The ABC television series LOST is one of the great success stories of the aughts. The show was deemed a colossal failure before it even began by advertising companies, was notorious for being the most expensive pilot ever shot at the time, and even led to the firing of the network executive who developed the idea. Yet the pilot would go on to amass 18.65 million viewers in the U.S. (Kissell, 2004) and soon became a world wide phenomena, airing in over one hundred and seventy different countries and being titled the second most popular show in the world by appearing in the most top ten in more countries than any other show other than CSI: Miami (BBC, 2006). With ratings like that, the question of whether LOST counts as a cult television series gets brought up frequently. While LOST may not work with the traditional definition of cult, when one takes into account the metamorphosis of the term cult and what it means in relation to the current state of television, it becomes intrinsically clear that yes, LOST is cult television. In fact, LOST is a quintessential example of modern network cult TV that provides a case for why cult TV matters as it brings fans together to create dedicated communities, while also serving as a model for the future of industry.
Before one can begin to define whether something is cult and the weight that comes with that label, one would first need to examine the definition of cult and the meaning it holds in different mediums. According to Roberta Pearson, “‘Cult’ is often loosely applied to any television program that is considered offbeat or edgy, that draws a niche audience, that has a nostalgic appeal, that is considered emblematic of a particular subculture,” (2004: ix). She then points out that the term cult film is typically used in regards to movies that are hard to acquire or view, and contain strong elements that are viewed as gross, trashy, and/or offensive. Cult film generally refers to John Waters and Divine eating a fresh heaping of dog feces or David Cronenberg and his techno-surrealist Videodrome, but there’s few people out there that would refer to Hoarders or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as cult television. Instead, what defines cult television is primarily its fans and how they interact with the series. In cult film terms, its about the community of people that dress up to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show presented live in front of the screening and the so-called-fans who throw spoons during showings of The Room, rather than actual content of a young boy peeing onto a table of food to save his family from villainous trolls (Troll 2). It’s the rituals that have come to define the cult.
A cult TV show can perhaps be most easily explained as a series that attracts a large number of cult fans and is generally used in relation to narrative based television. There are people who sit and watch every episode of a show that are considered fans, but it’s the cult fans that go an extra step. They take a TV show and turn into an experience and unite with a community that shares their love. It’s the difference between a fan of Two and a Half Men and someone who is a fan of Community. While they both exist and watch their shows loyally, it’s the cult fans who directly interact with it and engage in communities to share their undying love. The cult fans are the ones who go the extra mile and send hundreds of packages of nuts to CBS in a last ditch effort to convince them to renew Jericho or send red vines to FOX in hopes of seeing Fringe surviving till the end of its narrative. These are the people who make felt goatees and wear them while protesting in front of 30 Rockefeller Center in support of Community and ending the so called “darkest timeline”.
This is why it tends to be shows on the fringe that are labeled cult. They’re often the series that need the fan support the most. A show like How I Met Your Mother has cult fans who gather on the web to theorize about who is the mother and why did Ted wake up next to a pineapple that one night, but you hear about them far less because the show’s become a smash success in its later years. Fans no longer have to sit and wonder if it’ll get renewed for another year like they did back in season one, because it’s a highly rated comedy on CBS. There’s less of a reason for the cult fans to be loud and rowdy about the series because everyone else is now already watching it. Though this doesn’t necessarily disqualify shows that aren’t low rated.
While cult once was required to be something underground, today this has become an obsolete concept. Because we’re now in the age of the DVR and internet streaming/downloading, there’s few media that is not easily accessible. Most movies or shows are available on streaming services like Netflix or Hulu, and, if they aren’t, there’s bound to be somewhere in the seedier side of the web. It’s nearly impossible to go unnoticed. While Cougar Town was one of the lowest rated comedies on ABC, it managed to amass enough of a fan-base that TBS decided to pick it up when ABC was about to cancel it. Arrested Development was the big cult comedy series of the aughts, and yet since it got added to Netflix Instant the show’s become one of the most popular series streamed on the service and led to the company actually bringing the show back into production for a fourth season that will debut online seven years after its televised finale aired.
