The LOST Legacy: Intertextuality, Interactivity, and Consumerism in “Mainstream” Television
by Jessica Perlman

1. Introduction

“A Mainstream hit that enraptures the public, the media and various genre communities. In this niche-ified culture,
Lost has been broadly popular despite not being like anything else. Actually, it was popular because it wasn’t like
anything else” (Ryan, The Chicago Tribune). external image Remebering_Lost_c.jpg

ABC’s television show Lost is one of the most successful examples of intertextuality in the television genre to date. The writers and producers, chiefly led by show creators J.J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof (later joined by Carlton Cuse) recognized the inherent intertextual nature of television as a genre, but also embraced the possibility of creating a show, and subsequently a fanbase, that would reinvigorate and encourage a Read/Write culture. The theory and term intertextuality was introduced by Julia Kristeva in 1966. She viewed her work as an extension of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who was the first to “replace the hewing out of texts with a model where literary structure does not simply exist but is generated in relation to another structure” (Kristeva 35-36). For the purposes of my analysis, I will use the following definitition of Intertextuality: “A theory which assumes that meaning and intelligibility in discourse and texts are based on a network of prior and concurrent discourse and texts” (Irvine). While Kristeva initially developed the theory for written texts, other theorists and scholars quickly applied the term to analyze and explore many cultural objects, including: literature, film, visual art, or television.

Implicit in Kristeva’s theory, especially when examining the vertical axis of intertextuality, is the idea that new writings put forth are, in point of fact, not authentically new - but a continued conversation with other works that have come before. This relational theory is also linked to Jameson’s theory that “texts” come to an audience as “always-already read”. As the field of media studies has grown in scope, the theory of intertextuality has been largely applied to many genres of mass media. Jim Collins believes that “There is no other medium in which the force of the ‘already said’ is quite so visible as in television, primarily because the already said is the ‘still being said.’ Television programming since the fifties has depended on the recycling of Hollywood films and the syndication of past prime-time programs” (qtd. in Agger 10). With the genre as their tailwind, the creators of Lost redefined the function of intertextuality within the framework of serialized television, in part because of the interactivity and ongoing dialogue with their fanbase, and, as a result, created a commercial and cultural phenomenon unlike any that has come before it.

2. Literary Intertextuality in LOST

Although there are enough cultural references between film, television, religion, philosophy and literature in Lost to rival The Simpsons, the creators of the show relied most heavily on literature for many of the literary techniques employed in writing the series. I believe the creators would agree with Chandler’s spin on Jameson - that “every reading is always a rewriting” (Chandler 3). The referential points to great works by Steinbeck, Lewis, Carroll, and Baum, to name just a few were sometimes more overt, but most often, the flash of a book jacket in real time was the only subtle nod audience members would get to link a plot device, literary technique or character reference. While every episode has a title, the title is not ever displayed, though sometimes quickly referenced within the dialogue or as a visual cue.

Among the most overt references on the show are some of the titles of episodes, such as “The White Rabbit”, “Through the Looking Glass”, “The Little Prince”, “The Man Behind the Curtain”, and “Some Like it Hoth” to name just a few. A physical reference based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is the continued presence of the white rabbits on the island, linked to the Dharma Initiative and the experiments therein. external image dharma_symbol.jpg

Many children’s stories like Carroll’s and biblical references figure largely into the entire series, and are many of the more obvious intertextual references. Other overt references, which are based not only in literature, but also in philosophy and science, are the names of approximately half of the primary characters, and several secondary characters as well. Just a sampling below shows the breadth of scope and the relation to primary themes on the show:
  • Desmond Hume (right)
  • James “Sawyer” Ford (below)
    Desmond watches a Dharma Initiative Orientation Video (click above on Dharma Initiative for your own viewing experience) in "Live Together, Die Alone".
    Desmond watches a Dharma Initiative Orientation Video (click above on Dharma Initiative for your own viewing experience) in "Live Together, Die Alone".
  • Penelope Widmore
  • Eloise Hawking (below with Desmond)
  • Charlotte Staples Lewis (below)
  • Danielle Rousseau
  • John Locke
  • Dainel Faraday (below)

