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Lost, by Jonathan Gray (Fordham University)

In this article, I will examine Lost, using a variety of key concepts, exploring issues such as:

Genre

Most television shows make their genre and tone obvious in their opening credit sequences, often while also introducing us to their key characters. By contrast, Lost has no opening credit sequence, save for a lone graphic of the show's title. In refusing the viewers an opening credit sequence, it similarly refuses them answers. No sequence is offered to tell us who Jack, Kate, Hurley, or any character is, and no theme song is offered to suggest a tone, genre, or style. While numerous television shows have often begun with ‘cold starts,’ throwing the viewer into the action before pausing to offer the opening credit sequence, Lost is all cold start, no explanation. If opening credit sequences offer a stable generic frame through which we can evaluate and understand actions, Lost aims to confuse viewers by denying us such a frame.

The programme's writing and promotional staff has played definitional games with the show since the very beginning. In the summer of 2004, before the show hit American television, the promotional department engaged in an innovative campaign, placing ads for the programme in bottles and floating them in to a few American beaches. Previews and trailers similarly aimed to grab attention without offering answers, as they depicted the plane crash that opens the show, and the general mayhem and confusion that followed the cast's arrival on a remote island. They then cut to a scene of the trees rustling in the dark, accompanied by an eerie, bestial cry. Famously, the ads ended with a perturbed Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) asking his fellow castaways, “Guys, where are we?”.

That question — “where are we?” — has been central to Lost from the beginning, as the show continually requires viewers to ask where ‘we’ are. Where or what, we are forced to ask, is the island? Who are these people and what secrets do they hold? And, for that matter, what is this show? By not knowing any firm answers to such questions, viewers have been thrown into a process of fervid speculation about the rules that govern the island and the show. Further contributing to this destabilization has been the structure of each episode. In the initial seasons, each episode offered a flashback to the pre-crash life of one character. Such flashbacks often revealed new information about the character, and/or asked viewers to evaluate them and their actions differently. Following Season 3's dramatic conclusion that proved to offer a flash-forward instead of a flashback, subsequent episodes have told the post-‘rescue’ tale of the cast too. In other words, the writers present us with at least three versions of each character — pre-crash, on the island, and post-rescue — and our process of evaluating them, and hence of ‘placing’ both them and the story's rules of conduct, must take into account multiple possibilities. Many episodes of Lost begin with a close-up of a character's eye, constantly reminding us of the importance of perspective, and of the likelihood of shifting perspectives.

In this manner, Lost's relationship to genre is relatively unique in television history. Many television shows are starkly generic, offering reliable pleasures associated with that genre. As a standard cop show, for instance, CSI: Miami offers us a tough male protagonist, spectacularized images of crimes, romanticized tales of forensic detective work, a resolution to each episode that usually maintains a sense of justice, and many beautiful women in need of the detectives' help along the way. Similarly, situation comedies have long offered standardized, entirely reliable pleasures. A genre is a list of rules by which a show promises to work, and a list of promises to the audience. But Lost refuses to label itself, and it often asks us to reevaluate characters whose role in the narrative may have seemed set. Many of the pleasures of Lost are not prescribed, and instead are precisely those of solving the question of narrative, and of figuring out what is going on. Lost functions somewhat as a ‘test’ for audiences' knowledge of narrative and genre, as it challenges audiences to work out the rules of its elaborate game.

Racial and National Representations

Given Lost's constantly shifting ground, the show has often been able to play with representations. A common pattern is for the show to offer us a seemingly archetypal, even stereotypical, character. Then, over time, the script adds nuance to the depiction to the point that our former opinions of the character — and hopefully of the stereotype — prove inadequate or incorrect.

