'Lost': The cult of 'cult TV' (Part 1)
Take your seats, class: We’re starting up week 4 of EW University, as Doc Jensen explores the cultural influences in ‘Lost.’ Check our gallery 15 Must-Answer ‘Lost’ Mysteries, or jump ahead and test your knowledge of with our final exam. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Quentin Tarantino, and more.
‘Lost’: The legacy of cult TV
To kick off our veritable online correspondence course about Lost, we begin with an introductory-level question: “What is Lost, anyway?” Actually, that question isn’t so elementary anymore. Usually answers to such questions come in the form of premise/plot summary. And once upon a time, Lost was pretty easy to synopsify: airplane crash survivors — a cross-section of Everyman humanity — stuck on a mysterious island inhabited by inexplicable or unfriendly entities: a polar bear, a crazy French castaway, a tribe of inscrutable child kidnappers, a monster. (No, “synopsify” is not a real word but it should be.) Yet over the years, the people and the ideas of Lost have become increasingly complex, thanks to time travel, subterranean computer labs, ancient Egyptian ruins, scheming billionaires, ghosts, and a touchy-feely demi-god named Jacob. Of course, Lost’s scope and density have become pleasures unto themselves, at least for a subset of fandom that loves to spend hours contemplating its vast terrain and sift its rich soil. But the mere thought of trying to explain the show in 101 terms leaves me so tongue-tied, it deserves a Boy Scout badge for knotting.
Today, we’ll be discussing how Lost evolved out of a unique genre of television dubbed “cult TV” — series marked by a distinctive authorial stamp, critical acclaim, and obsessive fans. Before it became fashionable, cult TV possessed another distinguishing characteristic: failure. Hence, we do not start with The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) (Happy 50th anniversary, Mr. Serling), whose heady-scary stories challenged the way we looked at ourselves and engaged reality; though this Lost influence is widely deemed “cult” today, Twilight Zone enjoyed much success in its time. But its harder, edgier, younger rival, The Outer Limits (1963-1965), is definitely cult, failing to complete two full seasons. The original Star Trek series (1966-1969) stands as prototypical cult TV, a brainy, idealistic, and short-lived sci-fi adventure which, despite being set in the far future, wrestled with the issues and ideas of its day — an expression of the intelligence and values of its creator, Gene Roddenberry. In the same three-year span that saw Trek launch and crash, British actor/producer Patrick McGoohan created the show to which Lost is most often compared: The Prisoner (1967-1968), a cerebral and surreal drama about a Cold War-era secret agent (McGoohan) whose attempt to resign gets him booted to a bizarre seaside village from which there is seemingly no escape. It defies easy genre categorization. The Prisoner — which ran for just 17 episodes (more or less by design) — was a reflection and product of 60s counterculture and sociopolitical upheaval, but the series was also deeply concerned with timeless philosophical themes. No disrespect to actor Mark Pellegrino, but I’ve always thought McGoohan — who died earlier this year — would have been an inspired casting choice for Lost’s Jacob, although to explain why would kinda spoil things for those who haven’t watched either show. (AMC has produced a mini-series reboot of The Prisoner starring Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen, set to air this fall. You can also watch full episodes of the original series at amctv.com)
The 1970s — under the influence of sci-fi (2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars) andspy-fi (James Bond, Mission: Impossible), not to mention rattled by destabilizing turmoil of all sorts — was chockablock with the kind of dark fantasy and muted fun often found in cult TV. Lost’s future adult audience was practically weaned on the stuff. Of course, there’s Land of the Lost (1974-1976) — the time-looping season 1 finale, “Circle,” is especially Lost-esque in retrospect — but I would also offer up another heady exercise in Saturday morning sci-fi, Ark II (1976), a show festooned with Lost tics: post-calamity premise, racially diverse cast, Biblical names, super-powered kids, seemingly immortal adults. But in the syndicated realms of weekend evenings, there was Space: 1999 (1975-1977), produced for the U.S. market by the same British company behind The Prisoner, ITC Entertainment, a proverbial cult TV factory (also see:The Saint, Thunderbirds, The Muppet Show). The high concept: nuclear waste stored on the moon blows up, and the resulting explosion bounces the dusty sphere out of orbit and sends it hurtling through the galaxy (and sometimes through time). The tenants of “Moonbase Alpha” thus become accidental star trekkers, exploring strange new worlds and grappling with weird, even supernatural phenomenon while pining for a trajectory, wormhole, and zeta beam back home. Like most (American) series, Space: 1999 was meant to run in perpetuity. But this inspired, though creatively uneven, show failed to meet the tricky challenge of keeping its castaway survival premise always and endlessly compelling. In retrospect, the series strikes me as the show Lost could have been, and thankfully isn’t.
Extra credit viewing!> The following are examples of other really cool cult TV series. The ones in bold indicate shows with particularly strong Lost resonance. Doctor Who(the Tom Baker seasons, 1974-1981), Dark Shadows (1966-1971), “Danger Island” (part of the Banana Splits Adventure Hour, 1968) Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974).
Extra credit reading! The Third Policeman (1967) is certainly a cult novel and has been cited by Lost’s producers as something of a clue, especially to season two. Other essential Lost texts: Island (1962), A Separate Reality (1971), The Stand (1978), The Dark Tower (all seven books, 1982-2004), Valis (1981)
For discussion: What did you make of The Prisoner’s infamously trippy ending and resolution of its “Who’s No. 1?” mystery? What would you think if Lost attempted something equally ambiguous? How different do you think the whole Star Trek franchise would be if the original series had enjoyed a long, healthy run? What other cult show do you think Lost could claim as precedents?
Continue: ‘Lost’: The cult of ‘cult TV’ (part 2)