Why Lost Found Such a Global Audience
Many stories that include a message in a bottle are those with people lost at sea, but it was lightning in a bottle that changed the television landscape forever. ABC’s Lost coincidentally did have people lost at sea and was a monumental show that kept audiences wanting more. It helped catapult a network that was in dire need of viewership and brought legitimacy back to the small screen. Audiences and television critics alike, consistently name Lost as one of the best television shows of all time. The ABC juggernaut that broke network records when it premiered on September 22, 2004, paved the way for what we now call cinematic television during its six seasons. There have been many television shows that have come and gone through the years that have pulled in a large number of American households. It was evident early on that Lost had no intention of stopping at the US border when it came to those who could enjoy it. Lost was able to tap into the foreign television audience, unlike any other TV show. This paper intends to show how Lost was able to not only captivate a US audience, but did so around the world. My research included reviewing previous studies on Lost, those studies that concerned themselves with the relationship between international audience and US television, and personally asking Lost fans from around the world questions via online fan groups.
Lost averaged over 15 million viewers over the first two seasons and nearly 18 million during its third. These numbers are only reflective of the audience in the United States. It is important that the show did well here, as this can help point to why it did well everywhere else. J. J. Abrams gets a lot of credit when it comes to the success of Lost and while some of it is warranted, it is worth noting that he was really only around for the beginning of the show. Luckily for his legacy and for the viewers’ pleasure, the beginning of the show includes the pilot episode. The average cost of an hour-long pilot at the time was about $4 million. Somehow ABC greenlit the Lost pilot, which had the highest price tag in the network’s history at $14 million. Right away, viewers were stunned by how large scale the show was. Having a large ensemble cast was just the beginning of how big this show was. The premise of the show is that a plane crashes on an island and the large group of survivors try to both get off the island and survive while they are stuck there. Many lesser shows would just mention the plane crash or show an old, wrecked plane but Lost made a point of emphasis to show a real, burning plane on the island. There are also scenes of the plane being ripped apart in the middle of the air. The shock value alone was enough to heighten the interest of millions of people watching at home.
Lost featured a cast of actors from over a dozen countries. People take a vested interest in things when they can see themselves in them. Representation matters not only by race, but by ethnicity, and what better way to draw the interest of someone from another country, than to include someone that shares the same place they call home.
In South Korea, there are internet-based fan cafés that are similar to fan blogs in the United States. Here is where fans are able to talk to one another about their favorite shows and theorize about each episode. Hyo Jin Kim, a scholar from Texas Tech University shared that one of the fan cafés that was dedicated to Lost back in 2004, Am I Lost, was the biggest fan café the country had to offer. Am I Lost would hold events for its members like field trips to the Lost dubbing center that was held at the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). Married couple from South Korea and fan favorites, Jin and Sun Kwon, and the storylines that included them are without a doubt a huge reason this show resonated with the people of South Korea.
Within my own research, which included asking Lost fans from around the world questions, via online groups, I found that having an international cast was something that many viewers were fond of. When asked what was different about Lost versus other American television shows, Mhyke from the Philippines responded,
“DIVERSITY! Back in ’04 TV shows not as diverse as LOST was”
Even American viewers picked up on the fact that there was a different look to Lost. Stephen Kade, an American viewer from Michigan was asked a similar question, and what he had to say was,
“Diversity of characters, all continents and major countries get a character or two, a rare feat for television.”
Whether it be Jin and Sun from South Korea, Mr. Eko from Nigeria, Charlie from England, or Claire from Australia, audiences all over were able to see their likeness projected onto their TVs.
Location & Language
It is one thing to have people from other parts of the world in an American prime time television show, but to have these characters speaking different languages and for the show to take place in these other parts of the world, it elevated Lost to new heights. To go back to Jin and Sun for a moment, for the first half of the show’s run, Jin speaks almost no English at all as his character does not know how. The audience is under the illusion that Sun is the same way for a while because she pretends to not know English, as this would upset her faux bruting husband. While people from other countries are usually considered more worldly than those of us in the United States, they still have their native language that they are most comfortable with. There are many potential viewers of international media in America, but they cannot get over the language barrier that is common in such media, just as there are viewers in other countries who would rather watch something that is made in their first language. There are even some American viewers who liked the authenticity that Lost showed when it came to language. Muirrieyah, from the United States, said,
“I love that they weren’t afraid to use subtitles. It’s not like I love reading (I don’t), but I’m glad they had the Korean characters speaking Korean and other characters speaking in their native languages sometimes. That’s more true to life.”
