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A Disappointed Fan Is Still a Fan

How the creators of Lost seduced and betrayed their viewers.


Illustration by Wes Duvall  

Just over a week ago, as the Lost finale loomed, the faithful made preparations. We baked “smoke monster” cakes; we watched cats on YouTube explain the plot. But mainly, we read interviews with the creative team of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof (affectionately known to the online horde as Cuselof or Darlton), the show-runners who had, under creator J. J. Abrams, overseen one of the most interactive TV hits in history, a show designed to be mob-solved, scavenged for symbolism, and adored.

They were preparing us. In each interview, with a mix of humility and defensiveness, they repeated that they had “done the best they could.” They had focused on the characters. And we, the viewers, shouldn’t expect answers to everything—some we’d learn on DVD, others would never be resolved. So please stop asking about the four-toed statue. Let it go.

This kind of expectation management is, by now, a baseline responsibility of anyone steering a major TV sensation, and it’s no easy task. Some (Aaron Sorkin) are driven crazy and write entire television series in response to audience critiques; others (David Chase) push back, brilliantly. But like a lot of genre writers, the Lost creators had always been more-forthcoming figures, warm and reassuring, regularly urging the audience that we, as fans, should trust them, and that we should be patient, that while there was no time to explain right now, if we hung on, all would finally be revealed.

Yet as the seasons passed, Darlton were also clearly unnerved by their most passionate devotees, who were busily compiling databases, freezing images for hints and clues, and generally acting like a particularly deranged, faintly Aspergian breed of forensic detectives. In 2007, Lindelof argued that “the really good critics” were fans at heart. “I find there is a very rare instance where your fan brain is having one reaction and your critical brain is having another. The level at which questions are asked of us is polarizing. You can tell it’s personal. If they don’t like it, it’s like they’re offended in a way.”

Real fan-hood, in other words, is, at its purest level, love. As in Corinthians, fan-hood is patient, kind, not rude, etc. (It is also not easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs.) The Fan of Faith is superior to the Fan of Science, and while it’s natural to have questions, the ideal viewer should behave less like a nagging critic and more like a soul mate, supportive and committed even when doubts creep in.

At one point, during a New York Times panel on the Thursday night before the finale, Lindelof made this romantic-relationship metaphor explicit. In response to a question about fan disappointment, he described a first date that begins with the wrongheaded question “Are you going to disappoint me?” “Just see how it works out!” said Lindelof, in the voice of the show-slash-date. “If you’re going to fall in love with somebody, you have to put aside that fear of disappointment.”

Then again, if you build a show to be loved, heartbreak is always a risk. I’m a serious Lost fan—I watched every episode, I recapped the show online for years, I’m one of the fools who combed Egyptology sites to determine whether that damned statue was Tawaret or Subek—and yet I’m also someone who now thinks of the show as a failure. That fact doesn’t erase the pleasure I got from Locke’s orange-peel grin, but it does change the context. Because like so many, I hung on long after I had doubts: through cage sex, through the successful (but in retrospect nonsensical) time-travel gambit, through those great sequences among the Dharma hippies and into the drippy realm of the last season’s alternative-reality time line (a.k.a. the Sideways Universe), in which the characters learned and grew. This wasn’t a first date, after all; it was a six-year marriage. You don’t just give up.

In the run-up to the finale, Lindelof posted to Twitter, expressing his love for the fans. But he also sent out a message directed at some online video artists I had never heard of: “But Fine Brothers? You shat on the show and that is not cool. I hereby revoke your status as ‘fans.’ ”Lindelof’s followers offered support, but there was also this: “I’m as big of a fan as you can be, and I think Fine Brothers couldn’t have put it better. A disappointed fan is still a fan.”

I spent the afternoon watching the Fine Brothers videos, of course. They were, as it turns out, hilarious: sharp, prickly satires “acted” out by action figures. In each one, characters from Heroes, Twilight, Battlestar Galactica, and other genre hits invaded the Lost universe to make rattled critiques. (In one, Spock simply started screaming, “I refuse to live in a place without logic!”) With their South Park–style brass, a few of the satires were more fun to watch than the Season 6 Lost episodes, many of which boil down in my memory to bathetic baseball monologues and such camp lines as “I don’t like the way English tastes on my tongue.”

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