In hindsight, it would have been strange if Lost didn’t develop a passionate cult fanbase.
Think about the factors at play. It was a serialized television show that took place on a possibly supernatural island filled with mystery. It brought serious philosophical ideas to the forefront of its premise to the point that some characters were even named after philosophers and other deep thinkers. The characters were both likeable and believable but also on occasion represented larger archetypes for themes like science and faith to battle amongst one another.
Lost was a fandom-creating slam dunk akin to The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s not weird that Lost created that rabid fanbase. What’s weird is that it wasn’t small. It was huge. It was mainstream. The story of the Lost fandom is really the story of how cult fandoms abandoned their cult status and went mainstream with an assist from the burgeoning internet.
The origins of Lost are well known at this point. ABC executive Lloyd Braun wanted to create a TV show that was similar to the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. A group of plane crash survivors become stranded on a deserted island and have to suddenly deal with one another’s shit. It would be like Gilligan’s Island by way of The Real World.
This was, of course, a bad idea so ABC did what it always used to do with bad ideas: ask J.J. Abrams if he wanted to take a pass at it. Even before he was the Ruler of the Pop Culture universe, Abrams was an important figure on television, bringing ABC zeitgeisty hits like Felicity and Alias. ABC brought Abrams the script and then paired him with a like-minded, nerdy individual in Damon Lindelof. Abrams and Lindelof found that they shared many of the same ideas of where the series should go by including elements of the supernatural, philosophy, and mystery. They created a series bible and ABC promptly ordered the most expensive pilot ever produced because sometimes the network television industry is insane. Just like that, we had Lost. Or in the parlance of every episodes closing cut-to-black moment: BOOM. LOST.
After directing the pilot, Abrams wasn’t involved with much of the show, instead leaving the day to day running of the series to Lindelof, who promptly brought in TV veteran Carlton Cuse to assist him as showrunner. Lindelof has since said that he had every intention of creating a much-beloved by few modest TV cult classic. Turn in a solid season, watch it go down in Nielsen flames thanks to its high-minded, convoluted premise, then turn up to Comic Con every few years and shake hands with a handful of guys in John Locke costumes.
Then Lost actually premiered on September 22, 2004 and Lindelof described his experience thusly. “My fantasy was that it would be this kind of culty 13 episodes and out show. Maybe like a Firefly. That was really the trajectory that I was hoping for.
“I was just thinking, ‘Thank god, this is not going to be that big of a deal.’ That was the night of the 22nd. At around 6:15 a.m. the next morning. I remember sleeping fairly well, uncharacteristically, and my phone rang and it was Tom Sherman who had been the executive who had developed Lost at ABC. I knew it was a ratings call and this was going to essentially determine the trajectory of my life in some fairly significant ways. And it was Tom and he said, ‘The show is a monster.’ At the time, I think they were the biggest drama numbers ABC had experienced in four or five years.
“And I just remember feeling really terrified. And numb and in shock. And it was a Thursday morning, so I had to go in and go to work and break the next story, and Carlton [Cuse] was there and everybody was in this incredibly celebratory mood. Agents and executives, everybody was calling. I remember all these baskets of muffins arriving. Just baskets of muffins. I was surrounded in my office by all of this pastry. And I just broke down sobbing because I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m gonna have to make more of this thing.”
The series premiere ended up being viewed by more than 18 million people, which is an astonishingly high number, even for the inflated viewing numbers of 2004. Lindelof was right in assuming he and Abrams’ weird little concept would develop a cult following. Online fan forums sprouted up like weeds. The Fuselage was the “official” forum endorsed by Abrams and ABC but many others were established as well, not even to mention the generic IMDb forums.
Online forums are nothing new for fandoms. Without recap website Television Without Pity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn’t have become a cult classic. And The X-Files boasted the first internet-based fanbase for a TV show. Where Lost differs, however, is how its mainstream success began to turn “traditional” media coverage of it into something resembling rabid fan forums.
