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Lost’s Carlton Cuse Relives Dealing With the Modern Celebrity of the TV Showrunner

(L-R) Actors Jorge Garcia, executive producers Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, actors Francois Chau and Harold Perrineau onstage during Spike TV's "Scream 2010" at The Greek Theatre on October 16, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Lost co-showrunner Carlton Cuse (right) with Jorge Garcia and Damon Lindelof

All week long, Vulture has been taking a look at all aspects of fandom from the fans' perspectives. But what is it like on the other side of the equation? Celebrities have long been accustomed to dealing with passionate and devoted fans, but recently, in the TV world, the intense accolades and passion for a show are often just as much — if not more — directed at the once-anonymous showrunner. Nowhere was this more evident than with Lost: Its intensely loyal viewers felt like they were on a first-name basis with the head writers, crediting the increasingly high-profile Carlton (Cuse) and Damon (Lindelof) for every twist and trajectory that defined the fans' love of the show — and sniping at them for everything that made them angry. Josef Adalian got in touch with Cuse — who was a relatively anonymous career TV writer before Lost — and asked him to relive his surreal six-season ride with the show, in which he dealt with flash mobs, Internet flamers, and women flashing their Lost tattoos in private places.

There’s been a cultural change in television in the last few years. TV showrunners have become known entities to people who watch television in the way that movie directors have been known to filmgoers for a long time. When I started out as a writer and producer in television, I never had the slightest expectation that fame would be part of the job. There was a little bit of fandom that came from co-creating, writing, and producing my first series, 1993’s cult favorite The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. We were getting about 500 letters a week. They would show up in boxes, but they were addressed to the actors, or the show, or the “producers,” unnamed. It was vastly different from what would happen with Lost

When Lost started, we were just trying to make a TV show that we’d watch, that we thought was cool. We truly had no idea people would become so engaged by it. By the end of the first season, Damon Lindelof and I had suddenly become the named, responsible parties for the show. I first noticed that something was different when a fan group that organized around a website called TheFuselage.com held a fund-raiser party at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel, and they invited some of the actors and writers to attend. The fans that showed up were mostly interested in meeting each other, but some of them were actually very interested in meeting Damon and me. And that was really kind of shocking: Suddenly there were fans wanting to have their picture taken with us. I never expected that somebody would want to have his picture taken with a showrunner.

When we didn’t reveal what was in the hatch at the end of the finale of season one, I think a lot of people were both engaged but also frustrated. And I started noticing in the online discussions over that summer that it wasn’t just Lost that they were referring to but also Damon and me as the proprietors of Lost: “Those motherfuckers Lindelof and Cuse are leaving us hanging for four months!” There was a certain backlash to the fact that we ended the first season on this agonizing cliffhanger, and people blamed us personally. I’d created and been the showrunner for a few different series and never had this experience. Being a showrunner meant writing and producing a television show, period, but with Lost, suddenly it became part of the job to promote and be the face of the brand. In a weird way, the story was as much the star as any of the actors, so people wanted to hear from us. They wanted some kind of connection with the two guys who were telling the story. 

ABC fueled the idea of us as representatives of the show by asking Damon and me to host these clip recap shows before the start of every season. We also did podcasts, which were genuinely fun for us to do, and many of them ended up going to No. 1 on iTunes. And it kept amplifying. It turned out that Jimmy Kimmel was a huge Lost fan, so we were invited to go on his show as guests — and actually sit on the couch. We went on the Letterman show and read the Top Ten List. I got to be a judge on Top Chef, which was kind of intoxicating because that was a show that I loved and that we talked about all the time in the writers' room. I did a podcast with Bill Simmons and even had the opportunity to be in the booth during a Red Sox game with the team’s announcers, Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy. Growing up a Red Sox fan, that was incredible, almost overwhelming. It all just felt sort of surreal.

Pretty soon, Damon and I began to find out just how obsessed people were with the show and how recognizable we were. I had a woman come up to me at a party and say, “You’re Carlton Cuse!" I said, "Yeah," and she said, “I have the Lost numbers tattooed on my body.” I said, “Where?” She proceeded to lift her shirt and show me the 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 tattooed along the bottom of her breasts. That’s just not great if you’re married and your wife is across the room. (I've since learned that the correct response is “Awesome!”) I also remember going to a restaurant one night. The waiter was reciting the specials, giving no indication that he had any idea who I was. And then, after finishing, he turned to me and said, “So, what’s up with that cable that runs from the island underwater?”

