The Lost Lottery and Why We Want TV To Be Real


4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42.

The numbers popped up again and again on Lost. Hurley first heard them in a mental institution, and could never shake the memory. He played them in the lottery, which changed his life, but brought about a host of highly mysterious circumstances, most of which featured this same numerical sequence. The numbers were subsequently in Danielle’s notes, on the hatch, in the hatch, on the docket at Kate’s trial, on cave walls and license plates. The numbers were a big deal, and I know I wasn’t the only one trying to figure them out.

This week, the winning Mega Millions lottery numbers were 4, 8, 15, 25, 47, and 42, and over 9,000 people played the lottery with Hurley’s numbers. Other than simply needing some numbers with which to play the lottery, why would people play a fictional winning sequence? I used to think surely I was unusual, that other, regular people didn’t wish television were real. If all those people believed Hurley’s numbers were lucky, or at least as good as any, maybe I’m not alone.

In watching scripted television, we step into another world, and for some shows, that just isn’t enough. This phenomenon I experience isn’t simply wishing certain characters were actual people, although I really do think Liz Lemon and I would be great friends, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want Sawyer (Lost) or the Doctor (Doctor Who) to call me up sometime. If these characters lived in a non-fictional sense, though, my life would be no different. I probably wouldn’t know them, and the events in their lives would have little to no influence on mine. For them to be real, though, the worlds they inhabit would have to join them in reality. I want those worlds to make up the world in which we live, a feeling that has overwhelmed me time and again.

Unfortunately, the aspects of our world and those characters I wish were purely fictional are all too real. (I’m looking at you, Jersey Shore.) This world is full of wonderful people and opportunities, but these are too often hidden or trampled by its horrors. Television constitutes a highly personal level of escapism, playing pretend in an almost-realistic way. If we can immerse ourselves in the program just enough, we can spend an hour elsewhere, removed from the aspects of our world we just can’t get behind. Most of the shows that give me this feeling aren’t fantastical in any way: The writers and actors have succeeded in creating a uniquely heightened world, closely resembling our own. They may not judge their success by the level to which I want to occupy that slightly better or more interesting world, but I do. I watch lots of shows I don’t want to live in, but my reaction to them is never quite as visceral.

The best example I can think of is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I’ve written of my love for this show before, but have never spoken about it in this context to anyone: I wish all of it were real, down to the last detail. I want all conversations to be that clever, and if my life were full of Aaron Sorkin’s famous “walk and talk”s, it would be complete. The screwball comedy Arrested Development revisited the same topics and jokes again and again, twisting the reference each time to give it a freshly hilarious meaning. It may not be as funny to live that as to watch it, but I would love the opportunity to find out first hand.

Both my escapist shows have been canceled, so it’s reasonable to think I’m confusing myself. Perhaps I just want to live in a world where these shows are still airing. I’ve considered that possibility, but canceled shows aren’t the only source for my wishing; every now and then, an aspect of something current seeps in. While I don’t make a point to watch Glee, I do wish my life had a hell of a lot more musical numbers than it does now.

(For the record, the current count is zero.)

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