On Lostpedia.org, the most comprehensive Wiki for Lost-related information on the internet, there are individual pages for pop culture writers and commentators who are particularly well-known for their Lost coverage. Think about that for a moment. That would be like if the related links section of William Shakespeare’s Wikipedia entry mentioned high school teacher Mrs. Franks who had lots of good ideas about Julius Caesar that she presented to 9th graders.
There is an entry for “DocArzt” (Jon Lachonis) who created a popular blog for fan theories about Lost called the Tail Section. There are also entries for E! Online’s mainstream entertainment media writers, Kristin Dos Santos and Michael Ausiello, who blogged about Lost extensively.
But the biggest Lostpedia page for a mainstream media member is reserved for Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen. Jensen, who often tounge-in-cheekily went by “Doc” Jensen in his Lost columns, was like the Metatron/Voice of God to the Lost fandom. It’s not rare to peruse fan forums for cult-y IP’s and find people spending waaaaaay too much time, effort, and intellect on hare-brained fan theories (I mean that as a compliment). It is rare, at least it was at the time, for someone like that to actually work at a mainstream magazine.
Jeff Jensen’s corner of the internet at EW.com was as though Time Inc. accidentally hired user: “Live2getherDieAlone4815162342” directly off TheFuselage.com. Jensen’s columns took the rampant theorizing, shipping, gushing, and all around geeking-out from the private alleys of little read fan blogs out into glorious light of the mainstream media.
Trying to find the moment Jeff Jensen went from magazine writer to arbiter of Lost as a quasi-fandom religion requires some internet archaeology. It isn’t until page 142 of Jensen’s current EW.com page that we see our first mention of Lost. Funnily enough, it’s not a happy mention.
“Amnesia! Wow! Now there’s a novel concept for a plot twist!” Jensen writes on February 11, 2005. What episode is he writing about? If there weren’t a date listed, we’d never know it was episode 15 of season 1 “Homecoming” because none of that information is included in the review. Makes you want to travel back in time and shake every media member you see, yelling: “But the SEO, Jeff! Think of the SEO!”
Then on March 7, 2005, we can see ol’ Doc start to soften a bit toward the show in a brief post titled “‘Lost’ gives away its first clue.” Jensen writes: “As if watching Lost didn’t already require a vigilant attention to detail, the Feb. 23 episode took the blink-and-you-miss-it antics up a nifty notch: Portly fan fave Hurley (Jorge Garcia) flitted across a TV screen during Jin’s (Daniel Dae Kim) flashback. ‘Our first TiVo moment!’ says proud executive producer Damon Lindelof of the buzz bit. Hairy hippie Hurley’s peekaboo — further explored in last week’s episode (Big Man won the lotto!) — is part of a plan to cultivate six-degrees-of-separation intrigue among the castaways.”
It’s almost as though you can see Jensen slowly going from a dutiful and objective magazine feature writer into all of that plus a rabid fan.
Then season two rolls around and Jensen is in full-blown tinfoil hat mode, surrounded by books on electromagnetism and predetermination. The titles of his posts begin to go from “just the facts, ma’am” online blog posts to a portrait of a fan so into something that he’s losing his mind…which if you think about it, is a charming representation of how our modern pop culture internet operates now.
Here is a sampling of some headlines showing Jeff Jensen’s evolution into Doc Jensen: Master Lost Professor. “‘Lost’ S2: Conspiracy theory of the month,” “‘Lost’ (S2): Doc Jensen solves it! (Or so he thinks…)” “ ‘Lost’ (S2): Doc Jensen has more insight,” ”Lost”: Who ARE you people? Theories on the Others,” and so on and so forth.
Jensen was Lindelof and Cuse’s go-to guy for creator-to-fan communications. By the time season two rolled around, Jensen had nearly turned EW.com into an accredited University of Lost Theory by debuting a video blog series called “Totally Lost” in which he theorized with co-host Dan Snierson and even brought on select cast members from Lost for occasional interviews and/or skits. “Totally Lost” remind you of anything?