Eloise Hawking
Eloise Hawking
Sawyer revealing his true self to fellow castaway Kate
Sawyer revealing his true self to fellow castaway Kate

Charlotte (Staples) Lewis with fellow scientist Daniel Faraday (later arrivals to the island - not aboard 815)
Charlotte (Staples) Lewis with fellow scientist Daniel Faraday (later arrivals to the island - not aboard 815)
While many may have initially pegged Lost as a Gilligan’s Island-esque take-off based on early promos for the show, it probably would have been more apt to compare to cult sci-fi television classics like Star Trek or Quantum Leap. The arc of the show changed considerably over the course of the six seasons, but some elemental tools of narrative and storytelling remained consistent, like the device of having two stories to each episode, part of which moved the plot forward on-island and part of which provided backstory for character development.

2.1 Intertextuality through literary device

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

At the outset of the show, the writers set up the flashback as a primary storytelling technique; flashbacks carried through to the conclusion of the second season. Each episode throughout the whole of the series was character centric, and within the episode, the viewers would gain new insight into that character by way of their past (or future, or sideways) experiences. In “The Long Con” (s2, ep.13), an episode centered on the badboy misfit Sawyer, John Locke is categorizing books found in the hatch (part of the Dharma Initiative). Just for a fleeting moment, the camera pans past a copy of the short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. This hidden reference is a nod to the literary device of flashbacks, which serves a primary function in the Bierce story penned in 1886.

Bierce’s story takes place as the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar is about to meet his death by hanging at Owl Creek Bridge. Midway through Peyton’s final moments, the reader is suddenly transported backwards to a previous joyful moment in his life. This technique of time shift to provide backstory is mimicked in Lost and is critical to individual character development within the series. The conclusion of “Owl Creek Bridge”provides a significant twist - the reader learns that Peyton hallucinated the entire flashback and in fact, was already hanging from the bridge. While many would make the clear connection of the flashback model, Cari Vaughn asserts in her article, “Lost as Hypertext” that the reference to Bierce’s story also represents the theory that all of the survivors of Oceanic 815 were in fact already dead, and the island represents purgatory. Her article appears to have been written about three seasons (or halfway) into the series, but I would agree, especially after watching the show in its entirety, that the associations within “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” resonate with this overarching theme of death/purgatory in Lost.

2.2 Intertextuality through character reference and individual story arc

The Wizard of Oz and Oz of Ozma

Benjamin Linus under the alias of Henry Gale
Benjamin Linus under the alias of Henry Gale
About two thirds of the way through the second season of Lost, in an episode entitled “Lockdown” a character named Henry Gale is
introduced. While no physical reference (book or film) is ever present on the show, this character name conjures images of The Wizard of Oz for most anyone who has seen the MGM film and can recall the final scene as the film returns to black and white, and Auntie Em and Uncle Henry (Gale) come into focus. The use of the name Gale is not the only reference to Oz in this character’s development. The survivors of the crash find Gale who is not from the plane. When interrogated as to who he is and how he came to be on the island, Gale, who we later discover to be Benjamin Linus, the glorified leader of “the others”, tells the tale of arriving on the island by way of a hot air balloon that crashed. For those familiar with L. Frank Baum’s work, another clear intertextual reference emerges, though slightly muddled, or perhaps just remixed as Larry Lessig might say. Gale’s name correlates to Dorothy’s beloved uncle, but his story of arrival on the island mimics how the “great and powerful Oz” came to reside in Oz himself.

