Damon Lindelof, “Harry Potter,” “Lost,” and fandom

A few weeks ago on “Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan,” Mo Ryan and I both answered a listener question about “Lost.” The listener wanted to know if we’d revisited the show since it ended, or when (if ever) we might ever return to it again. I declared that I needed about a year or so off from “Lost” before I could really look at it again. That year-long sabbatical has nothing to do with my displeasure with how things ended (I’m in the suddenly uncool camp of really like the show as a sum total of episodes) but more to do with my burnout over 1) having to write about it 4-6 times a week for around 3 years, and 2) being in the position to have a blog that provided many people with an easy outlet for their anger, large and small, about the show.

My need for a year-long sabbatical still stands, but that doesn’t mean I want to let Damon Lindelof’s recent “Harry Potter” review for The Daily Beast slide without saying a few words about it. What does that review have to do with “Lost”? Just about everything, because Lindelof’s less-than-love for that move called into question his overall “Harry Potter” fandom, which in turn called into question his previous assertion that anyone that took to the interwebs to rail against “Lost” were in fact not actually “fans” of the show.

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Lengthy quote time from an article that demands full reading:

“I still love Harry Potter. Deeply and profoundly. I will read these books to my son when he’s old enough not to be terrified of the dementors. And I will absolutely be crammed into my Gryffindor shirt, the very first in line to see Deathly Hallows, Part 2, which is guaranteed to make me cry at the end just as the book did.

My point is that I’m still a fan. A huge fan. Huge.

And so I sincerely and genuinely apologize to all those whom I have stripped of their Lost fandom just for complaining about the stuff you didn’t like. It doesn’t make you any less a fan.

In fact…It just makes you honest.

I respect that. And I’m genuinely sorry for ever feeling otherwise.”

Good on Damon. I don’t know the guy. Don’t pretend to know him. Don’t pretend like he owes me or anyone any explanation for ANYTHING he did inside the show he co-created. But good on him all the same for offering a mea culpa for essentially insulting part of his most passionate fanbase. But his initial reaction in some ways set the stage for some of the complication online creator/viewer interactions that are seemingly par for the course these days. When “Lost” started, Twitter didn’t exist. Now? Nearly every character on TV has a handle. Studios need to have a social media component to every show they launch. It’s a bold, if not always brave, new world.

That’s obviously not to say that there wasn’t a big online presence for “Lost” at the outset of the show, but that presence was unidirectional. As I have written before, Twitter has complicated the online aspect of fandom by inserting the ILLUSION of bidrectionality in terms of the relationship between fan and show. When a Lindelof or a Dan Harmon or a Hart Hanson can control this illusion, using it to their advantage to engender an even more powerful, more loyal army of online advocates, then they have no problem utilizing and extolling it. But just like the Republican Party is starting to realize that they can’t quite control the independent entity that is The Tea Party, some showrunners are realizing that they can’t always control the overzealous fans that don’t always want to buy what their supposed leader is selling.

Is the comparison to vocal fans to The Tea Party fair? Of course not, but in terms of the power dynamics at play, it’s pretty accurate. It’s impossible to tell people they have a seat at the table, and then expect then to like everything that’s served for dinner. It just doesn’t work that way. And the idea that these once loyal people should be banished or have their opinions dismissed just because they don’t loyally consume it is ridiculous. Lindelof seems to have always understood (and embraced) dissention to his work, but preferred to see it as an “us” versus “them” perspective. Which is all a way of saying you were a fan, or you were an “Other.” Cue the Alanis Morrissette levels of irony.

But here’s some more food for thought to complicate the waters. Just as it’s easy for showrunners to decide to selectively decide who is a “real” fan, and which section of their audience truly “get” what they are trying to do, it’s plenty easy for fans at home to spew snark in 140-character bites and assume their words don’t have any meaning to the creators that might actually right them. Some fans simultaneously assume that they are both powerless and yet infinitely powerful, vacillating between the helpless feeling one might see upon looking up the latest ratings for a show and the selfish notion that the program they are watching should be tailored specifically to their particular entertainment DNA. In other words: they hop on Twitter, rail against the show, and then seem shocked that such anger might actually reach a human being with actual feelings.

