To what extent did the TV puzzle series LOST blend the genres of Sci-Fi and mystery and how did this contribute to the rise of fan theorising and craze in modern day TV?
The Island, the Dharma Initiative, the Hatch. These three constants make up the very foundations of ABC’s hit TV show ‘LOST’; created by Damon Lindelof, Jeffrey Lieber and JJ Abrams, over the course of its six seasons the television drama caused debates and controversies on internet forums all around the world with fans theorising the shows climax just after the very first episode aired. In this artice we are going to look at what makes ‘LOST’ so different from other such critically acclaimed shows such as The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad; both television shows which feature heavily on narrative and on character. This article will be looking heavily into how the blending of genres and why, at the time, this narrative move contributed to the rise of fan theorising and craze that modern TV must put up with. We shall also be looking at how the fandom surrounding ‘LOST’ affected the shows overall narrative, plot and structure and if the shows approach to ‘genre blending’ brought with it a more dedicated fan following. In order for us to do this we will be looking at academic works from scholars such as John Fowles, Linda Williams, Klaus Brax, Jason Mittell, Joli Jensen and Lawrence Grossberg
CONTEXT, CASE STUDY AND CORE CONCEPTULISATION:
Jason Mittell states that “Television genres matter as cultural categories” (1) this means that genre is seen to transcend its own medium and exist on a meta basis as something that people form a culture around. People seem to be drawn to certain genre types and from there they create friends and even form a somewhat society surrounding that particular genre, examples of this can be seen with https://www.horrorforum.com/, (2) which is a forum site set up for people to discuss all things horror related, another example of this would be https://aliensoup.com/ (3) an online website that brands itself as “Your out of this world community” this kind of interaction supports Mittels statement that the term ‘genre’ can no longer be applied to just strictly TV/Film or book but as an almost sentient culture with people who feel that they identify with and find purpose in a particular one, people or fans of the macabre and grotesque will find the genre of horror interesting and will flock to the forums and articles surrounding that whereas those who are more inclined in the area of science will flock to forums discussing the latest Sci-Fi film or television show and these people will thus fore create a community around that genre and any products created therein. Klaus Brax states that “The use of thematic similarities or stock characters, or other forms of repetition of narrative conventions within a certain genre, create a sense of familiarity in the reader (viewer), thus working as vehicles for reading and literary communication” this suggests that people find comfort and solace within a genre that they know well, fans of the horror genre will therefore find more enjoyment with a film that is marketed and branded as horror and follows the familiar tropes of a horror film, same goes for fans of a film or TV series that has been branded as an romantic comedy, these people are expecting to see two leads who end up falling in love with some humorous happenings on the way.
But in order to fully understand genre we must look at arguments surrounding the interpretation of this concept, in the article ‘The Poetics Of Mystery Genre, Representation and Narrative Ethics in John Fowles Historical Fiction’ Alastair Fowler conceives that genre works better as a means of reading and interpreting literary; or in the case of this article filmic, works rather than as a means of generic classification. I am inclined to agree with this statement as works such as Edgar Wrights 2004 film ‘Shaun of the Dead’ , classifies itself as a Horror film but upon viewing it becomes vividly apparent that the film is a comedy that blends elements of horror, thus audiences are more likely to interpret this text as a comedy rather than the genre that it is marketed as. In opposition to Fowley is David Fishelov who argues that “the interpretation of a text is a dialectic between what the individual text signals on the one hand, and the readers’ assumptions and expectations based on a sense of genre, on the other.” Fishelov then goes onto further state that “[T]he specific text activates our relevant knowledge and assumptions concerning various genres of whose tradition the text reminds us, and those generic frameworks contribute, on their part, to our understanding and integrating various elements of the specific text. Interpreting the text involves generic knowledge, as well as other types of knowledge, but it is by no means determined by this knowledge.” This means that no one genre can be determined by the works therein, the horror genre cannot be defined by a film involving ghosts as thus that would mean that only films/works involving ghosts would be classified as horror. In opposition to mixing genres we have Jacques Derrida ‘The Law Of Genre’ which in a matter of fact way states “Genres are not to be mixed” Derrida goes onto further state that “one should not mix genres, one owes it to oneself not to get mixed up in mixing genres. Or, more rigorously: genres should not intermix.” Derrida sees the intermixing of genres as an impure technique saying that mixing genre may alter the purity of its identity; “This purity belongs to the typical axiom: it is a law of the law of genre, whether or not the law is, as one feels justified in saying, “natural.” Derrida understands that people may find not mixing genre as unnatural, but she heavily believes that if one were to mix genre than It would in a sense dilute its purity and thus go against the very ‘law of genre.’ Another scholar with knowledge on the concept of genre is Rick Altman who wrote the journal A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre. Altman tries to decipher what in fact makes a genre; the corpus of a genre as he states (p.27), “When we establish the corpus of a genre, we generally tend to do two things at once, and this establish two alternate groups of text, each corresponding to a different notion or corpus.” Altman goes on to further state that the simple tautological definitions of genre are that a ‘Western = film that takes place in the American West, or musical = film with diegetic music’ Altman further states that critics, theoreticians and other “arbiters of taste” (p.28) stick to another familiar canon; this canon having little to do with the tautological definitions that were explained above, this other canon lists films that are seen to be more faithful and truer to the desired genre. Altman goes to further validate his theory with asking the question “When is a musical not a musical?” he then answers it by saying “When it has Elvis Presley in it.” This statement seems to contradict itself, but it is true. Having Elvis Presley in a film does not mean it is a musical. Altman states that it is “Perfectly possible for a film to be simultaneously included in a particular generic corpus and excluded from that same corpus.” This means that a film for example can still be categorised as a western whether or not it is set in the American West.
ANALYSIS OF THE CASE STUDY:
Regarding the case study; as stated above, I believe that the narrative of ‘LOST’ relies heavily on the usage of blended genre forms those specifically being Mystery and Science Fiction, I disagree with Derridas argument that this blend or mixing would render the genre/s as impure for instead it births a new pseudo genre form that Is wholly unique to the narrative of ‘LOST’. What is the narrative of ‘LOST’? People survive a freak plane crash which leaves them stranded on a remote island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean? This in a sense is true. What’s also true is the fact that the show’s creators; Damon Lindelof, Jeffrey Lieber and JJ Abrams, wanted to make a television series that was heavily inspired by Robert Zemeckis’ award winning film ‘CAST AWAY’. But a television series based on a survival film cannot be worthy of a six series greenlight and an ending which still to this day has its majority of fans divided. Or can it be? Approaching ‘LOST’ in a theoretical way the answer is no. The show should have run for one season with its audience slowly dwindling off throughout its 25 episodes per season if it were what it presented itself to be on paper. The show doesn’t do that, instead it blows away all audience and critic expectation by introducing to us our core characters; Jack, Kate, Sawyer, John Locke and Hurley, by the way of flashbacks setting up the question of why each of these characters were on the plane and why they have ended up on this particular island. Not only does this show implement the use of flashbacks but it also manages to leave an unanswered question at the end of every episode, now I know this is nothing special when it comes to Television series’ it’s an efficient business ploy that these showrunners use to keep an audience invested and entertained throughout the shows runtime. But wherein AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ set up questions throughout its seasons these questions would be ‘season specific’ meaning that they would be answered in that season, for example the beginning of season 2 where it had a pre credits scene in black and white showing the aftermath of a supposed plane crash, these little pre credits scenes happen all the way up until the season finale where we see the plane crash happen and we find out how and who caused it. ‘LOST’ changes this up with the introduction of; what I personally like to call, ‘Persistent’ questions, questions that stay unanswered but keep getting alluded to throughout the show. Examples of this would be the identity of the ‘Smoke monster’ this question is planted in season One Episode 1 “Pilot” and doesn’t get answered until Season Six episode 15 “Across the Sea”, another example would be the reveal and identity of ‘The Others’; another faction that live on the island, they are introduced by the character of Danielle Rousseau when she is torturing Sayid in episode 9 of season one and finally properly revealed in Season 3 episode 1 ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.