The Wizard of Oz arc is used as a metaphor for Benjamin Linus’ character development at several points throughout the series, and is appropos because Ben Linus is a master of disguise and deception who claims to have power over the pre-existing island dwellers, but in fact, serves at the mercy of greater forces on the island. The power struggle that exists between Ben Linus and his followers “the others”, and then later between “the others” and the castaways, is of critical importance to the Lost arc as the drama with the island itself unfolds. Another unacknowledged association with the show can be linked through Baum’s book, Oz of Ozma, when Henry Gale appears for the first time in Baum’s literarature (this was adapted differently in the movie version). In the third book, Dorothy is aboard a steamer ship with her Uncle, bound for Australia. They are hit by a massive storm, and Dorothy is castaway by herself to a mysterious island somewhere in between California and Australia (just like the Island on Lost).

2.3 Intertextuality through the serial

Dickens influence on Lost - Our Mutual Friend

Lindelof and Cuse have directly referenced (as you’ll see in the video below) the impact that Dickens had as a whole on the process of Lost as a show. One of the largest ways that his impact can be seen is through the deliberate writing of Dickens’ works, including his last novel, Our Mutual Friend, which was serialized in 19 installments (each of which cost 1 schilling to purchase). Lindelof and Cuse related both to the struggle of writing within the confines of an unknown quantity (which is how they were working to craft the show, before the end date was negotiated with ABC), and also of only being able to express so many elements within a given installment. While many of Dickens’ works are referenced throughout the course of the series, Our Mutual Friend holds particular significance to two characters, Desmond Hume and his lover Penelope Widmore (who are separated for many years while Desmond is trapped on the island). Dickens’ story is also a close parallel to the plot surrounding Desond and Penny. While in Dickens’ novel, the heir apparent of a rich tycoon is a male, Penelope Widmore fills the role of the resentful, stubborn, and non-complicit heir. The struggle between fathers and daughters is seen in other characters from the Dickens work, and that too is a direct parallel to the tenuous relationship between Penelope and Charles Widmore, as well as many other father-daughter pairings including Sun and Mr. Paik and Kate and her stepfather on Lost.

In addition to Dickens’ style as a serial novelist, he also used a literary technique in Our Mutual Friend that Lindelof and Cuse appropriated. The style was to include what appeared to be chance interactions with seemingly unrelated characters in the novel. Throughout the first two seasons, with the aid of the flashback, the writers of Lost created a complicated and interwoven web of mutual encounters amongst the survivors of the crash. The technique itself, both in the case of Dickens’ last novel and in Lost, has the effect of deepening the connection among the characters, but also the connection of the audience or reader to the object itself. Lindelof and Cuse even go so far as to anthropomorphize the series of numbers made famous by the show. Most explicitly through Hugo (Hurley) Reyes character, the writers of Lost highlight the “chance encounter” between Hurley and the mysterious numbers from the hatch (and the code, and the winning lottery ticket...) Hurley sees the a girl’s soccer team at the airport before boarding flight 815external image SoccerGirls.jpg
from Australia bound for LA; their jersey numbers are the mysterious Lost set.

In the video below, which was part of the bonus features on one of the box sets of Lost (season 3) the creators, writers and cast of the show discuss the vast number of literary references, techniques and styles that are replicated in the series. A considerable portion of this video is spent in reference to Our Mutual Friend, and also provides a direct recognition that not only did the writers apply a Dickensian parallel in plot and literary device, but also reappropriated the idea of one character (Desmond) waiting to read the novel until right before his death from another writer, John Irving. While there are instances where the creators are poking fun at the overt intertextual references (read season 3 opening with an on-island book group), the trove of hidden literary allusions waiting to be discovered (by Lostpedia’s count upwards of 90 novels and short stories) is staggering.