This overall effect has lead to the mainstream-cult hybrid, better known as the cult blockbuster. Shows don’t have to fit into one category or the other, but rather they can be both at the same time. The addition of the cult blockbuster has been something on the rise since the mid to late nineties with the introduction of TV series like The X-Files and films like The Matrix. And they’ve only increased since the aughts, particularly with the adaption of the previously viewed as cult medium of comic books into big budget, summer action films. The geeks have since inherited the earth when it comes to media, and the effect has been the culting of mainstream media, or rather the mainstreaming of cult by the media industry.
For instance, a mainstream hit like LOST can still be cult TV because within it exists what could almost be considered two different shows. There’s the love triangle, dramatic adventure series that made it a mainstream hit, and then there’s the complex Island mythology and deep character connections that appeals to cult fans. LOST succeeds as both because it isn’t just one show, but rather it was its own series for each person. Co-showrunner Carlton Cuse stressed this point especially throughout the run of the final season.
“It’s far more about the character relationships that resonate. The thing is that people talk a lot about the mythology of LOST, but we probably spent 85 percent of our time in the writers’ room talking about the characters, and I think that’s why the show was a broad audience show as opposed to a genre show. While the mythology was important, first and foremost the show was about the characters. I think that a lot of people care much more about what’s going to happen to Kate. Is she going to end up with Jack, is she going to end up with Sawyer? That’s why we feel like a lot of shows that have tried to imitate LOST make the fundamental mistake of having the characters just focus on the mythology. If you watch certain shows like that, you’ll see all the characters are talking about is, “What’s that dinosaur in my bathtub?” (Manly 2010)
People could watch it to see if Kate ended up with Jack or Sawyer and just tune out why there’s a three toed statue on the other side of the Island. Or you could go pause the screen to analyze every detail on the blast door map that only appears on screen for mere seconds. And of course there’s the ideal viewers who fall into both sides, who not only theorizes who was on that mysterious outrigger, but roots enthusiastically for team Jack or team Sawyer.
Matt Hills gets at the heart of LOST’s divided nature and how viewers can watch the series in differing ways,
“Unusual in its flashback structure, the show [LOST] deploys a narrative device which enables fans to embrace it as televisual art or ‘quality’ TV (something its philosophical subtexts and appropriations seem to almost hysterically bid for). It is filled with clues, details, and narrative layers which can incite and support the types of fan activity linked to ‘cult’ status (Jenkins 2006), and it seems to demand highly focused, attentive viewing… It nonetheless also involves an ensemble cast and a strong narrative drive at the level of individual episodes, each aiming to hold audiences attention through the juxtaposing of ‘present’ and ‘flashback’ storylines, even if the specific viewer is not immersed in tracking the bigger, story-arc questions posed. LOST may be ‘cultish’ but it is arguably designed to operate on different levels for audiences who desire to consume it more-or-less intently or to watch more-or-less casually.” (Hills, 2010)
By focusing equally on contained stories via the flashback structure and the big picture, long-running arcs (like The X-Files before it), LOST simultaneously appeals to those causal watchers who just want to zone out and look at pretty people on a tropical island for an hour or those diehard fans who wait impatiently for another glimpse at the mysterious smoke monster. In a sense, LOST is able to have its metaphorical DHARMA cake and eat it too, catering to people at all ends of the viewer spectrum.
The same goes for a cult show like Doctor Who. Today the reboot of the series is one of the most popular series airing on the BBC, with its budget ballooning despite the rest of the network scaling back considerably. Yet, in its ever-increasing popularity, it remains a cult hit because of its hyper-obsessive fans. You can watch Doctor Who and just enjoy the fun, quirky monster of the week plots, or you could take detailed notes to keep track of when exactly in River Song’s timeline is she seeing the Doctor and all other sort of “timey wimey” goodness. While Doctor Who has always been a cult show, the reason of why that it has changed just as the meaning of cult television has evolved. Before it was cult for its low-fi vibe, little audience exposure, and cheap special effects, but, now despite every week being a mini-blockbuster film with dinosaurs on a spaceship and angels taking Manhattan, it remains that cult labeling due to those so called Whovians who go to annual conventions, carry around Sonic Screwdrivers, and update The TARDIS Index File wiki. LOSTies gather together in similar fashion whether it’s for Island themed trivia at Proffesor Thom’s in NYC or to watch bands such as The Others and Previously On LOST sing original songs about their favorite Oceanic Flight 815ers, a growing genre dubbed recap rock.
