The character diversity of Lost was a secret strength of the show

Naveen Andrews, Jorge Garcia
Naveen Andrews, Jorge Garcia

This week a decade ago, the pilot aired for a show that would go on to become a milestone in television. That show was Lost and over the years, it has been praised and criticised for many things, while spawning a number of similar shows, most of which have failed to capture its magic. One area where Lost excelled, and beat out all its competitors, is its display of diversity, an aspect of the show that’s often overlooked.

This is perhaps most evident in the breadth of characters that have come through the show during its run. Most shows choose to have their main ensemble be American, even if the performers themselves are not, a trait common to nearly all the sprawling mystery shows that have attempted to replicate Lost’s success. Lost, however, was not afraid to mix up the nationalities and backgrounds of its characters. This led to an Irishman, Desmond, being a key player over the course of the series, and an Englishman, Charlie, being such an important part of the show that his death is one of the more memorable moments of the series. The Austrailian Claire and the Nigerian Mr. Eko further lend to this strength, but the two best examples of this are the South Korean couple Sun and Jin and the Iraqi Sayid Jarrah.

Sun and Jin could have easily become stock characters who played into troubling stereotypes. Instead, the duo became the heart of the series, one of its most heartfelt relationships, with their background affecting how they communicated with and related to the other survivors. Sayid, however, is perhaps the boldest character in Lost’s ensemble. The decision to put an Iraqi as a major character on a TV show just a year after US troops entered the country, and make the character one of the good guys, demonstrated a commitment to diversity that has yet to be matched on television.

Lost had an equally strong focus on its female characters. Alongside the aforementioned Claire and Sun, the show had Kate, Danielle, Juliet, Ana Lucia, Libby, Ilana, and Rose, among others. While constraints kept some of these characters from being fully fleshed out, they all were their own women, more than just props to move the story along. Juliet stands as the biggest example. As a late series introduction who initially seemed to serve solely as an additional arm for a geometric love shape, the writers soon established Juliet as a person in her own right, with her own concerns and feelings about Ben and the members of Oceanic 815.

This is also illustrated in the form of Rose and Ana Lucia, two characters who remained on the fringes of the larger story, yet made an impact. The decision of the former to stay on the Island is a great character moment that doesn’t necessarily play into the larger story, but tells a lot about the person, and the fact that Rose decides to stay on the Island for herself, rather than to advance the plot or due to a romantic entanglement, is a testament to the strength of the character’s independence. Similarly, Ana Lucia’s swift action in taking control of the tail section following the crash, keeping things together and managing to not only kill an intruding Other, but discover Goodwin’s treachery and take action, shows how important she was to the narrative, with the fact that she’s a woman proving to be no hindrance.

Evangeline Lilly
Evangeline Lilly

The series’ diversity also manifested itself physically. A number of shows end up with an unfortunate level of homogeneity among their casts, something Lost avoided. Sawyer and Locke had very few physical similarities, as did Charlie and Desmond, or Jin and Michael. Rather than fixate on these differences and use them as narrative shortcuts, however, the show chose to use them to expand on the characters. Ben was not the antagonist simply because he looked different from everyone else; he earned this role with his actions. Lost never used a physical shorthand to communicate characterisation. Hurley stands as the best example of this, as he was never simply “the fat guy” on Oceanic 815. The audience came to know Hurley as a lottery winner, as someone who preferred to give things away rather than keep them, as a good friend to a number of survivors, and as Jacob’s replacement, but never as a person defined solely by his weight. Similarly, Mr. Eko was never just the tall guy with the tail section and Tom was not simply the big guy with the Others.

Which is not to say the show was perfect. With its large ensemble, a number of characters did suffer from poor characterisation, most notably Nikki and Paolo, and the show’s lead character still remained Jack Shepherd instead of someone like Sayid or Kate.  But despite this, Lost made a strong case for diversity of all types without drawing attention to itself. In addition to the examples above, the show also featured an interracial marriage in Rose and Bernard that was one of the more important relationships in the show. Even when it came to the American characters, Lost didn’t shy away from diversity, from Michael to Ana Lucia to Miles Straume. The writing for Michael and Walt was particularly commendable, as the show steadfastly refused to fall into the unfortunate clichés that black characters are often subjected to, instead making Michael just a man trying to do right by his son, and then fix what he did wrong. The presence of Tom also added diversity to the relationships on the show, though it is questionable why there was only one gay character and no bisexual characters among the show’s ensemble. Despite this, Lost’s diversity was a key strength of the show and part of what elevated it above its peers in the television landscape, and it’s an aspect other series would do well to try to replicate.

– Deepayan Sengupta

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