Carlton Cuse Isn’t Lost

And the ultra-successful showrunner isn’t slowing down

Being attached to something as popular, as powerful, and as pervasive as the hit show Lost must shape a career, but for Carlton Cuse, it was the high point of a much longer journey, one that shows no signs of letting up.

Carlton Cuse (photo by Rod Machen)

Cuse shared his story at the ATX Television Festival in a conversation with critic Alan Sepinwall on Saturday morning. It all started at Harvard where he was to continue the family tradition of studying medicine, but a weak stomach and love of movies pushed him to Hollywood. After navigating the business for several years, he ended up working on the Lethal Weapon and Indiana Jones franchises. Then television came calling.

His first foray into the world of the small screen was the idiosyncratic, western/sci-fi series The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., starring Bruce Campbell. The amount of work running a television show was immense.

“It's like the mother who lifts the car off her child,” he said, acknowledging that he doesn’t know how he pulled it off. Cuse is sanguine about the short-lived nature of his first project. “I don't consider Briscoe to have failed; I see it as under-viewed."

His next project last much longer, as he helped Don Johnson get back into action with Nash Bridges. Of all the episodes they did, the highlight may have been seeing the former Miami Vice star kiss a monkey.

“There was a certain satisfaction seeing Don work with a chimp,” he said, laughing. “If you look at the box office, Clint Eastwood’s biggest movies involved chimps."

After a stint as “the martial arts guy” with the shows Martial Law and Black Sash, Cuse fell into the biggest series of his career, Lost. Actually, Cuse had to get out of his deal with CBS just to work on the project, expecting full well for it to have a short life, if the series even got picked up at all. “I believed in my heart of hearts that Lost could succeed."

That gamble paid off big. His partnership with Damon Lindelof drove the series to much success, but it was never easy, especially in the beginning. “The first season was like putting out an apartment building fire with a garden hose.” It wasn’t until the prep work for the second season that the creative team mapped out the narrative that would make Lost so memorable.

While there is much to say about a show like Lost, Cuse believes the real story is about the characters being "lost in their lives" and finding redemption. He doesn’t have much sympathy for those this disliked the show’s ethereal resolution.

“I felt like there was no ending to the show that was going to be accepted by 100% of the audience," he said. “Doing a spiritual ending made the most sense." He feels vindicated by the fact that both the series finale as well as the final season were nominated for Emmys. In the end, Cuse believes that no matter how the ending is viewed, it was the journey that was most important. His most recent project is Bates Motel, a pretelling of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring Norman and his mother Norma. Cuse’s partner in this venture is Friday Night Lights veteran Kerry Ehrin, and once again the partnership has been fruitful.

Up next is The Strain, Guillermo del Toro’s vampire epidemic show. Cuse can now pick who he works with, and del Toro seems like a good bet, especially when creepy and crawly is involved.

Sepinwall had a running joke throughout the conversation, always trying to get Cuse to answer the mystery of all mysteries: Who was on the Outrigger? (Look it up, nerds.) Cuse must be used to this from Lost-heads, and after waiting a beat said, “It's not going to happen, Alan." That answer may not be forthcoming, but more series from this prolific showrunner surely are, with no lack of eyeballs ready to view each and every one.

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ATX Television Festival, ATX Television Fest, ATX TV Fest 2014, Carlton Cuse, Lost, Bates Motel, The Strain, Damon Lindelof, Alan Sepinwall, The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr., Nash Bridges

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