Now, were all 20-some million viewers who watched Lost at its ratings height reading Jeff Jensen’s columns and rushing to the library to check out whichever book his theory focused on that week? Absolutely not. Still, it’s telling that a mainstream website was now the ultimate source of Lost nerdery. The fandom of a supposedly cult show existed in-between articles about American Idol and Desperate Housewives instead of being shoved way to the back of the internet.
ABC for its part didn’t really seem to know exactly what to do with this property that was a weird hybrid of cult and mainstream appeal. The scheduling of episodes was staggered in seasons one through three to capitalize on sweeps weeks. Seasons one and two occasionally featured week-long breaks between new episodes, which was not going to fly for a show that had a legion of nerds and casual observers seeking answers. They thought they had a compromise in season three when they effectively turned it into two seasons: one featuring six episodes, a lengthy break, and then 16 more episodes.
This also would not do and the general lack of quality of the first six episodes encouraged ABC to both cut it with the weeks off and allow Lindelof and Cuse to negotiate an end date for the series. It’s hard to imagine another cult fandom that is able to exert so much influence over a major television network but again: Lost’s fandom is our first mainstream cult fandom.
Attempts to appeal to the cult side by ignoring the mainstream ultimately fell flat. Alternate Reality Game experiences for TV shows are actually now quite common with even shows as relatively low-profile as Archer getting in on the Easter Egg action. But when Lost introduced The Lost Experience between seasons 2 and 3, it may have been too much too soon.
The Lost Experience was an ARG where Lost fans were able to track down clues through the internet, starting at oceanic-air.com, to eventually uncover the truth regarding The Hanso Foundation, the mysterious benefactor of The DHARMA Initiative.
As far as ARGs go, The Lost Experience was fun and incorporated a ton of different media, including a Lost tie-in book, Bad Twin by Gary Troup (who was an unseen character in the show). Ultimately, the game answered what “The Valenzetti Equation” was and how it predicted how much time humanity had left, using some core numerical values. Bet you can’t guess what those core numbers are! (Hint: they start with “4” and end with “8, 15, 16, 23, 42”) The game was of little consequence to the vast majority of Lost watchers but it’s important in that it represents one of the first times a major network was forced to confront that a sizable portion of its mainstream hit’s audience were insatiable nerds. In 2006, organizations like ABC began to understand that catering to an audience meant catering to the most obsessive and engaged portion of that audience. The cult fandom was now mainstream.
And in 2006 an important tool for all fandoms emerged: Twitter. Social media is a crucial part of the fandom experience now. It’s the easiest way to engage with other like-minded individuals and has sped up the process of fandom building. For Lost, TV’s first mainstream/cult hybrid show, Twitter meant that no weekly viewing experience was ever undertaken alone. Viewing parties came to be the norm and Twitter and Facebook supported the creation of them.
To a certain extent, all fandoms begin, survive, and then eventually flourish on the internet and Lost is no different. E! Online, fan forums, and social media all helped mould the Lost fandom. But as a mainstream/cult fandom, so much of it continued into real life. The age of social media for all intents and purposes seems like the realization of any science fiction future we ever could have imagined where everyone is connected all the time. Still, in the world of a cult fandom gone mainstream, people from all walks of life could gather into a college dorm to watch an hour long non-cable show and peruse a physical copy of Entertainment Weekly for Jeff Jensen’s latest article during commercial breaks.
Lost’s influence goes deeper than just encouraging TV networks to give a shot to “genre” properties. Lost and the reaction of its fandom showed networks that the shows that now succeed don’t create viewers, they court obsessive fans. And those fans are now everywhere, thanks to social media and other entertainment site’s willingness to embrace the obsession.
This story was originally published in June 2016.