Early in the pandemic, we collectively tuned in to a show or binged a series because it was a welcome reminder that others were out there. TV was the lone lifeboat in search of a whistling Kate Winslet; a balm to soothe the flare-up that is the American experience. Nearly a year later, it remains a constant—even meditative—force in so many of our lives.
I participated in these shared viewing experiences for a rare chance at distraction and connection, but all I got was background noise. Watching The Undoing and The Flight Attendant, I was more focused on the protagonists’ deep-conditioning routines than their likelihood of committing murder. Emily in Paris and Bridgerton aren’t French pastry so much as Hostess Sno Ball. And as soon as I heard Selling Sunset’s Christine Quinn purr “Billionaires have compounds, millionaires have views,” I resigned to the knowledge that capitalism is safe in Netflix’s ironclad grip.
That’s when I turned to two shows steeped in chaos and distress: Lost and Survivor. These were shows I had spent my entire life avoiding out of the expectation that they focus on the wholly disinteresting act of survival itself—scavenging for food, boiling water, making toilet paper jokes, etc. I started each out of a yearning to convince myself that things could be worse. Instead, I found peace in these stories about an overlooked aspect of survival: true connection.
As the months passed and my body slowly fused to my bed, Lost—which follows the passengers of Oceanic Airlines flight 815 after a crash leaves them stranded on a mysterious island—gave me a lens through which I could view my pandemic experience. The show famously evokes strong opinions, ranging from, “Wait, seriously though, what do they use for toilet paper?” to “I have no idea what’s going on.” The latter usually stems from the direction the show took after the season three finale and the confusing plot lines about dull side characters and time travel (groan) that followed.
Ultimately, though, Lost is about the redemptive power of relationships. It centers people who have to learn to forgive themselves—mostly for their work and relationships—and understand one another to survive. Characters mourn the people they left behind while navigating a new and unexpected (“unprecedented,” if you will) reality. “Hey, this seems relevant!” I thought, as I lost any sense of where my head stopped and where my pillow started.
And, of course, there’s the finale that launched a thousand think pieces. Have they been dead the whole time? Was it a projection of the protagonist’s subconscious? Did I waste all this time thirsting over Matthew Fox when Evangeline Lilly was right there? I didn’t care, really. In the bowels of quarantine, the finale felt like a rebuke of our very human need for answers and, above all else, a celebration of companionship (“It’s the friends we meet along the way that make us appreciate the journey”—a wine mom, somewhere, probably).
Then there’s Survivor. Each week, contestants compete in challenges and engage in social gameplay to secure the chance to win $1,000,000 and be crowned “Sole Survivor.” Twenty years, forty seasons, and countless hours of Jeff Probst in all his DILF glory.
The contestants are people who sacrifice real food, clean water, and secure shelter for up to 39 days to fight with strangers in the wilderness—all of whom are usually more driven by their respect for the game than they are the prospect of winning the cash prize. Naturally, there was something cathartic, maybe even spiteful, about watching the show while confined to my childhood home and rendered equally unable to see family members or make a quick run to the grocery store.
Two things about the show especially surprised me: there are people who can skip their skincare routine for more than a week without losing their minds, and some contestants are willing to jeopardize their own chance of winning by bringing viable competitors to the finale. In season 17, Jessica “Sugar” Kiper saved eventual winner Bob Crowley from a blindside and brought him to the end. In Survivor: Tocantins, James Thomas Jr. and Stephen Fishbach’s friendship carried them all the way to the final tribal council.
I was touched by these displays of selflessness; maybe because they contrasted a carousel of Instagram Stories featuring indoor dining and large, maskless gatherings, or maybe because they’re more personal displays of trust and respect than any Zoom call could ever convey. They reminded me of the feeling I got whenever someone brought donuts to the office for no reason or gave up their seat on a packed bus pre-pandemic.
What kept me watching both shows was the magic of seeing people surrender themselves to their chosen allies and, most of the time, emerge with a newfound appreciation of community and revitalized determination to survive. They were a reminder that my deepest relationships have sustained me up until this point in the pandemic—even if one of the only ways to maintain those relationships has been texting about the horrors of Netflix’s latest original series (yes, this is obviously a Bling Empire reference).
These are both stories about our magnificent, if inconvenient, need for other people. And they taught me to find beauty in a shared will to survive.
By Alex Eichenstein
Illustration by Wenjia Tang for The Atlantic