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What Lindelof, Harmon, Hart and other such as Kurt Sutter sometimes do online isn’t always excusable, but to me it’s entirely understandable, and in some ways it’s heartening. Why? Because it shows they actually give a shit, both about their creation and the need for people to like it. That naked pride in their work and their naked ambition that they want it to exist in the world as a beloved piece of creative work simply makes them human. If they didn’t care, they would write in their own version of Faraday’s journal, content to look down their noses at the unwashed masses around them, haughty in the knowledge that what’s in those pages is simply too good to bestow upon them.

If these guys brushed off criticism not unlike the way Jay-Z brushes dirt off his shoulder, then I would simply assume they punched the clock on a job they tolerated, not an opportunity they loved. Their agents may not like the ease with which they can sometimes bite the cyber-hand that feeds, but them’s the breaks in this day and age. Just as they can’t take away people’s right to comment on their work after implicitly/explicitly seeking their feedback, these creators cannot wall themselves off again from their fanbase.

But both sides need to think a little more about what’s going on on the other side of keyboard during these interactions. Each Tweet is a chance to earn a fan, but it’s also a chance to earn some respect. The difference between disagreeing and disrespecting is at the heart of so many of these recent conflicts. The former should always be part of discourse, whether online or not. The latter has no place anywhere, period.

By apologizing to his “Lost” fans in The Daily Beast, Lindelof turned the latter into the former, and if this penultimate “Harry Potter” movie doesn’t do anything else, then it’s already done quite a bit.

6 Comments

  1. Posted November 21, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Very insightful. Really liked your point about fans feeling both powerful and powerless at once. I think showrunners feel that way as well.

  2. Bonita
    Posted November 21, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Great article. I was also heartened by Damon’s tweet and enjoyed reading a fuller discussion of these themes. Only problem for me was the vast number of writing errors sprinkled throughout.

  3. Litzie
    Posted November 21, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Really excellent article. I’ve often felt both energized by and uneasy with the precarious relationships between fans and content-makers on twitter and you have made me realize why - I think it’s often hard for both sides to remember the other is made up of real people, as you much more articulately describe above. I’m not sure my unease would fade even if everyone read and acted on your article though…despite considering myself quite the fan I’ve always struggled with the impulse in fandome to be closer to the source of content. But at the same time I love the possibility inherent in the interactive nature of developing media…so i hope there is somewhere new and exciting to go.

    And after endless ramble, my point: great article, especially as it made me think through all this!

  4. Annedreya
    Posted November 21, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed your article and I enjoyed Damon’s article. I think we’re all learning how this new “almost level playing field” of social media works. I think you’re right, that fans don’t always realize that their graceless comments may wound a show runner or writer. I think that the show runners and writers can be very cruel and thoughtless in return and forget that fans are also actual human beings. By way of illustration, some time ago, E! Entertainment Network aired a short video in which a fan at a gathering was allowed to tape a question for Lindelof and Cuse. The question was then played for the “Lost” creators who were to answer it on camera. It was an innocuous question, but Cuse took the low road, apparently thinking he was funny when he compared the fan asking the question to a Sumo wrestler. Not cool. Cruel, in fact. I can only imagine how devastated the woman felt when she saw that response and I have wondered whether she remained a “fan”. As you pointed out in your article, respect goes both ways, whether in front of a keyboard or in front of a camera.

  5. Rose
    Posted November 22, 2010 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed your take on the blog post by Damon, but I really must point out that though Twitter didn’t exist when Lost started the Fuselage board did. The Fuselage was a forum set up by the writers and visited by them almost daily, with plenty of back and forth between the fans and those writing the show.

  6. Smedley
    Posted November 22, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Interesting article. Another avenue for discussion along these lines: What sort of impact does all this fan-creator interaction have on the creative process?
    As a faithful follower and regular interactive LOST fan, it was quite easy for me to see when Lindelof/Cuse steered their story in the direction of popular fan opinion (or avoided interesting themes trying to shock/surprise those that guessed their ideas too early).
    Did their work suffer for having catered to the collective bullying of the online masses? In my opinion, yes it did.

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