This use of leaving ‘persistent’ questions is a staple in the mystery genre and can be seen in classics such as Agatha Christies 1974 mystery thriller ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, David Finchers 1995 Mystery film ‘Se7en’ and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 mystery suspense film ‘Psycho’. The mystery genre is extremely popular due to its use of tropes and stock characters I.e. The detective, the witness and the killer. In the book ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess’ by Linda Williams she states that “The repetitive formulas and spectacles of film genres are often defined by their differences from the classical realist style of narrative cinema. These classical films have been characterised as efficient, action – centred, goal –oriented linear narratives driven by the desire of a single protagonist, involving one or two lines of action, and leading to definitive closure.” This means that the classical films follow a set pattern and set goal, regarding the mystery genre, A detective inspects a murder, questions witnesses until the killer or killers are found and then they are arrested. This is good as it means that people can get comfortable watching a mystery film as they are already subconsciously familiar with the films narrative and already have a set of expectations of what’s going to happen. The fandom surrounding the mystery genre are very passionate and dedicated and refer to themselves as ‘Couch Detectives’ or ‘Sofa Sleuths’, they find joy and validation in cracking the latest narrative mysteries and predicting future twists and turns in narratives, an example of ‘sofa sleuths’ in action in regards to ‘LOST’ is when the hydrogen bomb ‘JUGHEAD’ got revealed in season 5 people took to forums and boards online theorising whether or not this bomb was the cause of another question that had been set in season 2 of ‘The incident’ an on island occurrence which destroyed a research base. A link to the original forum can be found here:
This sort of dedicated fandom is beneficial to a television series as it means that the cast, crew and writers of the show; who have said that they were to actively frequent these forum pages, can see whether or not people have guessed the twists and turns within their show. Similarly, in the TV show ‘The Walking Dead’ fans were outraged over the death of Beth Green and took to social media platforms such ‘Twitter’ and ‘Tumblr’ to voice their outcry. In the article ‘Digital Space and Walking Dead fandom’s Team Delusional’ it states that fans mounted a campaign to the showrunners aptly named ‘Bring Beth Back’, there was also a Change.org petition that ended up gaining over 65,000 signatures.
Whereas fandom can be perceived as great for some it can also be quite a serious hinderance for others, in the academic journal ‘The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media’ Joli Jenson states that there are two types of fan; the obsessed individual and the hysterical crowd, she further goes onto explain what makes a fan/s hysterical or obsessed with a certain medium. Jenson further states how Caughey describes how “In a media addicted age, celebrities’ function as role models for fans who engage in ‘artificial social relations’ with them.” This type of fan behaviour that Caughey is describing is one in which pathological fandom seems to be more intense and less dangerous. Jenson further explains that she and other scholars see ‘fandom’ as a pathological illness that can be linked to those of killers and criminals as they cannot break down the barrier between realms; our reality and that of fiction. In conjunction with Jenson another scholar on fandom; Matthew Hills, states in the academic journal ‘Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television’ that fandom can be compared to that of a somewhat cult following. He further explains that “Certain films and television programs (and other media such as novels and popular music) can be defined as ‘cult media’ through the fact that such media texts attract passionate, enduring, and socially organised fan audiences.” (p.73) This is true in the case of ‘LOST’ as fans were; and some to this day still are, extremely passionate about the text, with groups or cults of fans setting up online webpages and ‘wikis’ in dedication to ‘LOST’ Hills does go on to state that it can be hard to differentiate between that of a fan and that of a cultist as the two could act and behave the same way towards the desired text, but I guess the manner of how the individual interacts and to what extent the interaction goes is the only indicator of how deeply invested they are with the text. Grossberg also states in the academic article; ‘The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media’, that fans fall into two groups “the larger segment is still assumed to be cultural dopes, who passively consume the texts of specific popular culture. But there is another segment, much smaller and more dispersed, who actively appropriate the texts of specific popular cultures, and give them new and original significance.” Grossberg further states that in accordance to this ‘subcultural’ model that both groups would be considered fans as; “fans constitute an elite fraction of the larger audience of passive consumers. Within this model, the fan is able to discriminate between those forms of popular culture which are ‘authentic’ (that is, which really are art, which really do represent their experience, etc.) and those which are the results of the efforts of commercial mainstream to appropriate these forms and produce tainted versions for the larger audience.” I am more inclined to agree with the model that Grossman puts forth rather than the argument that Jenson states; that fans are either obsessed loners or a hysterical crowd, Grossberg clearly states and outlines that yes where there are two different groups of fans neither are violent or ‘hysterical’ but both are deeply passionate about their specific medium. In relation to ‘LOST’ fans who appropriate the forums and webpages would be considered the latter group as they are deeply invested within the TV series and almost feel a sense of purpose piecing together all its clues and solving all its mysteries.