The progressive potential of this strategy can be seen in how the show deals with many of its non-American characters. By a process of Othering (the projection of undesired attributes onto another group of people), American and British depictions of the rest of the world have often relied upon stereotypes and offensive caricature. Several of Lost's key characters were first introduced to viewers within this vein. Sayid (Naveen Andrews), for instance, was presented as an Iraqi torturer, Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) was suggested to be a Korean gangster thug, and we initially saw Sun (Yunjin Kim) as a submissive Asian woman in a loveless marriage. Yet over time, Lost has given substantially more depth to all three characters. Several seasons in, therefore, viewers know Sayid as one of the more savvy and noble characters on the island, a loyal friend and a strong leader. Both Sayid and Jin have become two of the show's ‘heart-throbs,’ a rare position for actors of Indian or Korean descent in Hollywood. Meanwhile, buoyed in part by strong performances by Yunjin Kim, Sun is one of the more interesting characters on the island, and anything but the stereotype that she originally appeared to be. Sun and Jin, moreover, form one of the island's key romantic pairings, their story of tragic love asking viewers to identify with them in ways that Western audiences have rarely been invited to identify with non-White characters on television.

Admittedly, Lost is still guilty of offering regrettably shallow depictions of various other countries and cultures, so the picture is by no means entirely progressive. The show depicts Africa in Mr. Eko's (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) flashbacks, for example, as a bloodthirsty, violent place hardly distinguishable from the racist stories of colonial British history. A Jack (Matthew Fox) flashback that sees him in Thailand offers an exoticized image of Thais, especially of Thai women, one of whom features in a scene that comes shockingly close to a rape fantasy. And Korea is shown to be ruled by organized crime and a regressive patriarchal culture. Thus, Lost still suffers under the weight of tired and unimaginative images of the world at large.

Yet we might also stop to realize Lost's structural achievements in successfully telling a story involving a broad racial and national cast of characters, in turn played by a broad national cast of actors. Yunjin Kim has become American television's first truly successful imported Asian star, and other cast members hail from England, Australia, Croatia, and Nigeria. Studies of racial representation in American primetime television habitually paint a depressing picture of exclusion, and though Hollywood film has been a markedly more international industry for some time now, American television has been slow to follow suit. Lost, however, not only offers a model for others to copy, but through its success in America and abroad, it has offered reasons for a notoriously exclusive industry to open the casting doors more widely. In its immediate wake, for instance, Heroes has similarly found international success with a diverse cast.

Transmedia and Synergy

At the same time, if Lost has been notable for moving beyond American borders, both in casting and in filming outside the contiguous 48 states in Hawaii, it has also been notable for moving beyond the borders of the television set. While Media Studies often trains students to think of texts as narratives first and foremost, Lost may better be understood as a giant puzzle. Yet the pieces of this puzzle are to be found across the media landscape.

Early on, in the hiatus between Season 2 and Season 3 in the US, Lost offered an innovative ‘alternate reality game’ (ARG) online called The Lost Experience that invited fans to explore the world of Lost more deeply. Mock websites for companies that only existed in the world of Lost began to populate the Internet (see, for instance, http://www.thehansofoundation.org and http://www.oceanic-air.com), and sponsors Sprite, Jeep, Verizon, and Monster.com all offered playful extensions of the show too. Job search site Monster.com even established a page of job postings for the show's mysterious Hanso Foundation (http://www.hansocareers.com), including postings for an organ courier in Santa Barbara and a Simian Veterinarian in Zanzibar. Added to these online sources, the novel Bad Twin was released into book stores, ghost-written yet supposedly by Gary Troup, a character mentioned briefly in the programme whose Bad Twin manuscript ends up being read by two characters, and which heavily criticizes the Hanso Foundation. In response to Troup's allegations, an actor purporting to be Hugh McIntyre of the Hanso Foundation appeared on Lost owner ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live show, insisting that Troup was smearing the company's good name. Later on, between Seasons 3 and 4 in the US, a second ARG was initiated, Find 815, and following Season 4, a third ARG began by seemingly recruiting viewers/players to join the show's elusive Dharma Initiative (http://www.dharmawantsyou.com), both of which involved ‘leaked’ Dharma Initiative videos on YouTube.