3. The LOST Commitment to a Read/Write Culture

In addition to recognizing the amount of intertextuality and intermediality within the show, Lindelof and Cuse also reference the early makings of the interaction with the audience by virtue of Dickens’ serials as an old times precursor to the internet. While not directly referenced in this video, Cuse and Lindelof were well aware of the growing numbers of websites populated by the Lost fanbase, which included hundreds of blogs and podcasts dedicated exclusively the the show, in addition to the wikipedia site devoted solely to the show, Lostpedia. As Lessig informs us in his book Remix, it would be easy for the current outlets of media to encourage a read only culture. However the rise in blogs and web only magazines has created an environment ripe for dialogue and discussion. “RW culture extends itself differently [than RO]. It touches social life differently. It gives the audience something more. Or better, it asks something more of the audience. It is offered as a draft. It invites a response” (Lessig 85). The interaction between the writers of Lost and the fans only served to create deeper relationships and connections to the show itself. Such relationships, I argue, also served to dictate some key decisions with regard to the show’s trajectory.

One primary example of audience influence was __Michael Emerson__’s role in the show. Initially, Emerson’s role of Benjamin Linus was set to be only a guest star for a few episodes in season 2. Based in large part on the audience reaction to Emerson, he was hired on as a main character beginning in season 3. His character’s presence on the show considerably augmented the shape of things to come. In the case of television, it’s not entirely viable to say that the audience is responding to a draft, but it is responding and thusly affecting future drafts of episodes and storylines yet unwritten.

Another proponent of expanding the RW culture is today’s modern television critic. While many critics wrote abouexternal image JeffJensen.JPGt the show with great flair, few had the profound passion for Lost that __Jeff (aka Doc) Jensen__ exhibited. A staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, Jensen’s weekly recap (on some occasions maxing out at 12 pages on EW’s website!) became a must read, and comment, for the fan community. Jensen was able to boast about his plethora of interviews with show creators as well as cast members. He respected the work of the writers and the actors and was as much of a Lost superfan as those reading his column every week. In providing a formalized context to muse about the often hidden literary references, and often overt religious and philosophical references, Jensen encouraged the fan community to respond, both in comments posted to his articles (and questions to his email address devoted solely to his Lost column) but also in individual dialogues and in public forums and websites like Lostpedia.

As I’ve used references and pages from Lostpedia liberally throughout this page, I’m sure you have come to be familiar with the plethora of extended commentary housed on the site. At present, the site is home to 7,223 articles about the show, including everything from significant popular culture references to full write ups on all major characters and secondary roles, to recurring themes to full episode summaries and forums and blogs. In addition to lostpedia, there were many other fan sites, including,, and __darkufo.blogspot.com__, to name just a few. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof appreciated the extent to which the fan base became invested, and grew more so, by way of websites, critic reviews, podcasts and fan forums. While I truly believe that much of the structure and long-term arc for the show was scripted once the creators secured a definitive end-date, I have a very strong suspicion that many of the writers on the show monitored what stylistic elements and storylines were best received by the avid viewers.

Another primary function of sites like lostpedia is to provide a public space to unravel all the hidden or implicit messages within the writing of each episode by allowing multiple authors to contribute to pages, the theories and references were able to live and breathe in an open dialogue. By virtue of these discussions, the audience takes a much more visible role in the process. Agger’s assessment of the interplay between the internet and intertextuality is highly applicable to Lost, "Another aspect of Internet development is interactivity as a way of breaking the unilinear mode of communication dominant in mass media...The concept of interactivity foregrounds direct response and, perhaps, the intervention of an individual or a family or an audience when confronted with a program... "(10)

Given the overwhelming response of the online community and the fans who dedicated themselves to the show, it was a natural progression to work toward furthering the RW culture. While ideas like Lost book groups were serving to engage a new generation (or perhaps re-engage an older generation, of readers with classic texts) the writers of the show also saw a commercial opportunity within the bounds of promoting an RW culture. The creator’s awareness of the audience reaction, and potential further interest, is perhaps even a new level of intertextuality - interactive on the part of the author as well.