With ‘LOST’ relying heavily on the mystery genre to carry it through its earlier seasons, specifically that of seasons 1 – 3, the inclusion of science fiction elements really helped the show appeal to a more varied fandom as it; in a sense, meshed the obsessive mystery fans and those obsessed with the science fiction and; like I previously stated, created a new sub group of ‘Sci-fi Sofa Sleuths’ which is a fandom that can now be associated with works such as FLASHFORWARD, FRINGE and ALIAS. Both FLASHFORWARD and FRINGE started to air around the same time as LOST began its merging of genres. I believe that this is no mere coincidence given the show’s popularity at the time with figures ranging from 14 million to 16 million.
Upon reflection I think that ‘LOST’ contributed heavily to the rise of fan theorising and craze. We see this with the forums and webpages that were set up specifically for the show; unfortunately many have been taken down now but links will be left in the reference list, and the fact that other shows also blending the mystery and sci fi genres were established during/ not long after the shows run. I disagree with the argument that Derrida states that genres should not be mixed as it dilutes the genre and does not show a genre off in its purest form. Taking this argument into consideration I still think that genres should be mixed as it gives a new perspective and allows fans of two specific genres to come together and forge a new sub group or sub-genre.
To conclude I feel that ‘LOST’ mixing genres heavily benefitted and contributed towards the rise of fan theorising and craze that can be seen in today’s TV. We see this with petitions being made to bring back a much beloved character and ratings staying consistent throughout a show’s run. The use of persistent questions; purposely leaving big narrative plot points unanswered I.e. the reveal of the Others, the reveal of what The Island truly is, The Smoke monster, all of these plot points being left to later seasons enticing fans to follow along and create their own theories along the way shows the overall strengths that ‘LOST’ gained by blending genres. Even though scholars such as Derrida disagree and think that genres should stay as their pure and natural form. I still think that the blending of genre; very much like the blending of fandoms, will lead to the creation of new sub groups/genres that allow us to perceive a text more clearly and thus understand it on a deeper level.
ABC Studios, 2006. LOST [online].
https://www.allgeekthings.co.uk/review-lost-a-tale-of-two-cities/ [Accessed 20th May]
ABC Studios, 2014. LOST [online].
https://www.indiewire.com/2014/09/lost-10th-anniversary-the-15-best-episodes-of-lost-69811/ [Accessed 20th May]
ABC Studios, 2009. FlashForward [online].
https://www.denofgeek.com/uk/tv/flashforward/60389/flashforward-a-binge-ready-sci-fi-series-before-its-time [Accessed 20th May]
AMC Studios, 2015. The Walking Dead [online]
https://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/1071237/how-the-walking-dead-will-create-a-catastrophe-from-beths-death/ [Accessed 20th May]
United Artists, 1966. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly [online].
https://actu.fr/occitanie/toulouse_31555/toulouse-cinematheque-propose-cycle-consacre-westerns-spaghetti_21459091.html [Accessed 20th May]
Altman, R., 1984. A Semantic/ Syntactic Approach to Film Genre. University of Texas Press.
Brax, K., 2003. The Poetics of Mystery: Genre, Representation, and Narrative Ethics in John Fowles Historical Fiction. University of Helsinki.
Derrida, J., 1980. The Law of Genre. New York: The University of Chicago Press.
Hills, M., 2000. Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film &Television.
Lewis, L., 1992. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture And Popular Media. London: Routledge.
Mittell, J., 2004. Genre and Television From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. London: Routledge.
Taylor, T, R., 2018. Digital Space and Walking Dead fandom’s Team Delusional, Transformative Works and Cultures [online], 27 (27), 87-96, Available from: https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/1180/1772 [Accessed 20 May 2019]
Williams, L., 1991. Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess. The University of California Press.