With an average of 16 million viewers in the United States, ABC’s Lost is one of the world’s most popular television shows. Using a plane crash on an unknown island as the springboard of the story, the main characters belong to the 48 survivors of the Oceanic Air Flight 815 from Sydney bound for Los Angeles. As they gather their strengths to survive against nature and each other, the protagonists discover that the island they got marooned in has mysterious secrets of its own. As the TV show reveals the multitudinous mysteries of the island and the characters, it enthralled many viewers to follow the travails of the characters in a cult-like fashion.
No doubt, its science fiction combined with fantasy plot has spawned many websites, novels, comics, blogs, mobile episodes, and even board and computer games to boot. It is indeed an American popular culture icon that has shared with its viewers the uncanny experiences, mysteries, and even philosophies beyond the TV show. What makes Lost tick as a TV show? How did it influence American pop culture? Were viewers enthralled by the familiar plot that was given a unique twist?
What are the social and political perspectives behind the characters of the show? What are the philosophical realms that were explored in the TV show? These are just some of the questions we will try to tackle in this paper in order to get critically delve into the success of ABC’s Lost. In this attempt, it is deemed that we can somehow take a glimpse of why this show also garnered Emmy and Golden Globe awards, apart from the sky-rocketing popularity of this show, which BBC ranked as the second most popular show in the world (BBC, 31 July 2006).
Lost: Its Nature and Influence
Lost kicked off its pilot episode on September 23, 2005. In the first episode, the first scene you see is Jack Shepard (Matthew Fox) lying with blood in his shirt, amidst the sea of bamboo trees around him. Shepard then ran towards the beach, where one could see that there was a plane crash. Shepard was part of that crash and he assisted people around him.
We then know that he is a doctor. Then, there are more interesting characters that appear: a mysterious woman who was really a fugitive being flown away by a cop, a pregnant lady, a black man with his young son, a Korean couple, a disabled old man who regained his ability to walk and more. Viewers would soon notice that each episode has a main storyline that weaves each survivor’s experience on the island, with flashbacks from their former lives before the crash happened.
TV critic Ned Martel informed that the reality show Survivor was Lost’s “true ancestor”. He further said that Lost “crushed” all usual clichés by making viewers’ “brains can juggle many different backstories and subplots” and making audiences “tolerate subtitles”. It also crushed that TV plots usually fare in, like “mysteries need to be quickly resolved; characters have to be American in appearance and accent and [they need to] travel only too familiar places”. Despite the cast was composed of virtually unknown actors, the show “has resulted in a troupe of actors who seem eager but appropriately uncomfortable in their surroundings” (p. 15).
Indeed, Lost was fated to break all of the viewers. In the pilot episode, most viewers expected that this was another Jurassic Park rip-off because some gigantic dinosaur-like monster appeared to roam on the island. The casting was also “racially-distributed”, as we see Americans, Black people, French, British, Koreans, and even an Iraqi character. In almost all series and movies, Middle Eastern people were either cast as crooks, terrorists, and villains. In Lost, we see Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews) as a sensitive and helpful man. This was quite a gamble for the producers because most Americans still have that 9/11 trauma, where Iraqis were the culprit.
Twair (2005) claimed that it was “even more surprising, Sayid isn’t a suave Saudi or a romantic Lebanese. He is an Iraqi — and a likable Iraqi, at that”. Despite the shocking revelation that he was formerly a Republican Guard, which can harm “American viewers’ sympathies against this character”, it said that “Sayid’s common sense and basic decency” earned the respect of most of the survivors.
In Twain’s interview with Damon Lindelof, co-creator/executive producer of Lost, he explained their choice of having Sayid the cast. He said, “We thought it would be compelling to make American audiences bond with an Arab character by virtue of not writing him as an Arab but as a human.” Moreover,
Lindelof confided that in the scriptwriting process, it was challenging to present Sayid in a way that would shatter American misperceptions of a Muslim Arab male. “It was always our intent to make Sayid heroic, intelligent and romantic,” Lindelof said. “The fact that he’s also Iraqi was never meant to define him, it was simply a way of making audiences potentially question their own ethnic/religious stereotypes as they (hopefully) fall in love with Sayid as much as we did.” (Twain, p. 51).
Dunn (2006) believed that Lost succeeded beyond the 9/11 tragedy because the show “reveals more hidden layers of questions and weirdness. The ‘lost’ of the title is not just a reference to their physical plight, it also eludes to their being cast adrift epistemologically. It is not just lost innocence but also lost comprehension”. Thus, new twists as they break previous misconceptions made the viewers so intrigued with the show.
In fact, it made Lost the Wednesday night’s most-watched drama, as “each week’s episode provides more revelations on the pasts of the survivors – and they are as disparate a group as might be found on any international jetliner manifest”. Character development of each survivor is the clock that makes Lost tick to so intriguing millions of viewers. In 2006, Time hailed Lost as a “TV monster”, as it is more than a TV show but it is “a model for TV’s future”. The show’s popularity has spawned the TV series into:
- Internet Sites – Lost has become an “online phenomenon” because “the show has spawned more than a dozen fan blogs in which viewers trade clues, post theories, and argue over plot points. ABC’s site features podcasts, video clips and, of course, lots of Lost merchandise”.
