The Conundrum of the Character-Driven Plot in Lost

Curator's Note

Lost is a conundrum. Its phenomenal success positions it squarely within mainstream television while its enigmatic and seemingly supernatural narrative, inviting fan speculation and interpretation, marks it as a cult series. While ‘cult’ is often defined as standing in opposition to the mainstream, Lost straddles the barrier between the two types of programme and audience. Creators Lindelof and Cuse attribute this dynamic to the show’s two main appeals: its character-driven plot and the broader series mythology about the mysteries of the island. But is the character-driven plot the sole purview of the mainstream audience and is the show’s deferred mystery and game playing the main attraction for the cult fan? The clip ‘Never Again’ is a fan video, in which footage from the show is re-edited together as a means for the fan to express their reading of the series. This is one of many character-driven videos that focus on the love triangle between Jack, Kate and Sawyer in which fans declare an allegiance for a particular pairing (Jack/Kate, Kate/Sawyer, Jack/Sawyer). While the re-imagining of these relationships in this video, with Sawyer presented as an abusive partner from whom Kate must be rescued by Jack, can be seen as a form of ‘textual poaching’, it is also responding directly to the show’s overt focus upon this love triangle as a form of narrative hook around sex and romance. All audiences, mainstream and cult, are invited to declare their preferences for who Kate will choose. These videos, rather than reading against the grain, are often drawing upon existing characterisations within the series while also fuelling the show’s romantic narrative drive. Lost’s focus upon the character-driven plot, therefore, raises questions about accepted distinctions between mainstream and cult texts and audiences.


As an academic, I'm well used to videos where fans cleverly select from the official text to support their own reading. But watching this, I found myself responding with mild outrage (even while I admired the execution) and mockery... as a Sawyer fan. I found myself far more resistant to this video than I would be to a Harry/Draco slash, for instance and the fan part of me was intensely annoyed that anyone watching this clip who wasn't familiar with the official text would get entirely the "wrong" idea about Sawyer, Kate and Jack's relationship from this (from my point of view) misrepresentation. It's also pretty unfair and inaccurate in its portrayal of Kate as the helpless victim/trophy -- this is the fan speaking again, because as an academic I don't believe in any absolute truth of interpretation of course.

Stacey’s posting makes me think about why scholars have been so keen to invest over the years in “against the grain” readings in the first place. What exactly is this grain that fans, scholars and textual poachers are supposed to be going against, and why should notions of so-called “resistant readings” be so highly valued amongst commentators on “cult TV”? These questions become particularly tricky when we consider whether or not Lost’s international theme and global success complicates its status as a “cult/mainstream hybrid” (e.g. do British or Korean fans make and post these kinds of videos? – or is it just US fans?) . Either way, the existence of these kinds of videos must make ABC very happy indeed. If Lost’s co-creators insist that the show’s “two main appeals” are character-driven stories and the mysteries of the island, then this video clearly demonstrates how sex and romance are tied into character dynamics. However, what also unites these two “main appeals” – and what further underpins this particular video as well - is sex and violence. The Lost island provides a mysterious romantic location within which themes of sex and violence may be dramatised. It's all done very cleverly and very professionally…but it’s still (heterosexual) sex and violence all the same.

Like Will, I found this video troubling and raising some of the questions Julian highlights. Typically, active audience theories suggest that fan creativity works to complicate popular texts that are assumed to be more straightforward & simplistic - or at least mask their nuance in subtext that fans bring to the surface. But this video seems to oversimplify fairly nuanced characters and place them into stock roles of abuser, victim, and hero - what place do such works sit in the body of fan studies theory? Is this 'resistant reading'? Or maybe I'm just cranky after being forced to listen to Nickelback...

I agree with Julian's comments that academics overinvest in the notion of 'against the grain'. These videos are often just playful experiments, as this one was according to the creator's comments, or often reaffirm the dynamic of the series. While this video may oversimplify the characters, it still conforms to the series triangular narrative and comes down on the side of Jate over Skate. It simply offers its own take on that relationship. Like Will, I'm a fan of Sawyer and don't like seeing him portrayed in this light, but was struck by the number of fans who commented that they could see Sawyer being violent and then feeling back about it aftewards.

