Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Behold the Beautiful Catastrophe of Netflix’s ‘Lost’ Rip-Off The I-Land

Ever since Lost concluded in 2010, there have been numerous attempts to capitalize on that show’s combination of mythology and character development. You could literally fill a deserted island with the shows that have tried and failed to mimic what made that show great. This list of shame includes FlashForward, Invasion, Alcatraz, and Manifest. But no show has tried so hard at this goal and failed so miserably than Netflix’s The I-Land, which takes the worst parts of Lost and somehow makes them even worse.

The streaming service marketed The I-Land as “What if Lost…but on Netflix?” Such a lofty goal might have doomed the show from the start, had the flat dialogue, cheap sets and mind-bogglingly dumb plot not done that already. The seven-episode limited series announces itself as B-Team Lost from the beginning, with an eye-opening first shot that clearly cribs from Jack Shephard’s POV. The line between homage and rip-off is a thin one, and this show lives on that line.


(Other Lost references right off the bat: Someone wonders if they’re dead or in purgatory; “Others” are named and introduced within an episode; “the numbers” are a plot point for a moment; the island is referenced as its own entity; flashbacks are liberally used; a character says, “Well I’m…LOST!” and all but winks at the camera, etc. etc. The show even ends on a mysterious note. Damon Lindelof and Co. should sue for plagiarism.)

We Are All But Prisoners Here
My God, what have I done? The I-Land, on Netflix.

Here is the insane plot: Ten people wake up on a deserted island, with no idea how they got there and no memory of who they are. Those 10 people include our protagonist Chase (Natalie Martinez), a hard-charging former Marine who quickly asserts herself as the leader of the group; K.C. (Kate Bosworth), a mysterious and ambiguously Southern-accented woman who challenges Chase; Brody (Alex Pettyfer) a sexual predator who says things like “I wasn’t trying to rape you. There’s no such thing like that in a place like this. There’s just sex and no sex. We didn’t have any sex”.

Numerous other characters are a focus-group collection of skin tones and ethnicities. The show gives them names but isn’t really concerned with them until the last few episodes. Martinez tries her darndest to make her character charismatic, but the rest of the actors sound like they stumbled into auditions for a Lost porn parody.

All of these characters wake up wearing white garments with their names stitched on the back. A mysterious entity soon presents them with numerous “challenges” that increase in danger and difficulty until there is a shark attack, or a group conflict where one of the castaways dies.

As it turns out (and you may have already guessed this), the I-Land isn’t entirely real. A Houston correctional facility is running it as a simulation program, where they place death row inmates inside Matrix-like pods, which transport their consciousnesses to the I-Land in an attempt to see if they can rehabilitate themselves. If this seems like a spoiler, it’s just the tip of the partially-submerged volcano.

Misogyny Island

The warden, played by a scene-chewing Bruce McGill, who seems to be the only one who realizes how campy this whole thing is, thinks the I-Land program is a crock of bull and is actively trying to shut it down. This leads to numerous discussions of nature vs. nurture, punishment vs. rehabilitation and other notions of the human condition that the actors deliver flatly, largely because of the work of controversial playwright Neil LaBute, who penned four episodes. Those who consider LaBute’s work misogynistic won’t find a reprieve here. One woman’s central character trait is that she’s basically La Llorona, another is an “angel of death” nurse, and someone else gets a kick out of mentioning that the governor of Texas is a woman.

Lost succeeded because it prized character over mythology. Here, we don’t care about any characters, and there’s no deep mythology—hell, there’s not even a campfire story. For as bad as it is, The I-Land has all the self-seriousness of a Reddit manifesto, with episode titles like “The Insubstantial Pageant” and “The Dark Backward.” But at the end of all of its endless pontificating, it never settles on a point of view about what the role of prisons should be in America. And despite never talking about it for the whole series, it unleashes a sermon on the dangers of climate change with five minutes left to go in the finale. This is not “so bad it’s good.” It’s just bad.

However, the concept of this show is not bad. There are seeds of great ideas, and some that might have made a better show had it not been so tied to Lost as a marketing technique. Examining how we treat prisoners in a rapidly-changing technological environment is a great premise. Ripping off Lost, The Matrix, Black Mirror, Twilight Zone, Sucker Punch and every other better sci-fi concept to do so just robs the story of any chance of novelty.

I wouldn’t wish a viewing of this show on an actual death-row inmate. I will, however, gladly devour any oral histories or documentaries on how The I-Land got made. It’s a beautiful disaster.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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