- TiVo and DVR – “Obsessive fans use TiVo and other such devices to examine the show in slo-mo, frame by frame. Like conspiracy buffs poring over grassy-knoll photos, they have found figures lurking in mysterious smoke and elsewhere”.
- Cell Phones – “In addition to various recaps, news, clues and screensavers, 3G cell phones will deliver Lost Video Diaries, a selection of 22 two-minute original clips. A catch: not every mobile-phone service will carry them”.
- PlayStation Portable – “Actors Jorge Garcia and Dominic Monaghan are big PSP gamers, and they can watch the show’s two-part pilot episode on Sony’s handheld unit. A Universal Media Disc version was released at the same time as the DVDs, with all the same bonus features”.
- DVD Boxed Set – “The first season of Lost episodes sold more than a million units at a list price of $59.99, becoming the second-biggest seller”.
- Games – The Lost website includes “interactive games based on the show”.
- I-Pod Downloads – “Disney has sold 2 million shows and other content on Apple’s iTunes store”.
Lost: Socio-political Perspectives and Philosophies
Despite its science fiction meets fantasy plot, many analysts have given meaning to the social, political, and philosophical realms that are explored in Lost. As they were marooned on an unknown island, the people of all colors, religions, and cultures need to interact with each other and survive together against the challenges of nature and the mysterious happenings on the island. In fact, the island is a microcosm of modern society, where it works in the same set of issues—meaning and purpose, common destinies, and divine interventions.
Douthat claimed that “the castaways are divided among themselves both personally and philosophically, constantly arguing over whether their lives on the island are governed by purpose or blind chance, and whether faith or reason is a surer guide in their strange circumstances”. Although some of them are Christians, “others embrace a kind of New Age island-worship, others cling to a stringent materialism”. What’s admirable is that “the show seems capable of synthesizing all these elements and building to a metaphysical battle royale, in which the various forces at work in our own civilization struggle with one another for mastery, and nothing less than the fate of the world hangs in the balance”.
On the other hand, Dunn believed that Lost gained “compulsive viewing” for two political reasons. Primarily, “it offers a fascinating window on the American psyche post 9/11 and therefore offers some cultural context, if not explanation, of US foreign policy”. And, second, “it represents the ultimate Hobbesian state of nature. There are no authority figures, the airline pilots and crew are all dead and, symbolically, they collectively and miserably failed to keep the Sky Marshal alive. Nor is there any system of collective decision-making”.
In USA Today, Keveney (2007) even linked the Lost characters to some famous philosophers. For example, a frustrated office worker (Terry O’Quinn), was named John Locke. He was “in a wheelchair transformed to a vital, ambulatory explorer on the island”. In one episode, Locke represented faith among the survivors and he felt “a spiritual bond with the mysterious island”. In fact, John Locke (1632-1704) was an “English philosopher of the Enlightenment Era”.
He was the founder of liberalism and Locke’s greatest philosophical effort, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, which became a classic statement of empiricist epistemology. Locke began his analysis by attacking the Platonic theory of innate ideas, which asserted that knowledge originated in fundamental concepts that were present in the mind at birth and prior to sensory experience.
In attacking Platonic assumptions, Locke sought to establish the empiricist view that all human knowledge originates in sense perception. At birth, the mind is a tabula rasa, a clean slate, a white paper, on which the data of experience are impressed. These ideas are either simple or complex. If complex, they are relational and arise from mental faculties that enable us to compare, contrast, abstract, and remember them.
In Lost, we can see Locke mentioning that everyone deserves a new beginning or a “clean slate”. He told this to Kate, who was an escaping fugitive. Other characters in Lost were Rousseau, Hawking, and Cooper who were close in character with the real-life philosophers and thinkers.
The universality of Lost in terms of its cast and plot had gained most viewers’ respect for the TV show. It is not only pushing out a sci-fi meets fantasy scenario, but it echoes in the reality of how people should learn to have faith in each other and what they can do amidst the troubles of life. People do not need to be marooned on an island to realize that we need to put down prejudice to be able to gain the respect of others. In a place bereft of hope, a person named Locke is inspiring everyone with his wisdom and philosophies to be able to survive nature and the mysteries that abound the island.
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Douthat, Ross. Lost and Saved on Television. Journal of Religion and Public Life, 2007.
Dunn, David Hastings. “LOST: Adventures in the American Psyche after the 9/11 Fall”, Defence Studies, 6.3 (2006): 318-321.
Keveney, Bill. “Lost Philosophy: Something to Think About” USA Today, (2007). Web.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Wordsworth, 1841. Web.
Martel, Ned. “Lost Crushes the Clichés”, Broadcasting & Cable, 135.28 (2005): 15.
Time. “The Lost TV Monster”,167.11 (2006): A2.
Twair, Pat McDonnell. “ABC-TV’s Hit Series, ‘Lost,’ Features Sayid, a Sensitive, Appealing Iraqi. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 24.3 (2005): 44-52.