J.J. Abrams is known for creating extraordinary stories with heartfelt human drama. His ability with human drama was showcased in his early films like Regarding Henry. After writing screenplays for several years, however, it was his role in three television shows that catapulted him into stardom. He finally got notice with these three shows: Felicity, Alias and Lost. Each shows a different side of J.J. Abrams personality and character. Here I am going to profile each of the three shows.
Felicity premiered in the fall of 1997 on the WB (what is now the CW). Felicity focused on Felicity Porter’s adventures in the University of New York. Each of the shows four seasons corresponds to Felicity’s four years in college. The show featured the semi-regular device of Felicity recording a tape to send to her friend Sally. Felicity starts with the title character deciding to go across the country to her friend Ben’s university after he wrote in her yearbook that he wanted to know her better. Eventually she realizes she needed to go not only for him but for herself, to pursue her own path away from her family’s ideals (she was originally supposed to go to Sanford). The show from then on follows Felicity’s college life, as well as romantic complications with Ben and with Noel, a resident advisor at the college. Felicity’s college struggles and romantic triangles ultimately come to a surprising conclusion, when J.J. Abrams and the other writers use time travel in the final season to answer a “what-if” question about who Felicity will end up with eventually. The time travel episodes were much maligned, but nevertheless it showcased how J.J. Abrams was experimenting with supernatural or fantastic elements to tell human stories. The show left the airwaves in 2002.
Alias premiered in 2001 and was an immediate hit. Almost always ever changing, the show started with a graduate student named Sydney Bristow who recently became engaged…and is a secret agent for a division of the CIA known as SD-6. In the pilot episode, Sydney tells her fiancé about her secret life – and he is immediately killed for it. Then she finds out that SD-6 is actually a fake CIA branch and is actually part of an evil group called the Alliance of Twelve, though only a select few know this. She completes her mission in the episode, and then immediately goes to the CIA and tells them everything, and agrees to become a double agent. Complicating things is the fact that her father is also a double agent inside SD-6. Every episode in the first season ended with a cliffhanger, which was resolved in the opening scene of the next episode. The first season also had three major storylines: Sydney’s missions with SD-6, her time with the CIA, and her life as a graduate student trying to finish her studies with her friends. Throughout the entire run of the show, the show focused on a renaissance inventor named Milo Rambaldi and the artifacts which may or may not have special powers. In Season Two, the show made a huge change when in the big Superbowl episode, Sydney and her CIA partner Michael Vaughn team up to take down SD-6 once and for all. They succeed and kiss in the final moments of the episode, changing the show forever. The rest of the season is them taking down the remnants of the Alliance of Twelve. At the end of the third season, the show again took a huge leap when Sydney, after being nearly killed by Allison, who was impersonating her best friend Francie, wakes up two years later with her boyfriend Vaughn married to someone else. The third season obviously deals with the fallout from that, and reveals not surprisingly that the woman Vaughn married in a traitor. In the fourth season, the characters start a version of SD-6 but this time approved within the government called APO. The fifth season deals with Sydney’s pregnancy while trying to be a secret agent at the same time. One thing about the show that stands out: the show was always changing, the fifth season very different from the first. J.J. Abrams and the writers may not have always known what they were doing, but they always kept us on our toes.
Lost premiered in the fall of 2004, to immediate critical acclaim and was a ratings hit. The show, about a group of plane crash survivors on a mysterious and inhabited island, was the crowning achievement of J.J. Abram’s television career. However, he is mostly only known for the first two seasons and left to pursue other projects after the third season premiere. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were more associated as the creative force behind Lost for most of the shows’ run. Still, the first season is considered one of the shows’ best, before the reveals led to more and more questions. The reason the first season did work so well was that the rules for the island and the show itself were not yet established, so anything could happen. The polar bear in the pilot episode was the first extraordinary thing, and then later a monster that has unknown properties. Several episodes later, the passenger manifest reveals one of the people on the island was not on the plane, and he suddenly turns dangerous when the truth is revealed. Not only that, a mysterious metal hatch has been found on the island. Complementing this fact is the human drama of the varied main characters, a doctor who becomes a leader, a captured female convict, a father and son, a pregnant woman, a drug-addicted musician, just to name a few, with flashbacks in each episode spotlighting individual characters. While Lost in the following seasons was criticized for the direction the show took in explaining the mysteries and changing the show, nevertheless the focus was just as much on the characters as it was on the resolving the elements of the island.
Later on, J.J. Abrams did create and produce Fringe, but this was after he had established himself as a sought-after director with films like Mission Impossible III. The three shows that put him on the map were Felicity, Alias, and Lost, each one having a bigger impact on popular culture than the last. While each one had varying quality from beginning to end, each one was nevertheless just as entertaining throughout the show’s span.