LOST Meaning-Making

Before last night’s highly-anticipated LOST series finale, ABC aired a two-hour series retrospective that summarized the six-season plot and included interviews with the producers and stars of the show. To an interviewee, everyone involved in the production of the series either regarded it as a watershed moment in the history of American television or, at the least, a life-changing experience. Reflections on the series weren’t limited to these privileged few as ABC also included text messages from fans called “Last Transmissions” that they peppered throughout commercial breaks. Some of these were humorous (“My longest committed relationship has come to an end.”) while others, the majority of them, were deeply personal and emotional (more than one confessed that they felt like they were losing close friends). Nearly every “Transmission” exhibited a deep connection to the series and lamented its conclusion. In fact, even series producer Damon Lindelof wrote, via Twitter, “Remember. Let go. Move on. I will miss it more than I can ever say.” Taking these comments as genuine expressions, rather than off-the-cuff reactions, I want to consider them as further evidence of the power that pop culture exerts over its viewers and how it has continued to usurp religion as a primary location for meaning-making and mythologizing.

In terms of mythology, S. Brent Plate’s article at Religion Dispatches, “What the Lost Finale is Really About,” does a fantastic job of looking at how LOST has always been a mythological mash-up and, as such, something of a post-modern myth itself. The series certainly took on mythological status in the eyes of its producers, stars, and fans. Daniel Dae Kim (Jin) and Josh Holloway (Sawyer) referred to the launching of the raft in one of the earlier episodes in Odyssian terms. Plate would have most certainly added the interfaith chapel in which the series concluded as another example of mythological mash-up. On the “Aloha to LOST” special of Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host, in conversation with Matthew Fox (Jack), gave his theories which drew from multiple religious traditions. Fox agreed to all, privileging none, thus further evidencing even the participants’ awareness of its mash-up characteristics.

No doubt such diversity is part of the series’ appeal and success. But the testimonies from “Losties” reveal their willingness to more deeply engage the series and to not simply take the mash-up at face value. Rather than simply escapist television, I would argue that for many fans of the series their experiences of LOST were highly religious in nature. While numerous definitions of religion exist, one rather basic definition could be that which attempts to explain the meaning of life and what happens to us during and after death. There can be no doubt that, according to this definition, LOST functioned as a religious text. As message boards, Twitter feeds, and Facebook accounts indicate, late into the night and well into today and, no doubt, further into the week, the series finale and its implications for the rest of the series will have viewers pondering about and discussing the meaning of the characters’ lives and the life after death that the episode implied.  In these discussions, viewers will most likely draw from their own worldviews (whether they are explicitly religious in nature or not) to make sense of the series and its conclusion and will take this series into the future and use it to help shape these same worldviews.

How well LOST functions as a religious experience will, of course, depend on which definition(s) of religion its critics and viewers subscribe. It certainly has its share of diverse reactions. Over fifteen hours later a search of LOST on Twitter reveals a furor of conversation.  As we have seen, the series has a myriad of devotees…those “Losties” who were unable to get out of bed this morning or function properly today. One viewer wondered how she had any more tears to shed over the conclusion of the series.  There are others who simply ignored the series altogether and are commenting on the reactions to it.  Of course, not everyone is willing to sympathize with those who mourn.  Another viewer commented, “They were dead the whole time on the island—deal with it,” simultaneously expressing her own interpretation of the series and lack of sympathy for those so deeply moved.  There are viewers who have been turned off by the way in which LOST wrapped up and seem to take offense at the way in which it concluded. One viewer, no doubt not alone in the world today, confessed that he had wasted six years of his life.  Did he not have other academic, leisure, or professional pursuits?  Still, the last season of LOST also created a number of skeptics, like myself, who have faithfully watched the series from its beginning but have become disillusioned for a variety of reasons (I am happy to discuss them outside this post).

We might be tempted to make light of last night’s “Last Transmissions,” (I even rolled my eyes at a few of them).  Television history and its present are full of series that many critics consider stronger and more influential than LOST. I chalked up much of the talk about its greatness as a television series to emotional hyperbole. Yet the viewer feedback remains and will continue to fill up the Internet and other public conversations.  Such reactions do not signal that these viewers are necessarily lost, with or without the series, (in fact, many of them might be committed practitioners of a particular faith), but that they are ever-searching for meaning, even beyond the walls of the faith communities in which they might already gather.

About J. Ryan Parker

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