After three years and countless viewer questions, the executive producers of "Lost" have promised fans what they want most from the May 23 season finale: answers.
"We sort of see each season as a book, and we're going to be concluding this book of 'Lost,'" co-executive producer Carlton Cuse said during a break from editing the third season's final episode. "The finale promises a showdown between our guys and the Others, and we really deliver on that."
Not only does the May 23 episode wrap up the third season of "Lost," it also marks a turning point in the show's history. Earlier this month, ABC announced the Emmy and Golden Globe award winning drama would conclude in 2010.
Knowing exactly how much time they have left -- 48 episodes, to be exact -- Cuse and co-executive producer/co-creator Damon Lindelof said they can plot out twists and turns even the most seasoned viewers won't expect. That means more suspense for those at home -- and more fun for Cuse and Lindelof in the studio.
"It's utterly liberating for us. It allows us to sort of take our remaining mythology and plan it out with great specificity over the remaining 48 episodes," Cuse said.
Providing Answers, Preserving Mystery
Though fans may be more than halfway through the tale of a group of plane crash survivors stranded on a tropical island, some of the story's most basic elements are still in the shadows.
For starters, no one knows where they are: heaven, hell, a black hole or somewhere else altogether. Well, no one except perhaps for Cuse and Lindelof, who refuse to divulge any details. Fans shouldn't expect the producers to one day reveal the island's coordinates (imagine the tour groups that would flood the place by the boat load) but they can anticipate a conclusion to the epic.
"I think the audience can expect that we can finish our story," Cuse said.
"One of the big ongoing questions on 'Lost' is whether magic is really an element there, or is there a reasonable explanation for all these things. I think when you get to the end of the journey, that will be answered," Lindelof added.
How do Cuse and Lindelof balance providing answers with preserving mystery? In their time working together on "Lost," they have yet to find a formula. There's no ratio; there's no abacus.
"It's like a pendulum swinging back and forth. We sit down every morning and we really hash over that question. There is no perfect temperature to the porridge," Cuse said. "I think that basically the rule is that if Damon and I think something is cool, then it kind of works its way into the show and we just try to use our own gut as the litmus test."
"We are the arbiters of what stays and what goes and what course the show takes," Lindelof added. "But then the show itself sort of has a life of its own. A lot of what Carlton and I try to do is listen to what the show is telling us. The exciting part is when suddenly you realize, 'Hey, wait a second, we had this plan but now the show is rejecting it like an organ that doesn't fit.'"
An Online Alter Ego
Sometimes, shifts in the über "Lost" story come from fans themselves. So, all those fans blogging or posting any number of questions on the Web: The producers are listening.
"We started hearing last year that people were wondering why Hurley was so fat," Cuse said. "So we started discovering a hidden stash of ranch salad dressing in the jungle. We will take on certain questions that percolate to the surface if we really feel like we're ignoring something."
With so much of "Lost" subject to interpretation, fans of the show live on the Internet, throwing out theory after theory about the island, what it means and how it will all end. While shows like "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" make for water cooler fodder, "Lost" is the stuff of serious debate. Beyond the ratings, beyond the awards, the show has burrowed into the cultural fabric of the country, creating a fan base arguably more ravenous and wrapped up than any ever before.
Cuse believes the show's Internet alter ego is crucial to its onscreen success.
"I think that 'Lost' would never succeed in the pre-Internet era. It's the fact that the show is complicated and intentionally ambiguous; it allows the fans to become involved in its analysis," he said. "In the old school, traditional three or four network media model, this show is too complicated and too hard to keep up with. It wouldn't work."
The much-talked-about season one cliffhanger invited the audience to theorize away, Lindelof said.
"When Carlton and I made the choice in the end of season one to end with Locke and Jack looking down into the hatch as opposed to going down there, we opened the door to a tremendous amount of criticism in terms of 'That's frustrating. Why didn't we go in?' But the reality is that the show has always been about 'What do you think is down there?' We're going to give you six months now to figure that out, and we're going to try to think of something nobody has imagined," he said. "There is no Johnny the explainer on the show. There is no great floating head. I feel like that really activates people's imaginations in a positive way."
Twenty-five years from now, it's not hard to imagine diehard fans rubbing dirt on their faces and donning scraggly beards for "Lost" conventions. But Cuse questions whether the legacy of the show will be about the story or the impact the show has had on the way people watch and interact with TV.
"We've accomplished some things with the show that has changed the process and the perception of what a drama show can be," he said. "Whether they'll still be embracing the story, that's kind of more for other people to decide."
Cuse and Lindelof will be embracing the story for three more years. Writing, producing, living, breathing "Lost" day in and day out, the two can't help but think of the show's characters as flesh and blood. Which three would they want with them if they were on a deserted island?
"I definitely would want Locke," Lindelof said. "I'd probably want Kate, just because she's nice to look at, at the very least. And probably Hurley because you've got to keep it light."
"I would definitely take Kate, Sawyer and probably Jack -- just you know, the hero character," Cuse said.
In the end, how well fans remember the story after the island and its inhabitants fade into TV history may depend on how it finishes. While the May 23 season finale will provide answers, it will also keep fans salivating for the series finale in 2010. So where will it all end?
Cuse laughed. Lindelof provided some insight, if a bit broad.
"Somewhere just outside the Crab Nebula is where it will all end, geographically," he said.