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Fall '04: "Lost" is a Find

As you might expect, the crop of new shows this fall has not been a good one. I’ve seen more than a half-dozen new series, and only one has truly impressed me. (No, not Joey — although at this point that sitcom is firmly in the #2 position by dint of Matt LeBlanc’s charm and the fact that neither Father Mulcahy nor Klinger appear to live next door to Joey.)

The new show of the season is ABC’s Lost, premiering Sept. 22 on ABC. Created by Damon Lindelof and Alias mastermind J.J. Abrams, Lost gets its head-start by perhaps the strongest pilot episode of a series I’ve ever seen.

Lost opens with an extreme close-up on Jack (Party of Five’s Matthew Fox), laying disheveled in a jungle staring up at palm trees. One too many Mai Tais at the beach-front bar at the Mauna Lani? ‘fraid not. Instead, he follows a faint whirring sound to the beach. He looks to his right — nothing but gorgeous tropical beach right out of Gilligan’s Island, with white sand sitting in front of a row of palm trees.

Then he looks to his left, and discovers sheer horror. It’s the aftermath of the show’s premise-setting, cataclysmic event — the crash of a plane bound for the U.S. from Australia. Amid the wreckage, a still-whirring jet engine, and scattered luggage are roughly 50 survivors in various states of disrepair.

The opening moments of Lost are incredibly intense, feature-film-quality intense. But after those remarkable first scenes are completed, the real work begins: these characters, complete strangers who just happened to be sharing an airline trip, now must rely on one another to survive while awaiting rescue. There’s Kate (Evangeline Lily), a woman who Jack lures to help stitch up a wound he received in the crash. There’s Claire, who’s eight months pregnant and feeling quite a few contractions all of a sudden. There’s Charlie (Lord of the Rings Hobbit Dominic Monaghan), the member of a where-are-they-now rock band who’s a bit of a mess. And more — a pair of squabbling spoiled siblings, a Korean couple that appears to speak no English, a father and son reeling from the death of the boy’s mother before the plane crash. And most intriguingly of all, a strange bald guy (the always fascinating Terry O’Quinn).

Yes, having a collection of quirky characters stranded on a tropical island sounds pretty standard issue for a TV series — the Professor and Mary Ann, anyone? But Lost succeeds by mixing different levels of conflict, including one particular conflict that overshadows any Lord of the Flies-style (okay, TV addicts, Survivor-style) power struggles.

That conflict is the one that tips Lost from being a gripping little disaster movie into a much more interesting TV series. You see, the castaways on this uncharted desert isle have a bigger problem than being thousands of miles from civilization with only a few chunks of charred airplane wreckage to salvage. That’s because, when nightfall comes, the horrifying rumblings and roars of some sort of monster can be heard in the jungle. And when a few of the castaways set out on a mission to discover the plane’s detached cockpit, that collection of scary noises becomes horrifyingly tangible.

The presence of a monster in the jungle is only the beginning of the weirdness that tips what originally sounded like a Gilligan’s Island rehash into something more. Later in the show’s two-hour pilot (restructured into a two-part premiere concluding Sept. 29) there are revelations about secrets several of the characters are trying to hide, the presence of an animal that simply shouldn’t be roaming a tropical island, and a chilling message that suggests rescue is a long way off.

With a pilot episode this strong, the natural question for Lost is: can the show’s producers m make it last? If there was any show that had to grapple with Gilligan Syndrome, it’s Lost: how to base a show on a closed-off world of characters with a premise that can’t be solved without removing the reason the show exists? Tossing in a series of X-Files-style mysteries about the island and its true nature is a good start. Adding in Terry O’Quinn’s spine-tingling monologue about how backgammon seems to parallel a titantic struggle between light and darkness isn’t bad, either.

It remains to be seen if Lost’s premise is more fitting for a limited-run show than an open-ended series. But don’t let that deter you — the show’s first two hours are so strong, they’re worth watching regardless of where the show goes from here. Although after the show’s closing moments, you’ll probably be just as gripped with wanting to know what happens next as I was.

I watch a lot of TV for TeeVee (okay, and I watch some for my own pleasure too). Most of what I see is bad. Very little of it makes me want to watch more. But what was the first thing I wanted to do after devouring the two-hour Lost pilot? I wanted to watch it again.

It’s rare to get such a great ride, a truly stylish, well-written thriller that combines fascinating characters, remarkable dramatic tension, and a crazy genre-smashing style that tosses horror and sci-fi into the mix. Abrams did some of that with Alias. He and Lindelof have succeeded wildly with Lost. It’s hands down the best new show of the season.


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