It’s easy to assume that if low ratings aren’t the definition of a cult show, maybe the shared factor that makes them cult is that they tend to be genre fare, with sci-fi like Star Trek or fantasy like Game of Thrones, but that would discount numerous series like Freaks and Geeks and Parks and Recreation. But the common denominator between them all is something a lot simpler: world building. Every one of those cult shows contain a strong element of world building. Even an anthology series like The Twilight Zone contains elements of world-building by bookending episodes with Rodger Sterling’s narration and making it seem as if all the episodes took place in the same general universe. In those cult shows the writers work to make it appear as if they’re more than just fictional characters in a TV series, but rather living breathing people. They go through lengths to try and make sure each character in the show is a fully formed and fleshed out being. That even secondary and background characters have lives of their own that they’re experiencing outside of the central narrative. Sometimes it’s as easy as having the same secondary characters reappear repeatedly throughout the series such as Perd Haply and Jean-Ralphio in Parks and Recreation, or it could be direct as LOST having an entire episode devoted to minor characters such as Rose and Barnard.
LOST attempted to take this idea even further by inserting two characters, Nikki and Paulo, in the third season who were there to tell the so called ‘untold’ story of the Oceanic 815ers who were only glimpsed in the background of the show. In that case, it came off a bit too forced with the creator’s deciding to kill them off after only a few episodes, but LOST has previously been successful with that approach as a very similar character, Dr. Artz, was introduced in the last episode before the the three part finale. He was written into one small scene in that episode, until becoming a fairly big player in the first two parts of the finale when he accidentally blows up. But during his brief time, Artz expresses his feelings of discontent at how the show’s main characters were always given the attention and get the best supplies. It’s the little scenes such as that that expand the universe and make it feel significantly more real. Artz reappears several times throughout the series in flashbacks and flash-sideways, including the Nikki and Paulo centric episode titled “Exposé”, fulfilling the same role to provide the perceived ‘little people’s’ perspective. Similar stunts were pulled with characters such as the ever funny Steve/Scott debate in season one or season five’s Frogurt, who plays the exact same role as Artz did four seasons earlier. Despite the occasional failed Nikki and Paulo experiment, fans respond enthusiastically to these little details and character reappearances. The Other known as Ethan served that exact role, being a character who appeared in more episodes after his death than while he was alive, thanks to flashbacks and flash-sideways. Details like this help not just build a world fans want to watch every week, but one they want to immerse themselves in.
Alex Hirsch, creator of Disney Channel’s latest animated series Gravity Falls, decided to include this world building mythology into his show right from the beginning. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Hirsch discussed his inspiration and motivation for taking this extra step:
“In terms of the world-building, there was always a wonderful thing that The Simpsons did: It respected its audience enough to reward our attention. They’d say, ‘We’re going to cram this thing with references, with jokes, with little callbacks, and if you are obsessive enough, if you love it enough, it will reward your obsession.’… And that just made the show so much more compelling… It gave me a reward every time I tried to watch it more closely.” (Adams, 2012)
Disney Channel is not a network you’d normally think of today that’d produce cult series, and yet Gravity Falls has become one of those shows fans have to pause in order to catch every detail and find all the references to past gags and storylines. If you plan these elements out and do it with enough care and skill, cult fans will develop regardless of how obscure or out of their demographic the channel may be. In only a matter of months the show has developed a cult following that patch together clues and swap theories about the show. Hirsch goes on to discuss how this type of fan involvement encourages him to keep going further down the rabbit hole:
“I’m just surprised and heartened by how obsessively the fans keep track. If you leave a little trail of breadcrumbs, they will follow it and then they will find breadcrumbs you didn’t even leave and demand more breadcrumbs… I was born on June 18 so we put ‘618’ all over the place in the show just because that’s our go-to number if we need a number. People started to pick up on this, but they weren’t content just to rest with the ones we actually put in there, they started finding hidden 618s that are imaginary… The more the fans love it, the more I want to do it.” (Adams, 2012)
It’s this element of world building, or better known as mythology, that captures viewers attentions and propel them to drink the metaphorical Kool-Aid that makes them cult fans. Twin Peaks had it as fans would trade theories and facts together in the earlier days of the internet, but LOST is the definitive series in this regard. The series was always a tight rope walk between characters and mythology, revealing more clues and mysteries about the characters and the Island each episode. But it’s not just dramas with sci-fi elements that dip their toes into mythology, but comedies like Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation that have their own intricately crafted worlds as well, shown with each reveal of another Bluth family member’s interpretation of a chicken dance/call and each time we learn more about the mostly off-screen Pawnee obesity epidemic. It’s these extra details that make people go from causal viewers to obsessive fans. A cult show provides a world that fans crave to be a part of; a world they wish they could live in. It should sweep them away from the mundanity of real life and into a realm that is fantastical and wondrous. A world full of free-roaming polar bears on a tropical island, damn fine cups of coffee in a small Pacific Northwest dinner, and a mad man traveling endlessly in a blue box.