The craziest event happened at Comic-Con in 2009, the summer before our last season. It was the day before our panel, and Damon and I, as fans, went to check out another panel with Jim Cameron and Peter Jackson. Jeff Jensen from Entertainment Weekly was there, and he told us there were people camped out outside who were going to spend the night to be at the Lost panel the next morning. "You should go say hi to them," Jeff said. Damon and I were thinking there were probably fifteen or so people out there who were really hard-core Lost fans, so we should stop by and thank them.

After the Cameron/Jackson panel, we walked outside and over to where we were told the fans were camping out. But it wasn’t fifteen people; it was several hundred. And as we approached, somebody shouted, “It’s them!” Everybody started going crazy. They pulled us apart and were trying to take pictures with us, and it was this whole frenzy. Then the rest of the people coming out of the Cameron/Jackson panel saw that there was something going on, and all of a sudden, there was this flash mob. The Comic-Con security people saw us in the middle of this totally chaotic scene and these red-shirted guys and had to grab us and drag us out of there. It’s still hard to believe that happened.

Of course, not all the feedback on Lost was positive. I remember deep in season one reading an article on the Internet pointing out all the things that somebody found ludicrous about the show: the lack of reality, how we were really pulling the mythology out of our ass. It was a really well-reasoned critique of the show. I thought, Well, on one level this person is absolutely right. But on the other hand, that’s sort of the magic of storytelling, that you get the audience to suspend their disbelief about all the things that this person was criticizing. The fundamental job of the storyteller is to create the magic that makes you buy things as absurd as the stories that we told on the show. But I realized it wasn't good for my creative process to read this stuff on a daily basis. The negative comments would stick in my brain in a very bad way. So I asked Gregg Nations, who had worked for me for six years on Nash Bridges and also worked on Lost, to give me sort of a news summary — the exegesis of what was going on out there. He would tell me, “Hey, everybody wants to know why the hell Hurley is still gaining weight even though he’s supposedly crashed on a deserted island." (Of course, no one ever asked, “Why does Kate still look perfectly groomed?”) Or he would send me links to really cool pieces of theory or analysis from people like Jeff Jensen, Alan Sepinwall, or Cynthia Littleton, who blogged about the show and really wrote well about it. But, for the most part, he would filter the comments and give me a summation of them, and that was a lot better for my creative process. I didn’t want to be writing the show from a defensive, reactive position.   

Sometimes the fans want it both ways, of course. They want to feel like they’re influencing the show, and at the same time, they want to think that showrunners have the story all mapped out in our brains. But it can’t be both. In truth, we were usually far ahead of the fan feedback. Audiences would be watching episode two or three of a season, and we might be writing episode fourteen. And the reality is that a TV show is like a supertanker: It takes five miles to stop. It’s pretty hard to make course corrections when you’re that far downstream.

Still, we did sometimes consider fan feedback in between seasons. Like the Hurley thing: When people were complaining that Hurley was still fat, we ended up writing into the show that he had a secret stash of food, including a giant tub of Dharma ranch dressing hidden in the jungle. But even in the case of Nikki and Paulo — two characters the fans hated — we had already decided we had made a mistake by bringing them out of the chorus. The fan reaction was simply confirming a decision we’d already made.  

As we began working toward the finale of Lost, I knew there was no possible ending that was going to be universally loved, and I accepted that. We ended the story the way we wanted it to end, and we stand by it. On my Twitter feed, I still get ten to fifteen positive comments for every negative one. Damon and I got an Emmy nomination as writers for our finale script, and we got an Emmy nomination for best drama series for the final season. I like to think those were affirmations from our peers that we did a pretty good job.    

After Lost ended, there was a period of time when I would get stopped daily by people saying that they liked the show or wanted to get their picture taken. It happens occasionally now but much less often. It’s really nice when it does happen, when someone tells you the show was meaningful for him or her. As a storyteller, your job is only complete upon receipt of the story that you tell. That is a part of the circle, the process.

It was a fun ride to have experienced, but I was left with very little desire to be famous; I’m happy that it was a temporary phenomenon. I certainly do not envy actors, who live in that world continuously. As for other showrunners who are now (or might some day) go through a similar whirlwind, my advice is this: If you work 60 to 80 hours a week on your show, as I did — and good work  requires that level of commitment — if you are going to do that, then do the same when it comes to publicizing and promoting your work. Commit yourself to it and embrace the experience. It’s now an integral part of the job description.

My next project is Bates Motel for A&E. It's a great collaboration with Kerry Ehrin, the head writer of Friday Night Lights. Are people going to criticize the show? I’m sure there will be Hitchcock devotees who think it’s sacrilegious to even revisit the world at all. And inevitably there will be comparisons to Lost, but you can’t be afraid of that happening. That’s truly paralyzing. I can’t control how an audience is going to respond to it. All I can do is make it as good as I can make it.

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images