Television critics/theorists have had a tendency to talk a lot about the explosion of reality TV as being the quintessential post-9/11, decade-defining phenomenon on television. And certainly there is a lot to be sad about that. But we should recall that Survivor, the survival-on-an-island reality show that kicked off the whole “unscripted” boom, began in May of 2000, 15 months before 9/11. “Reality” may have been a sort of comfort food TV that carried us through the trauma of post-9/11 culture, but it wasn’t necessarily the ontological offspring of that fateful day.
Lost, however, is a show that seems more akin to the spirit and legacy of 9/11. It feels like a cultural touchstone that resonated with audiences–global audiences–in part because it embodied so many of the decade’s post-traumatic questions and preoccupations–that sense of existential unease, renewed spiritual interest, “Where are we?!” discombobulation, and “I’m not really surprised by anything anymore” resignation to the otherworldly unpredictability of this treacherous life. Polar bears on a tropical island? Unexplained smoke monsters? It somehow made sense in a “I just watched skyscrapers fall to the ground” world.
As Lost prepares to close the book on it’s rather short, “of-the-moment” 6-season run, I think one way we can make sense of its huge international success is by thinking of how it truly did reflect this moment in history–particularly in terms of global responsibility and digital-fueled collectivism. There are of course a gazillion other ways of interpreting Lost, but what follows is my humble attempt to put forth my final theory of the show: not so much a theory about what Lost‘s monsters and mythologies mean but rather what the show itself means as a show, for us.
On September 11 ,2001, we all woke up to world in which the local was suddenly thrust into the global, a world where complacent status-quo isolationism was no longer an option. That day made it very clear that the global world–full of conflicting ideas, worldviews, cultural values–could no longer be held at bay as some sort of textbook abstraction. It ushered in a new era of global responsibility. What we do in our everyday lives matters not just for our households and not just for our cities or states or nations… but for the world. The world is a smaller, more connected place than ever. We can’t just sit idly by and let the chaos reign–whether it’s on the other side of the world or in our own backyard. Lost–with its globe-trotting locations, mulitnational cast (including an Iraqi solider, not coincidentally), and universal themes–was truly a show for the world, a popcorn catharsis that embodied the urge toward global responsibility and unity in the midst of an island (this planet) we are stuck on together and can’t escape.
Riding the wave of decades of world-flattening globalization, the geopolitical impact of 9/11 was just one factor in the decade’s developing ethos of “global responsibility/connectedness.” But another big factor was technology. The Internet has only made it easier to contribute to or involve oneself in large, global dramas. One of Lost’s legacies will certainly be that it represented an important moment in technology-fueled convergence television, wherein the audience (through blogs, fansites, message boards, and frame-by-frame analysis) became a crucial part of the show’s storytelling. In the age of wikipedia and digital collective intelligence, the audience of a show like Lost can pool its wisdom and act as an instant force of continuity accountability, while also helping to fuel the obsessive theorizing about the show. Lost beckoned its consumers out of passivity and empowered them to make the show their own. And that sort of “becoming part of a lathe sort of clarion call our culture responds to today.
But Lost embodied this not just in its medium, but in its storytelling themes and worldview.
As I reflect on the show having seen all six seasons, I think the central thematic tension of Lost has always been that of the global vs. the local, the big view vs. the narrow view, “for the greater good” vs. “my own private island.”
It’s the tension between wanting to stay on the island for some mystical “I’m part of something big” reason (Jacob, Richard) vs. wanting to get off and live a life free of highfalutin world-saving (Jacob’s dark-haired brother).
It’s the tension between believing we are part of a grand design/purpose/destiny (Locke) and believing we should just help those we can help in our immediate contexts (Jack… in the early seasons at least).
In one of the series’ most crucial and memorable exchanges (between, of course, “man of faith” John Locke and “man of science” Jack Shepherd in the ever-dramatic hatch), we see the tension play out in terms of willingness or unwillingness to believe the hype about destiny/fate/brought-to-the-island for a reason.
Locke: “Why do you find it so hard to believe?”
Jack: “Why do you find it so easy?”
It’s also the tension between feeling the urgency of doing (busily trying to save the world) vs. the peace of just being–a tension represented well in this clip from season 5:
Though it may come across that Lost most often sides with the “save the world” approach to actively engaging global issues, this scene–in with “retired” Rose and Bernard give everyone a bit of “who cares?” hippie perspective–might indicate that Lost’s creators also believe that our personal love for one another is perhaps our most revolutionary, world-changing act.
Indeed, the show has always been about relationships, and love, and community–even and perhaps above all the “let’s save the world” stuff. Time and time again you see the tension between individualism and collectivism play out in terms of characters eschewing their “every man for himself” survival instincts for sacrificial actions on behalf of the community. From day one, Lost proved that it wasn’t just Survivor: Fiction Style. It wasn’t about who can outwit and outlast all the others. It was about how this diverse group of plane crash survivors could together form a community to survive in a very strange and foreign place, even if it meant paying the ultimate price to protect their friends and loved ones (as was the case for Charlie, Michael, Sayid, Jin/Sun, Juliet, and so many others).
Even from the show’s earliest days back in season one, critics picked up on the importance of the community vs. individualism theme for the show. Variety’s Brian Lowry noted that Lost’s island inhabitants were forced to “grapple with what’s expected of them in close-knit societies” as they had to “adapt to a strange new world.”
In the world of Lost, there are certainly a few lone wolves still acting mostly out of personal self-interest (Smoke Monster, Widmore, at least seemingly), but it seems like most characters are motivated at the very least out of love for their friends and family, if not out of a sense of duty to protect the whole world from some sort of cataclysm.
The show presents a way forward for our chaotic, treacherous, “WTF?! Where are we??” world. And the way forward is sacrificial love for our neighbor– “neighbor” meaning our children and love interests, but also our broader global family… those who are very different from us and yet nevertheless struggling to make sense of “the island” we all inhabit.
In a world where horrifying plane crashes can sometimes change the course of history–whether they’re crashing into buildings or onto islands–we cannot just sit back and watch the world self-destruct. But we also shouldn’t become battle-hungry busybodies, always looking to catalyze change or fix every problem (I’m talking to you Dr. Shepherd!). I think we should rather be somewhere in the middle–aware of our limitations and the power of external forces, but also willing to fight for what’s good and change the world through the love and selflessness we can display in our immediate contexts.