|Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly in tonight's episode. (Mario Perez/abc via the associated press)|
How great is it that "Lost" can still make the pulse race and the brain tingle?
The returning series, a unique conglomeration of character drama, action-adventure, existential query, and, it seems, the supernatural, remains TV's most gripping serial. "Lost" does what a one-off movie can't do - it holds us in a prolonged and increasing state of intrigue, for years on end. Just as the characters feel more out to sea as time passes, lost in the mystery and compelled by it, so do we.
"Lost" is back for season four tonight at 9 on Channel 5 with all the momentous gusto of last May's finale. When that episode flashed forward for the first time, instead of backward, the "Lost" writers blew a few million minds in one fell swoop. They also risked spoiling the tension of the remainder of the series, which is supposed to last for 48 more episodes. That sneak peek into the future - telling us that Jack, Kate, and others do indeed get off the island - could easily have taken all the wind out of the show's sails. If you've ever struggled not to jump ahead to a novel's final pages, you understand why.
But as the season premiere proves, the "Lost" writers - led by producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof - have squandered none of the series' fascination. As the flash-forwards continue tonight, you can feel big, new, baffling questions arising: Are the flash-forwards really flashbacks, too? Is the show's real present tense still ahead of us? Now "Lost" has the potential to bust open the conventional ordering of a TV narrative, in the way 2000's "Memento" - which moved in forward and reverse chronological order simultaneously - turned popular movie storytelling on its head. "Lost" viewers aren't just lost geographically and spiritually, at this point; we're lost in time, too.
At the end of last season, the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 faced the promise of a rescue ship on the horizon. Jack radioed the freighter for help, but we saw Charlie lose his life learning that the people on the ship have dubious intentions. As news of Charlie's intelligence makes its way to Jack tonight, he is still unwilling to change course. He is stubbornly pursuing what we know, from last season's flash-forward, he will deeply regret.
Is Jack destined to become a full-on bad guy? The temporal disorientation of "Lost" makes the show's approach to heroism even more engagingly complicated. At the start of the series in 2004, we were invited to see Jack, played with much facial intensity by Matthew Fox, as the typical adventure-story hero. But as we were taken further into his back story, we got a glimpse of his emotional gray areas and his neurotic motivations. Then last May we saw him in the future, bearded, defeated, very much feeling like a coward. But now, as the season starts, we can only wonder if he may be heading toward redemption. Is it possible that the rescued Jack will go back to the island to find resolution?
ABC has asked critics not to give away details from the premiere, and I am happy to abide. So much of the pleasure of "Lost" is in the way surprise twists arrive completely out of the blue. Why would I want to ruin that? But there are a few things I can say about the hour, which airs after a recap episode at 8 p.m. As shown on the commercials, the survivors split into two camps led by Jack and Locke (Terry O'Quinn), based on their feelings about the freighter. Ben (Michael Emerson) still has the creepiest, buggiest eyes ever. New characters will arrive this season, two of whom are played by Lance Reddick (Daniels on "The Wire") and Jeremy Davies (so amazing in the movie "Rescue Dawn"). The title of tonight's episode is "The Beginning of the End," which is what Ben tells Jack will occur if he contacts the freighter.
And what else can I disclose? Oh, yeah. I can say that this season, eight episodes long because of the writers' strike, is definitely going to be much, much too short.