4. A Hybrid within a Hybrid

Combining Appropriation, Dialogism and Consumerism through Lost

4.1 Literary consumerism bolstered

external image Badtwin2.jpgBad Twin was released as a real life, semi-canonical tie-in novel in the Lost universe on May 2, 2006. The book’s author is listed as Gary Troup, a fictional character and survivor of Oceanic Flight 815, though he died just moments after the crash, when he was sucked into the turbine of the plane. The book was published by Hyperion publishers in both hardcover (more than 300,000 copies) and audiobook, and it reached the New York Times Bestseller list in less than 1 month’s time. __//The New York Times//__ Felicia Lee noted that “Novels by unidentified authors have made the best-seller lists, as has at least one said to have been written by a soap opera character. But this may be the first time that a book by a nonexistent writer who is thought to have died in a plane crash has cracked the charts”. Strategically placed with a release date hovering around the show’s second season finale, fans were
engaged enough in the ongoing mysteries to bite on the secondary materials. This may also be in part because the novel was positioned as a gateway to answers for many of the series’ burning questions. Ultimately, Bad Twin probably offered more red herrings and theories to be debunked rather than accepted, but that marketing was critical to the novel’s success.

Perhaps just as titillating for the fans was the popular assumption that Stephen King had ghostwritten the novel. It was later revealed that Laurence Shames, the former ethics columnist for Esquire magazine was the true ghostwriter. Although much hype was placed around authorship, the novel was successful because Hyperion and ABC worked well in partnership to promote it. When interviewed for the New York Times article, Michael Benson, senior vice president of marketing at ABC stated that, "Bad Twin represents a hybrid between content and marketing” (qtd. in Lee). To further complicate things, another fictional organization, the Hanso Corporation, who sponsored the work of the Dharma Initiative discouraged readership of the novel on their ficticious website. Although the consumerist bi-product was likely embraced by all parties involved, the interlacing of competing fake parties speaks to the creator’s larger overall goal of promoting reading literature in a society where most media is now consumed online or on television.

4.2 Interactive consumption of The Lost Experience

While Bad Twin was climbing the best-seller lists in print, fans of Lost became addicted to an online presence during the show’s hiatus between seasons two and three. The online game, titled “__The Lost Experience__”, was an alternate reality game (ARG) designed by the writers and producers of Lost to keep their audience engaged during the show’s absence. “The Lost Experience” was launched by teasers and fake commercials during the last few episodes of the second season. The game centered around one woman’s search for answers regarding the Dharma Initiative and Hanso’s hand in the experiments on the island. While the initial goal of the game was to maintain and engage the viewers of the series, it also provided a way to be in dialogue with the audience itself. The storyline to “The Lost Experience” ran parallel to ongoing plots in the series, but also served as a way to divulge backstory and answer other mysteries about Dharma and Hanso that were unlikely to be addressed directly on the show itself. Cleverly wedged into the alternate reality game was also a plug for a commercial product, Apollo Bars. The chocolate bars were only produced for a short time, because the bar itself contained a web address which served as a clue for the next phase of the game.

The game itself was actually a cooperative effort between 3 companies, USA’s ABC, Australia’s Channel Seven and the UK’s Channel Four. Working with the UK design agency HiRes! the networks successfully created an interactive web game that felt like a treasure hunt, or perhaps at times, like a wild goose chase, in the quest for answers among fabricated phone calls, emails and fake websites. Although not the only internet game based on the Lost franchise, (later iterations had relevant titles like “Find 815” and the “Dharma Initiative Recruiting Project”) “The Lost Experience” set the bar fairly high for the dedicated followers. Video of a news story featurette on the crossover between the internet experience and the show with a voracious fan base is below.

4.3 The Writers Hit the Big Screen

Fans scurry for Tickets - Straight Commercialism (Plus some Conversation) in the End

While there may never be a traditional Lost movie per se, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof brought the cinematic experience to fans by way of a “__Times Talks Live__” event. Scheduled for Thursday, May 20, 2010, the same week as the series finale, the creators were interviewed live in the Times Center in New York City, and the event was simulcast to 454 select theaters nationwide. The event was marketed as an opportunity for fans to ask their unanswered questions, especially those that might not have been resolved in the series finale. See the trailer for the event below.This brilliant stroke of marketing and consumerism was also still exactly what the writers had hoped it would be - a further opportunity for the fans to be engaged in the conversation, and truly a part of the experience.

