New book details the toxic culture behind the scenes of Lost

With the WGA strike still going on, it’s unfortunately easy to find a lot of stories about the casual condescension and mistreatment that TV writers regularly experience in their jobs, be it from executives who don’t know anything about the creative process or what, but those problems are very much not new—and iconic entries in the television canon are certainly not immune. As detailed in an excerpt from longtime entertainment industry journalist Maureen Ryan’s new book Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, And A Call For Change In Hollywood on Vanity Fair, the success of beloved ABC drama Lost belied a behind-the-scenes culture of bullying and racism tolerated—if not outright encouraged—by showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.

The whole except is worth reading for anyone interested in Lost, or TV, or how TV is made, or just… the kinds of things that human beings can go through, but it tells various stories about writers and actor on the show having to endure offensive jokes and comments with the knowledge that they would be ostracized if they didn’t put up with it or join in. Writer Monica Owusu-Breen compared it to middle school, saying it was “relentlessly cruel” and that she has “never heard that much racist commentary in one room” in her career. Here are some highlights from the Vanity Fair excerpt, either heard about Owusu-Breen or other writers who chose to stay anonymous to protect their careers:

When someone on staff was adopting an Asian child, one person said to another writer that “no grandparent wants a slanty-eyed grandchild.”

When actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s picture was on the writers room table, someone was told to remove their nearby wallet “before he steals it.”

When a woman entered the writers room carrying a binder, two sources said, a male writer asked her what it was. She said it was the HR manual for the studio, and he responded, “Why don’t you take off your top and tell us about it?”

There was apparently some discomfort around the show’s cleaning staff using the bathroom in the Lost offices, and there were “jokes” about “putting up a Whites Only sign.”

Owusu-Breen also talks about when her and her writing partner, Alison Schapker, were assigned the episode where Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s character is killed, claiming that Cuse wanted the character to essentially be lynched “from the highest tree” and allegedly lamented the fact that ABC wouldn’t let them get away with finding a way to “cut his dick off and shove it down his throat.” Owusu-Breen says she vocally objected to that kind of imagery and that her and Schapker were fired not long after that, but she also figures that Cuse wasn’t even bringing up racist imagery on purpose and was just so used to being able to do whatever he wanted that it didn’t occur to him to consider otherwise.

Similarly, actor Harold Perrineau—one of the main members of the show’s ensemble early on—says a producer shrugged off his concerns that he and the other non-white actors were being steadily deemphasized in favor of the white characters (who a writer said were explicitly referred to as the “hero characters” by people in charge). Perrineau also says that he raised some issues he had with his character to Cuse and Lindeolf after fearing that he was being used to further “the narrative that nobody cares about Black boys, even Black fathers” when his character’s son got kidnapped.

Perrineau says a scene that initially had no mention of his character’s son was reworked after that, and though he was happy to do the work, he got the sense that Cuse and Lindelof were “suddenly” mad at him. He was written off the show not long after that, and he says Cuse’s explanation was “Well, you said you don’t have enough work here, so we’re letting you go”—with Perrineau adding, “it was all very much, ‘How dare you?’” Multiple sources also said that Lindelof told people that Perrineau “called me racist, so I fired his ass.”

Meanwhile, Cuse and Lindelof don’t outright deny all of the allegations raised about the culture they oversaw on Lost, but they—particularly Lindelof—do chalk a lot of it up to inexperience or just a general failing as managers. Cuse claimed he never heard of anyone feeling bullied or belittled because of racism or sexism, and that he would have done something had I heard about it, while Lindelof says he was “largely oblivious” to any “adverse impacts” that he had on anyone while working on the show.

Ryan’s take is that, perhaps, Lindelof and Cuse were so happy to have a huge hit show and so focused on keeping it going that they “chose not to do anything about it,” which very much does not and should not let them off the hook. As Ryan notes, “Whether or not Lindelof and Cuse were present for every damaging incident, the workplace environment at Lost was created, rewarded, and reinforced by them”—something that even Lindelof admits is true.

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