Superfan

J. Wood gets ‘Lost’ all the time, and he has a book to prove it. He closely examines how and why the TV show manages to so thoroughly mesmerize its audience.

By Cinda Ewing (English ’99)
This is an image of Joley Wood

Wood.
Photo by Stephanie Gross.

J. Wood’s interest in the TV show “Lost” began before he ever saw an episode.

Familiar with the show’s plot line — survivors of a plane crash stuck on what turns out to be a not-so-deserted island — he “suggested to students in
my ENWR [U.Va.’s mandatory writing course for undergraduates] class,
Media Matters, that ‘Lost’ would make an interesting essay topic — a fictional show with its roots in the reality TV show ‘Survivor.’ No one took me up on it.”

Too busy teaching, completing coursework for his Ph.D. and serving as editor for a publishing company, the Garrett County Press, J. never watched “Lost” until he picked up a DVD of the first few episodes at a video store. Three days later, he’d seen all 19 episodes in the first season.

Impressed with the show, J. was convinced there was a book waiting to be written in its “literate and literary” themes. He discussed his idea with the publisher at Garrett County Press about the direction and tone they thought the book should take, and soon they wondered whether Wood should just write the book himself. So, during the summer of ’06, he did.

J.’s book, “Living Lost: Why We’re All Stuck on the Island,” was published in January 2007 and closely examines “how and why ‘Lost’ manages to so thoroughly mesmerize its audience.” The book is gaining him quite a bit of attention — he’s been interviewed for a USA Today piece on the show’s use of philosophers in the narrative and has a podcast interview at OceanicWorldAir.com (the name of the airline in “Lost”).

Initially wildly popular with a wide array of audiences, the show has seen its fan base become smaller but more dedicated over the second and third seasons. According to Wood, “Lost”’s natural fan base is Generation X on down, because “‘Lost’ actively lends itself to a multimedia interaction with its narrative, and that’s a kind of interaction that Gen Xrs innately know how to do because we grew up around multimedia environments.”

Many members of the “Lost” audience have their computers on while they watch TV, says Wood, and this has allowed the writers and producers of “Lost” to “engage the online community in a way that really hasn’t been done before.” There are so many story lines and intricate plot twists in “Lost” that there are entire online communities dedicated to unraveling them.

Wood also believes that “Lost” wouldn’t have been as popular if it had been aired during a different era. It “draws on a specific sense of 21st-century isolation and distress and taps into some very here-and-now concerns.” The show ties in themes of skepticism of authority, the War on Terror (one of the survivors on the island is a Gulf War-era Iraqi soldier) and misinformation from the government.

By working elements of current political events into their subtexts, “Lost” and the online discussion forums associated with it are “paving way for a new political forum we don’t really have right now,” J. believes.

J. is a making his contribution to the online “Lost” community at Powells.com. After “Living Lost” was published, staff members at Powell’s (also fans of the show) came up with the idea for him to write a weekly column that lies “somewhere between a personal blog and an academic approach to pop culture.” He TiVos the episodes when they air on Wednesday nights, watches each “two or three times” to make sure he hasn’t missed anything and posts his editorial to the website on Thursdays for others to read and respond to.

As J. states in “Living Lost,” the show has “engaged its audience in a way that has transcended the immediate function of television as entertainment, and approached the social function of art.”

“Lost,” he says, has set a new standard for how America watches television and just might be “how TV is becoming relevant again.”

A&S Online, April 25, 2007