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Television | TELEVISION

'Lost' takes an odd path to diversity

Ahoy! An island in a sea of stereotypical casting.

February 13, 2005|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

"Nobody wants tokenism, and that's one of the reasons I'm so proud of this show," Daniel Dae Kim said. "It shows America and television executives and movie producers that you don't have to have a lily-white cast of twentysomethings to have a successful project. The story lines speak to America regardless of color and can even be enhanced by mixtures of race and gender." That same attitude transformed the character named Hurley in the minds of the creators from a 55-year-old redneck to the sweet and affable large guy who cracks jokes on the island. Jorge Garcia had guest-starred on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and the producers, taken with his comedic timing, requested that Webster track him down. All that is known about Hurley, so far, is that his real name is Hugo Reyes and he is a native Californian of Latino heritage.

"Whoever the characters were in their regular life gets thrown out the window because they're forced to live together in that situation," said Garcia, who grew up in San Juan Capistrano and is the son of a Cuban mother and Chilean father. "It doesn't matter who any of them thought they were or who society thought they were."

That may hold true in the South Seas, where the castaways are stranded, but Hollywood often misses an important point -- one that Michael Crichton effectively made when he wrote the pilot for "ER" without including gender or race for any of the doctors.

"If racial identity is the only thing that's interesting about a character, that's extremely limiting and also insulting to how society works now," said John Wells, whose company produces "The West Wing," "Third Watch," "Jonny Zero" and "ER." "Sometimes in an attempt to diversify shows, the characters become stereotypical because they're there for the purpose of providing diversity and you're trying to write to that instead of trying to write human beings."

That was precisely Yunjin Kim's dilemma when she finally read the pilot script for "Lost" and thought her character "was really backward." The actress contacted Abrams, who quelled her concerns by sharing some of his plans for Sun, who, it turns out, had secretly learned English and is much stronger than she seems in the pilot.

"You have an image of what these characters are on the island but then in the flashbacks, you learn they are quite different," she said. "And not just the 'ethnic' characters. Even Jack, the perfect heroic doctor who saves everyone, is seen later having a nervous breakdown. The writers don't ignore race. They touch on it when it's needed, but it's not what these people are all about."

Occasionally, Sawyer, the Southern loudmouth (played by Josh Holloway) calls the Iraqi character, Sayid, "Mohammed," and he once blamed him for crashing the airplane. Desperate for something to eat, Charlie, the British rocker (Dominic Monaghan), once accused the overweight Hurley of hoarding the food. And when Jin, the Korean husband, spots Michael, the black father, wearing Jin's father-in-law's gold watch and talking to his wife, he attacks him physically. Michael at first assumes it's because he is black.

"When I first read that scene, I called up the writers because I'm from Brooklyn and I can't say that there's a huge thing between black people and Koreans," said Harold Perinneau, who plays Michael, a single father who turns out to have suffered for many years after being denied contact with his son, Walt (Malcolm David Kelley). "I felt it was important to speak up because I don't ever want it to dilute to the simple idea that people are going to be mad at Michael just because he's a black guy."

The actor and the writers compromised. After the fight, "Walt asks me about it and I tell him that I was just angry," Perinneau said. "There are a lot of shows where they have a black guy and when they have an episode about the black guy, it's about somebody dissing the black guy for being black. I'm not in that show. I'm not doing that show. We heard that one already."

Terry O'Quinn, who plays the slightly creepy but wise Locke, who was a paraplegic before the crash, said he would be proud if his show's legacy were to "simply cast actors because they were good and workable, rather than because they were a 33-year-old white man or a 22-year-old Oriental woman."

"If the world is becoming more global, we certainly should become more global in the business," he said. "At the same time, I want to make sure I always have a job. I'm an old white man!"

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Beyond race or culture

The success of "Lost" is one more strike against the convention that both white and non-white viewers prefer to watch characters like themselves. According to Nielsen Media Research, of the show's 16.4 million viewers, 1.6 million are African American and 914,000 are Latino, demonstrating that white audiences are as attracted to distinct and compelling characters from other cultures and races as ethnic audiences are.

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