Lost special, in that it included over a dozen foreign languages throughout. Through my rewatch of the series, I counted no less than fourteen foreign languages being spoken at any given time during the run of the show. The non-English languages that I counted include Spanish, Russian, Latin, Turkish, Arabic, Korean, French, German, Japanese, Yoruba, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese. There are times in the show where a foreign language will be spoken, but there are no subtitles given, which leaves the audience in the same situation as the characters who do not understand it. This could pose a problem if a viewer knows the given language when there is a plot point in the show that the showrunners want to keep from the audience. Something like this happened in France. There, they made the character Danielle Rousseau, who originally was said to be French, German. This was to keep certain things in the show a secret from the French audience, as a majority of them would be able to understand her native language. Of course, hearing a language you are familiar with every once in a while, is not enough to keep the interest of millions of people around the world, but it did add to Lost’s global-friendly resume.
Something that made the American drama stand out to many was that almost none of it takes place in America. The island that the survivors find themselves on does not take place in the United States, with the location of the island not ever truly being revealed throughout the entire series, and almost all of the scenes that do take place in the United States are flashbacks from certain characters, but even the flashbacks share the love, as not all of the characters are from the US. As mentioned earlier, Lost had a cast of characters that were from over a dozen different countries, and audiences got to see almost all of them at one point or another in the show. Combining first languages, those who may look like you, and an environment that you are all too familiar with allowed fans from everywhere to immerse themselves into the Lost universe. Kim from Australia echoed this sentiment,
“From Australia here . . . having Australia as part of the story also interested me.”
When I asked her if there was a connection between the worldly cast and worldly locations, I got a, “Spot on mate.”
Man of Science, Man of Faith
It seems that to everyone else around the world, Americans are abnormally loud and that does not only include the volume at which we speak, but we are loud with our opinions, whether that be in our television, film, or any other sort of media produced here. In Clara E. Rodriguez’s book, America, As Seen On TV, she looks at how American television shaped the expectations of immigrants from around the world. There were many factors as to why audiences chose to watch American television over the television that was made in their own country like the fact that US television was flashier and was not afraid to talk about things like sex, sexuality, or other topics that may be too taboo for their own country. Something that many of the immigrants in the study found interesting about Americans and American television is their willingness to talk about religion. While I would be remiss to not acknowledge that the US does not buy into their sentiment of separation of church and state completely, it does seem to be more widely accepted here to practice different religions or to not practice religion at all than in other countries.
Lost was not only not afraid to talk about religion, but the entire lore of the show was about religion, in the sense that it would question if there is someone who is all-powerful and that if destiny was real or do we have free will? The show’s main protagonist, Jack Shephard, is at odds with one of the other main characters John Locke at many different times in the series. It usually stems from Jack, who is a doctor, disagreeing with John, a man who can now walk, but was confined to a wheelchair before coming to the island, on what being on the island means. This is highlighted in the season two premiere, Man of Science, Man of Faith. Jack is sure of himself that John is wrong when he claims that it is their destiny to be on the island because they find themselves in even more danger. For almost the entire rest of the show, Jack sticks to his man of science attitude, but by the end, he acknowledges that there must be something else at work. The last episode shows all the characters that we have seen throughout the series, those shown to be alive at the end and those who have already been killed off the show, reunited in a church. This church though was not geared towards any one religion but included symbols from many different religions. Audiences were able to pick up on the fact that while Lost would talk about religion, it was not going to pick one and say this is it. A big reason for this is that co-creator of the show, Damon Lindelof, does not know entirely what he believes. He says that he was born into a very religious family, but the whole idea of God was hard for him to wrap his head around and that he has moved from atheism into agnosticism and says that he believes in “God”, but that it isn’t the same “God” that everyone else does. It is a bit mysterious, which matches the mysteriousness of Lost. Diane, a Lost fan who shared her thoughts on the show from my questionnaire said,
“Even spiritually the show tapped into sources from various religions, which made it more relatable. People could read things into it from their own personal cultural perspective as it never was so obvious in its point of view about spiritual matters.”
Post 9/11 World
2004 was a weird year because the United States, and the rest of the world for that matter, was three years removed from the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and this allowed time for healing, but it was still fresh enough in so many people’s heads that they had not fully recovered. There has been extensive research in the film studies world about why the superhero genre has blown up so much and has run supreme for the past twelve years. Many scholars link people’s desires to watch superhero movies with their longing for someone to protect them and this came in the aftermath of those attacks on 9/11. The superhero genre picked up in 2008, so there was an additional five years to cope for the masses, but with only three years since the attacks, many were not quite ready for what Marvel had in store for us. Instead, what they needed was what Lost gave them, which was the hope that people from all different walks of life could get along and survive. Of course, this is not what some wanted, as shown by the fact that the United States went to war right after 9/11 and really has not stopped since. Still, it was comforting for so many to see that even in the worst circumstance, being stranded on a mysterious island that seems to have a mind of its own, people could still lean on one another.
