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Lost Taps Into Our Collective Cultural Psyche

on Mon, 03/10/2008 - 00:00

Lost is a cultural phenomenon. Not only have millions of viewers tuned in each week for new installments, but online viewers on both the website as well as iTunes make it one of the most watched shows on the Internet. More significantly, a mixture of water cooler conversations, online message board debates and audio podcast discussions has transformed the ABC drama into one of the hottest topics in both the real and virtual worlds that we now inhabit.

How—and why—did this come to pass? Author J. Wood, in his book Living Lost: Why We’re All Stuck on the Island (Garrett County Press, 2007), speculates that it is because of the show’s ability to symbolically reflect post-9/11 America. “Lost draws on a specific Twenty First Century isolation and distress,” he writes. “It taps into some here-and-now concerns, and speaks to the audience’s deeper lizard-brain psyche as it weaves its sophisticated tales.”

From Wood’s point of view, references in Lost to “the sickness” and “quarantine” directly correlate to the bird flu pandemic of 2004, while the use of torture on the show reflects events at Abu Ghraib. Although Wood does not believe such allusions are intentional—“the writers and the audience are all influenced to a degree by what is happening in our broader culture, and the elements of those events naturally work their way into our cultural productions”—he does believe this unconscious political and cultural commentary is the show’s greatest strength. “What Lost does so successfully is take these very real concerns straight off the front pages, abstract them into their psychological impression, and then crystallize that sense back into the framework of the narrative,” he proclaims.

Because J. Wood’s thesis is primarily based on an anti-Bush Administration bias, the exact extent of influence that real world events have on Lost Island more than likely varies depending on one’s own political viewpoints. There is, however, a more subtle correlation in Living Lost between what we see on the screen and what we experience in our lives that equally, if not more so, makes us all “stuck on the island”—Lost’s ability to tap into our collective consciousness and shared experiences, not on a political level but a cultural one, especially for those born between 1961 and 1981. As Wood himself remarks, “It’s this generation that makes up the median age group of the survivors on the island, as well as the show’s writers and directors. At a deep level, in terms of references, language, presentation, and narrative strategy employing mystery, this is a series that speaks to Generation X as few others have.”

The character of thirty-five year old James “Sawyer” Ford is a prime example. Although a high school dropout from economically challenged Jasper, Alabama, who turned to a life of crime at age nineteen, Sawyer is extremely well-read and culturally versed, evident not only by his habitual reading of literature on the island but also through his many quips and nicknames throughout the series. This litany of pop-culture monikers include Hot Lips, Underdog, Rambina, the Artist Formerly Known as Henry Gale, Shaft, Chachi, Thelma, Colonel Kurtz, International House of Pancakes, Mr. Ed, Rerun and Tattoo.

Star Wars, arguably the largest pop culture phenomenon of the past thirty years, is given particular emphasis by Sawyer—Ben (Yoda), Hurley (Jabba) and Jin (Chewie) have all been given corresponding nicknames. In the season three episode “Not in Portland,” Sawyer berates Aldo for having fallen for the “old Wookie prisoner gag,” while in “The Brig” he kills Anthony Cooper in the same fashion that Princess Leia killed Jabba the Hut. But it’s not just Sawyer who has a penchant for the George Lucas epic. Hurley’s rescue of Bernard, Jin and Sayid with the Dharma van in “Though the Looking Glass,” for instance, was a homage to the original Star Wars when Han Solo saved Luke Skywalker via the Millennium Falcon, while Hurley’s luring of Kate and Sayid into capture by Locke in “The Economist” correlates to Lando Calrissian tricking Han Solo into being captured by Darth Vader during The Empire Strikes Back.

It does not stop there, however, as homages to other pop culture staples abound in Lost. The 1996 meeting between Desmond Hume and Daniel Faraday in “The Constant” is reminiscent of the 1955 meeting between Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, while that entire episode was heavily influenced by the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although many fans have accused the producers of Lost for “being lazy” and simply “stealing” such plotlines, these references and “tipping of the hat” actually help to further connect viewers by drawing upon their shared cultural psyche. J. Wood remarks that for the writers of Lost the show “became a way to recast their vocabulary and references into a kind of mythology,” a mythology that we can more easily relate.

Furthermore, this pop-culture based mythology provides fuel for our desire to decipher that mythology. Lost is infamous for its ability to raise question-upon-question, which in turn churns out an amazing—and equally infamous—amount of fan-based speculation and theorizing on the Internet. While grumblings often arise that the show does not answer enough questions, these unanswered queries actually play a key role in keeping the audience engaged. “Those questions are the kind which draws audiences deeper into the mythology of the narrative,” Wood writes. “Audiences want answers, but more than that, they want to search for answers, whether they know it or not.”

This search, however, would not be as appealing if it weren’t rooted in our collective consciousness. The producers of Lost know this, and have thus peppered the series with both literary and cultural references that assist fans in deciphering the various mysteries of the island. “The clues, the Easter Eggs and hints provide answers where the narrative of the show doesn’t,” Wood continues. “In conspiracy-theory fashion, if audiences watch closely and pay attention to the details, they can find an archive of material in literature and pop culture that further develops the mythology of the narrative.”

It’s that “attention to detail” of the familiar that truly resonates with fans of Lost and has made the series the phenomenon that it has indeed become, while likewise shattering many preconceived notions about its medium. Lost, after all, is television at its most challenging, most literate and most intelligent. Yet its ratings, although having fluxuated through the years, mark it as a success, and the show’s online fanbase is among the largest and most loyal—as well as passionate—in history. To again quote J. Wood, “It’s proof positive that Lost is a show that can grab the imagination, turn people to literature, scientific and esoteric research, and engage them in a broader dialog exercising the same critical faculties that television is often blamed for shutting down.”

Which makes being “stuck on the island” not such a bad thing after all.

Anthony Letizia (March 10, 2008)

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