On one level, what we see in such instances of textual overflow and playful extension is the growth of television storytelling beyond its traditional borders. With modern media conglomerations such as Lost and ABC parent company Disney, synergy is the name of the game, as companies try to earn as much money from singular properties as possible. Thus, for instance, Bad Twin's brief moment in the sun resulted in profits for Disney's book publisher Hyperion Books, they were able to use the McIntyre stunt to advertise Lost on their own Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Sprite, Jeep, Verizon, and Monster.com's participation in The Lost Experience netted them extra advertising for a show that has proven somewhat naturally resistant to product placement. When Lost becomes not just a television show, but an ‘experience,’ its producers can capitalize off it in many more venues, and have many more tools at their disposal for roping in and keeping a loyal audience.

On another level, though, such gimmicks have succeeded only because fans have shown an interest in them. Indeed, some of the more interesting extensions of the Lost world have been fan-generated, including a meticulously detailed fan-made website for the character Charlie's band, Drive Shaft (http://www.driveshaftband.com). This site offers lyrics for three albums, a blog from their tour in Finland, reviews from various magazines, and other amusing notes. Thus Lost's transmedia existence shows not only how corporate conglomerates can use networks of synergy to their advantage, but also how fans can create their own transmedia to insert their own imprint and interests into the universe. Given that Lost's puzzle has captivated so many, numerous sites have sprouted around it catering to fan speculation and creativity (see, for example, http://www.thefuselage.com), and given that the programme offers a huge, expansive world, many fans have been encouraged to fill in details of this world with their own stories, websites, and productions. Granted, fan-made products rarely enjoy the canonical position that industry-made ones do, but they nevertheless become sites for the play, performance, and creative consumption that is increasingly characterizing fan communities in a transmedia era.

Theme and Resonance

Undoubtedly, Lost's transmedia existence, its clever and groundshifting, puzzle-like format, and its at-times progressive racial and national representations contribute to its success. Yet we might also look to the basic themes that underlie the programme.

Infamously, Lost was not born out of a writer's urge to tell a story that s/he had been hatching for years. Rather, executive producer J. J. Abrams was asked by an ABC executive to write a story that would be something like a real-life Survivor. The subsequent product may seem a long way from this goal — smoke monsters, secret hatches, time travel, disappearing islands, and nefarious groups like Hanso are hardly the stuff of the successful reality television show. However, the constant and overarching presence of a notion of home, and the desire to get home, is as alive in Lost as in Survivor, or in countless other products of Hollywood.

The initial dynamic of the show was based on the desire to get home. As the show progressed, though, some of the castaways found themselves wondering if the island was not a better home, and if their fresh start on the island might not offer them the chance for a better future. Of course, to talk of home is also to talk of belonging, and the introduction of ‘the Others’ and their prior claim to the island further challenged the castaways' ideas of the island as home. And then, at the midpoint of the series, with Jack's pronunciation in a flash-forward to his post-‘rescue’ life, that “we have to go back,” the series has further interrogated where and what home truly is. If Dorothy's famous declaration that “there's no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz transported her away from a strange world to which she began the story hoping to escape, Jack's desperate plea flips this rubric, yearning for a return to Oz. Appropriately, following Jack's plea, the show shifted from giving us flashbacks that posited home as the pre-crash past, to flashforwards that posited the island as temporal home. In many ways, then, Lost has continually played off ideas of what it means to belong, what one must do to feel as though one belongs, where home is, and what home is — notions that have been central to narrative since the beginning of time.

Survivor forces its contestants to think about who to trust, who to play, and how to do so, and Lost too is ultimately a massive game of trust and confidence for all the characters. In eschewing a set and obvious genre, Lost boldly calls for a more complex rendering of its narrative landscape, refusing to set in stone who can be trusted and who cannot. In this regard, it may be more helpful for those of us living in a complex and complicated world outside the television. But its central questions are therefore the central philosophical questions facing humankind in general. If Lost fans have often speculated on the religious undertones of the story, this should come as no surprise, given that it is one of the more explicitly metaphysically inquisitive programmes in television history, asking the questions that truly matter: Who are we? Who can we trust? Do we belong? And, following Charlie, guys, where are we?

Further Reading

Gray, J. (2008) ‘Television Unboxed: Expansion, Overflow, and Synergy’ in Television Entertainment, Routledge.

Pearson, R., ed. (2009) Reading Lost: Critical Perspectives on a Hit Television Show, I. B. Tauris.

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