Despite the fact that the video would end up airing for free later in the month, fans ran to buy tickets at $13 a pop, myself included. The screening I attended in DC was completely sold out, as were many screenings, especially in highly saturated markets like major cities on the East Coast. Many in attendance also chose to don costumes to pay homage to the show as it neared it’s final episode. The experience only endeared the writers to the fan community even more, even though many were fearful that the series’ final episode would leave too many questions unanswered and too many “Losties” disappointed. It’s clear that the broadcast was executed with considerable strategy, both with regard to commercial success for the franchise with the interview broadcast, and for the success of the series in perpetuity.

5. Series Merchandise and Artistic Offshoots - All to Make Some Cash

Although the series didn’t last forever, your Dharma Initiative coffee mug, t-shirt or water bottle can! Because the show’s followers were so integrated into Lost culture, the opportunities for cross-marketing (outside of the expected DVD sales) were considerable. ABC recognized the chance to cash in, and continued to expand the merchandise available on their official __website__. Everything from the most prominent references in the show, like Dharma and Oceanic, to the tertiary references like Mr. Cluck’s Chicken Shack were used to brand Lost fans as such. ABC recognized the fans’ desire to self-identify, but may not have understood the continued desire to share in a community of fellow “Losties”. The case of consumer goods affiliated with Lost is a perfect manifestation of the hybrid economy that Lessig writes about in Remix. Indeed, most (if not all) of the official merchandise inspired by the show was purchased through the web. In this case, ABC was maintaining its’ role as the commercial entity, while the fanbase was maintaining its’ role as the sharing economy - sharing the Lost experience. The commercial products created revenue for ABC, and created self-identifying content for fans to further their relationship with the greater Lost culture.

Carlos Ramothes' artwork, an homage to the Swan Station of the Dharma Initiative
Carlos Ramothes' artwork, an homage to the Swan Station of the Dharma Initiative

Another more creative outlet, that is also ultimately geared toward a consumer market began to take shape midway through the series run. A gallery owner in L.A. named Jensen Carp was approached by a few of Lost’s producers and was pitched the idea of the “__//Lost//__ __Underground Art Project__”. Although the producers may not have known it at the time, they approached the right gallery to consider the foray into intermediality between visual art and the television series, as Carp was fan. Over time, artists (who were also fans!) worked for nearly two years creating a collection to be exhibited at Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles. The underground project had so much buzz that people began lining up in the streets a day before the exhibit was set to open, in December of 2009. The resulting pieces of art were remarkable in scope and received excellent reviews from fans. Many of the pieces have been collected by the show’s greatest admirers, and wiull continue to serve as a reminder of the creative bridge the series served for multiple artistic outlets. The official video podcast of the opening can be seen below. Throughout many genres of art, including literature, visual art, and television, Lost has proven to have left its mark on a large and ever expanding community.

6. Conclusion

Though it still remains to be seen how Lost will affect the trajectory of the serialized television show in the long run, the examples provided above represent just a minute sampling of the ways in which Lost’s creators infiltrated multiple media markets with the show’s franchise. The writers reinvigorated their audience to partake in multiple forms of RW culture, largely oriented in literature and fine art. And most profoundly, their ability to intersperse intertextual references highlights the creator's deep commitment to television as an artform, and serves to elevate the series within the genre. The often deeply embedded cultural, literary and philosophical references created a desire among the fan base to become Lost scholars, and members of a vast community. Kristeva would have been entranced with the horizontal and vertical relationships that emerged as a result of the series. Initially, Lindelof and Cuse may have set out to write a television show that would merely “enrapture the public” but what they created was an entire culture and community unique to the genre of television. Even though the series is over, the impact that Lost had on the television (and literary, and fine art, and music) industry will be seen and felt for years to come. Now all that remains to be seen is if any serialized television program can recreate, or perhaps improve upon the complex culture that was Lost.

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