Despite the mainstream success and large viewing numbers, it’s clear LOST must be defined as cult television because of its large number of cult fans. While at times these two elements of cult and mainstream clash, such as in the hotly debated season six of the series, they frequently worked in harmony. Look no further than the highly regarded season four episode The Constant, which perfectly blended together a sweeping romance story featuring the long awaited [temporary] reunion of Penny and Desmond, while simultaneously introducing time time travel to the series. While both viewers and fans can appreciate the human romance story of two star-crossed lovers, fans can additionally enjoy the show’s official announcement of time travel and take to the message boards to theorize how this effects the Island. But for those viewers who are scared off by the idea of time travel, they can immediately tune off after and smile knowing that Penny and Desmond don’t have to wait for another life [brotha] to have their love reunited. By appealing to both sides of the audience spectrum at the same time, LOST was able to straddle the difficult line between cult and mainstream.
With the future of the network television industry so unstable, one can’t help but see LOST’s excellent fusion of cult and mainstream elements as an example of where the medium will go to survive. While non-serialized and procedural style series such as the various CSI variations, and CBS series in general, that do the best ratings when it comes to scripted TV, it’s clear that the current ratings system has become more obsolete as online viewing increases continually, yet it doesn’t appear to be taken into enough consideration, perhaps partially due to how much harder it is to track thanks to there being so many different streaming websites, and of course, pirating. As the older viewing population lowers over time, as will the traditional way of viewing TV. Though in 2007 advertisers decided to finally take into consideration DVR views that occurred within three days of their air-date by Nielsen. It was then discovered that while live views of LOST had decreased overtime, it was among the most popular viewed series via DVR and online streaming.
By the final season of LOST came around in 2010, the first five seasons were all available to own on DVD/Blu-ray or could be streamed on Netflix Instant and ABC’s website. New episodes could be found each week on ABC’s website and Hulu. And every episode, new and old, could be bought easily on the iTunes Store. That makes LOST the rare case of achieving great success through both traditional and new viewing methods. With audiences becoming more sophisticated due to narratively complex series such as LOST and the market flooded with additional new channels, along the threat of original online content, networks will have to continually attempt to make the next great cult blockbuster that’ll attain large masses of viewers to make the series profitable in the short term through ads and cult fans that’ll invest money longterm via merchandise and DVD/Blu-ray/iTunes sales.
LOST came at the perfect time for cult TV blockbuster to come into its own as the internet was firmly established as a mainstream reality by 2004 and various social media clients were coming into their own. With LOST thousands of fans would discover a desire and hunger to discuss and dissect television on a large scale that was rarely possible beforehand.
“‘What we never could have anticipated,’ says Cuse, ‘was that the show would debut just as social media came into existence. So there was this unforeseen confluence of events where we were making a show that was perfect for discussion and debate, just at the moment where the internet was evolving into a place where people were forming communities where they could have those discussions and debates… The audience component created a buzz around the show, which made people want to watch the show. It created a sense that if you wanted to be in the know, you had to be watching LOST. A few years earlier than that, no one was making serialized shows. The networks were all convinced that if someone fell out, there was no way to get caught up. But now you could watch the DVDs of the show, and the social media component really created a buzz about the show… If it had happened a few years earlier, it would have been a cool show, but a small genre show, where Damon and I and our fellow geeks would have enjoyed it and everyone else would have given up.’” (Sepinwall, 2012)
LOST exists as a definitive example of cult television because of the scale that was provided by the internet and social media as a whole. Trekkies and Twin Peaks fans had places to rally online before LOST, but neither matched the sheer amount of wide-spread fandom available online as LOST was airing new episodes. With LOST networks realized you can create shows that appeal not just to those that would typically be viewed as hardcore fans, but also discover the fan that exists within all television viewers. You could take the casual viewer and turn them into cult fan.