A favorite character among fans was Sayid. Sayid Jarrah was from Iraq before his time being stranded on the island. Iraq, of course, was enemy number one for many around the world after 9/11 because of many misconceptions of the actual terrorist attacks. Even if this disdain for a country was unwarranted, it was an opinion shared by many. That is why it was so important for Lost to not only show a character from there and one that was a part of the Iraqi military as not evil, but was one of the driving forces that kept everyone on the island alive. There is not much research done on if the people of Iraq had any feelings toward Lost or even if they were able to watch it, so I can not speak on if the Iraqi audience found this element of the show to be worthwhile, but for many others in the world, the change of pace surrounding a vilified region of the world was nice.
The conversation around serialized television vs. procedural television is one that many cannot agree upon, with both sides making valid points as to why their preference is better. When someone is asked what their favorite show is and they respond with Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, or Criminal Minds, there is a good chance that this person is okay with missing an episode here and there. The reason for this is that these are procedural shows, ones that include stories that are started and ended in one episode. Sometimes there are plotlines that take a few episodes to finish or there are season arching stories, but still, most episodes are self-contained. Many sitcoms are like this as well, which is why almost everyone has seen at least a couple of episodes of every major sitcom. They do not need to watch the whole thing to get a grasp on the show.
On the other hand, if someone says that their favorite show is Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or The Walking Dead, odds are, they have watched every single episode. If they do not, it will be hard to understand what is going on in the show. There is no show that encapsulates this idea more than Lost. Heather Mason, from Geek & Sundry, said, “If you watched a random episode of Lost in the middle of Season 5 you’d be…well, lost.” She is absolutely correct here, which is actually a very common criticism about Lost and serialized television as a whole. People are afraid of commitment in general and this includes their willingness to watch a television series. Nowadays, people may seem more willing to watch a long show on something like Netflix, but there are a few differences here. For one, these people can watch the show on their own time and can watch many different episodes at a time. Back in 2004, there were things like TiVo, but this was still new technology and not many were interested in recording a show so that they could watch it later. The other thing that is misleading when thinking that people will watch long shows on Netflix is that a lot of times people will put a show on and have it on in the background. This is not how Lost was watched in 2004, it could not be. The show required viewers to pay attention, which is something many cannot do. The reason I think the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to serialized television is that when you hear of fan conventions, you hear of the die-hard fans who study the world of the show they are interested in and they are very active in their pursuit to show how much of a fan they are. When is the last time you heard of NCIS being a big hit at Comic-Con? Lost took its time in telling its story and this did frustrate many, even those who loved it, but it also was what kept them coming back and made them take the show so seriously.
The Right Place at the Right Time
There is that misquote from a 1999 CNN interview with Al Gore saying he invented the internet. While Mr. Gore may have flubbed up on his words a bit, the timeline was not far off. The early 2000s was a time of change in popular culture. Before, fans of a certain television show could only show their support by watching the show and talking about it with their friends they knew personally. With the introduction of the internet, it made it possible for fans from every corner of the world to interact with one another. It allowed some people to watch shows that their regional broadcasting networks were not showing. The internet allowed me to conduct some of my research for this by connecting with fans of Lost from dozens of countries. In the early 2000s, American network television needed a hit drama, as all the quality dramas were on cable television, notably HBO. It seemed that the meshing of the popularization of the internet and the demand for a tentpole television show was a large factor in why Lost was so successful. In the discussion of the serialization of Lost, I mentioned that the show required its viewers to pay attention. The internet allowed fans to converse and theorize about each episode. Blog posts started popping up and episode recaps were now a thing. Many international fans mentioned that they partook in these fan-run websites. There was much more to being a fan of Lost than just sitting down on Wednesday nights and turning on ABC.
Conclusion: Lost is a good television show…
For so many reasons, Lost has been loved by millions of people. Lost is special in that it found its home in so many homes across the world. There are arguments to be made why this is and how Lost had to have had some secret that other shows simply have not been able to find. There is evidence that foreign audiences like certain American television shows because of how blatantly American they are, but in the case of Lost, they went the other direction. Lost found a global audience because it was a global show. It included characters and stories that were relatable to every demographic. At the end of the day though, Lost could have done all of this and still not have gotten the admiration that it has. The show is loved by so many because it is a great show. There are times where it is messy, where things do not make perfect sense, and there are questions that are never answered. This is comforting for some because, in life, things are messy, they don’t make sense, and we hardly ever understand the things we want to know most. The show is called Lost, not because the characters are lost on an island, but because they are lost in life. This is something that everyone can relate to and pair with how global the show strived to be, that is why it was able to find a global audience.
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