame terrible patterns of behavior, many of which are the result of terrible decisions, not the work of the disembodied hand of fate. Especially if the person at the center of those “mistakes” is a high-status individual, a lot of hedges and rationales are rolled out, and they are often couched in the passive voice. In the past decade alone, how many times, and in how many important spheres, have we seen wealthy or powerful people—especially white men—depicted as stumbling bumblers who knew not what they did?

But someone in their early 30s—as Lindelof was when Lost took off like a rocket—is not a child. Lindelof and Cuse were adults when the show began, and both had been in the industry for years. They were the two people within that workplace who had power, and they bear the responsibility for the culture you read about here—one that endured for six seasons. Nothing that happens consistently across the making of more than 100 episodes of television happens by accident. Whether or not Lindelof and Cuse were present for every damaging incident, the workplace environment at Lost was created, rewarded, and reinforced by them.

I said as much to Lindelof.

“Of course,” he replied. “Yeah. Full stop. Of course, you’re right.”

Toward the end of that second conversation, Lindelof began speculating about what would happen to his career as a result of this book. He sounded as demoralized as I felt.

“It’s not for me to say what kind of person I am,” he said. “But I will say this—I would trade every person who told you that I was talented—I would rather they said I was untalented but decent, rather than a talented monster.”

That is a false binary: People can be talented and decent. Lindelof’s framing is one I encounter a lot, and it belies, or at least hints at, the fundamental belief that if you’re a genius, you’re more or less required to be a monster. But at its heart—and at its best, it has a palpable, beating heart—Lost tries to say that none of us have to be defined by our pasts. We’re at the beginning of the entertainment industry’s shift to better models, and to make the necessary changes a lot of people must work hard on a number of fronts for a long time.

But what choice do we have? As the Lost saying goes, live together, die alone.

From the forthcoming book BURN IT DOWN: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood by Maureen Ryan. Copyright © 2023 by Maureen Ryan. To be published by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.