While many networks, including ABC itself, have tried to replicate the success of LOST with shows such as Heroes, Flash-Forward, and The Event, but they have all failed due to focusing too heavily on mythology and genre elements. Networks put all their attention into creating out of the box cult hits, missing the point that LOST was a cult-mainstream hybrid that focused equal, if not more so, on the characters rather than the mysteries. The core of the series was the characters, while the Island was the cherry on the top. Most of these LOST imitations have only lasted one full season, if even that long. Studios would be better off focusing on the character mythology element of LOST, rather than the mystery mythology.
LOST’s impact goes beyond just being the most high-profile modern example of a television cult blockbuster, as it’s also a great case for why cult TV shows matter. It’s not the classification of cult that’s crucial, but rather the fandom that arises amongst the cult show. Cult TV creates communities that, thanks to the internet, connect people who would otherwise never meet. It brings together people to analyze the Swan hatch film reel. And unlike the communities that form around films, TV allows communities to get together each week and experience the show at roughly the same time. While that changed as internet views, DVRs, and DVD marathons increased, those viewers were encouraged, or more accurately threatened due to fear of spoilers, to catch up as soon as they could and jump into discussions.
While LOST isn’t the first show to cause these communities to form, it’s perhaps the largest, from the official fan site/message board The Fuselage to the highly detailed Lostpedia, which contains over seven thousand articles describing all sorts of aspects of the show. While that might seem to pale in comparison to the likes of Wookiepedia (Star Wars), Memory Alpha (Star Trek), or the TARDIS Index File (Doctor Who), the difference is LOST exists for the most part as one singular series. Wookiepedia covers all the Star Wars movies, books, comics, and TV shows. Same goes for Memory Alpha and TARDIS Index File, which both cover franchises that date back to the sixties. Lostpedia, on the other hand, covers a single series that lasted for only six seasons, and a handful of small side-projects that have come from the show. But it wasn’t just Lostpedia that fans worked on, as those truly dedicated to the series created fanvids, fanfic, and other creative endeavors to show off how much they loved the show.
For years, LOST dominated the internet water cooler in a way no series has ever before. And ABC was smart to market off that. They created Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, such as The LOST Experience in 2006 and the Dharma Initiative Recruiting Project in 2008, revealing little clues and details about the show’s world, in addition to webseries, podcasts, and more. Panels were held in packed Comic-Con rooms and DHARMA branded products were sold and shared among fans waiting in lines. While these niche audiences were once seen as an unappealing demographic, the industry has shifted to catering toward these fan groups as it’s become harder to create universal smash hits thanks to the additional of thousands of new channels available to watch, along with competition from other forms of entertainment such as video games and the internet in general, which are positioned in a Mexican standoff for audiences’ attention.
While some may fear the industrialization of fan cultures, believing it loses the appeal when being a fan means tracking down URLs in real world locations in order to buy expensive limited addition prints of LOST themed posters (“Damon, Carlton and a Polar Bear” ARG), perhaps it’s not so bad in the end. Consumerism may now be a member of the fan community as well, but still first and foremost this cult shows bring people together to talk about their shared love. Lostpedia isn’t the work of one or two diehard fans, but rather the collective creation of over twenty-five thousand registered users.
And it’s not just other fans that cult shows connect people with, but they also connect fans with the characters of the show. It may sound absurd at first, but cult fans connect deeply with the struggle and victories of their favorite heroes and villains. Often times people find it hard to open up and connect in real life, but we universally relate and empathize with our fictional favorites. This type of caring might occur in mainstream series, but there’s a stronger sense amongst the cult fans who live and breath these series.
We need cult series like LOST because they help us relate and connect to others. LOST continually addresses this need for human connection through the character’s various ties to other Losties from Locke working at Hurely’s box factory to Sawyer meeting Jack’s dad before the man’s death. The season six narrative even mirrors this with all the Losties having to meet up and reunite at last in the flash-sideways world. The series contains a core message that we need to connect to other humans in order to survive in this world. LOST sums up this need for the fan communities cult TV cultivates in a line spoken numerous times throughout the series, “Live together, die alone.”
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