Not that I wish to disagree with a contributor to my Lost book (Reading Lost, IB Tauris, available in autumn, trying viral marketing again) but hasn't it traditionally been the cult shows that have attracted shipper fanfic and now fanvids? How many millions of Mulder/Scully, Picard/Crusher, Xena/Gabrielle stories are stored in servers somewhere? So many cult shows have been as much about character as about the plot (if the two can be divorced) What makes Lost exceptional here is the producers' discourse. Lost, as Stacey argues very convincingly in her article, was originally designed as a cult text, but broke out into the mainstream. When it did so the producers, now wary of the cult label that would hurt rather than help the show, began to downplay the mythology in favour of the character elements (seen as more literary and more respectable perhaps?) Yet as I argue in my contribution to the book, every element of the characters is intended to be tied into the overarching narrative enigmas (more successfully with some characters than with others). And as Jason Mittell and Jonathan Gray show in their article about spoilers, the majority of fans who participated in their survey were more interested in the hermeueutic than in the characters.

Another point to raise re the above. Julian and I have just been having an ftf discussion (very old technology). We're wondering if aside from publicising the book, we're not all just pimping for ABC. This is I think a central issue in today's television studies, which has become more and more production/industry centred. I think it's great that we're all concerned with connecting text to context. In this regard, tv studies seems to be departing from the film studies tradition, much of which is still text-centric. On the other hand, what is our added value? There are so many smart people in the industry analysing the market and the fans that I wonder what else we can bring to the table. And if we do do work on fandom, it can feed right back into the industry to help them refine their marketing techniques, as the industry appropriates fan practices. In the spirit of trailing forthcoming episodes, I'll be talking about this issue at the 'Future of TV Studies' workshop at SCMS.

I think this is a central question Roberta. For me, the balance between connecting text to context and still maintaining a critical edge is found in the works of Bourdieu, especially where his focus is on delineating the struggles between different occupational and prestige positions within the cultural field of production (which certainly includes fans these days) and exploring the ways habitus (loosely defined as occupational and social dispositions) informs discursive articulations of the particular roles/functions/purposes of each community. At the end of the day, what producers and consumers do is largely determined by how they understand their position within the larger field cultural production, but of course, the symbolic and economic capital invested in these positions are also in flux. What this has specifically to do with LOST, I'm not certain, but I do think we need a more complex conceptualization of power and cultural dispositions that doesn't replicate an outmoded fans as textual poachers versus industry. I look forward to your SCMS workshop.

Just going back to Roberta's first comments, I agree that traditionally it is the cult audience who is interested in the characters (as evidenced by our own defensive reading of the rewriting of Sawyer in the above video) which is why I think that the producers perception that the character-driven plot is so central to the mainstream appeal is so interesting. But then Jason Mittell and Jonathan Grey's findings confound the division again. There is no clear cut answer. The question regarding pimping for ABC is a good one. Is this work just feeding into the promotional machine despite our attempts to contextualise it all? Does that mean it isn't worth having these discussion even if this is a risk?

Did I think it was perfect? No. At the end of the day, I think the sideways story could have tied in a little bit better with everything else. I really liked the church scene and what it had to say about life and death, but at the same time, it didn’t really mesh as well as it could have with the story of the smoke monster trying to leave the island. In fact, the two plots may have even marginalized each other. Desmond unplugged the island, causing Smokey and Jack to lose their island mojo. This resulted in the death of both of them. Hurley took over the island, making Ben his right hand man. Sawyer, Kate, Claire, Lapidus, Richard, and Miles all flew away. Is there really much more to say about that?

I suppose there is. I really liked how things turned out for Ben. It was a little heartbreaking seeing him look on as Hurley took over for Jack, again passed over — again reminded that he is not special. That made it all the better when Hurley asked him for his help, finally giving Ben essentially what he had always wanted. The ending makes sense for Hurley too. He was special. He had the right attitude and heart to care for the island, more so than probably any of the other candidates.

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