Will eight be enough?
Viewers will have to decide whether "Lost" is half-empty or half-full when the ABC adventure-drama returns for its fourth season Thursday (9 ET/PT). Because of the Hollywood writers' strike, only eight of 16 planned episodes have been produced.
Cast members say that ABC's decision to provide some "Lost" rather than none is smart and that they are pleased with a quickened pace and more answers to "Lost's" mysteries.
"We're all going to be disappointed that there are only eight instead of 16, but the eight episodes are amazing, and I think fans will be very satisfied," says Yunjin Kim, who plays Sun, the pregnant wife of Jin (Daniel Dae Kim). "I feel like this season all the episodes are self-contained. The speed of the story is faster. Each episode contains a question and an answer, finally. So there's a lot of satisfaction."
That approach may be the result of the unusual decision to set an end date for a hit series, with 48 episodes over three seasons. Knowing when the story concludes (which may be reflected in the title of the one-hour season-opener, "The Beginning of the End") has helped writers map out a faster, more focused pace, says Matthew Fox, who plays Jack Shephard, the reluctant leader of the survivors of the crash of Oceanic Flight 815.
"'Lost' is a story with a beginning and an end. Knowing he's got 48, (co-creator Damon Lindelof) can make each installment move the narrative forward to that conclusion with momentum," Fox says.
Based on "Lost's" previous production schedule, five or six more episodes likely could be produced by the end of May if the writers' strike is settled by mid-February.
"Lost" ended last May with a jolt, opening the door to the castaways' possible rescue while adding a twist, a first flash-forward after three seasons of signature character flashbacks.
The island update: Hurley (Hugo Reyes) saved three survivor colleagues from the Others, a mysterious island group at odds with the Oceanic passengers. Jack contacted an offshore freighter, and he and other stranded island dwellers were waiting for its crew to rescue them. And, just before drowning, another colleague, Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), passed on the message that the boat people weren't who the islanders thought.
That leads to a big season-opening question, one that will divide the islanders as four strangers arrive: Are they coming to hurt or to help?
The future revelation: In a surprise directional change praised by cast and TV critics, Lost's May finale looked ahead to find that Jack and Kate (Evangeline Lilly), and possibly some others from the island, made it back to civilization.
The episode ended with a bearded, substance-abusing Jack raising more questions by imploring Kate: "We were not supposed to leave. … We have to go back, Kate."
Other questions hover: Who will leave the island, and who will stay? What will become of the pregnant Sun on an island where expectant mothers die? How will the romantic possibilities play out? Of course, "Lost's" big questions -- what and where is the island, and why are these people there? -- remain. (ABC will repeat the two-hour finale Wednesday at 8 ET/PT and air a series recap Thursday at 8.)
After averaging 15.9 million and 15.4 million viewers in its first two years, "Lost" fell to 13.8 million last season. (Lost is the top show in time-shifted viewing, ABC says.)
A complex, serialized show such as "Lost" loses some of its audience via attrition, but many viewers and critics blamed a six-episode fall 2006 arc they say had too much of the Others, not enough of the first-year regulars and too little in the way of action and answers.
A longer episode allotment in the spring received a much better critical response, and the season finale (13.9 million viewers) gave "Lost" its largest audience in more than three months. That led to the decision to run its 16 episodes consecutively this season.
But if this season also ends up divided, cast members say, the eight episodes will stand up better because they have lots of action and all the regulars are featured. ("Lost's" writers would not discuss the season because of the strike; ABC execs declined to be interviewed.)
Elizabeth Mitchell, who plays Juliet, one of the Others, likens the literature-referencing series to a novel. "I'm reading this book, Orley Farm. The first 150 pages are all setup. You're like, 'Where are the people I care about?' Then, all of a sudden, the book takes off. I feel that's what happened in Season 3. The writers laid their groundwork. And it hits the ground running" this season.
"Lost" could benefit from the strike, too, since there is less scripted competition. With time slots available because other shows have only reruns, it was moved from Wednesday, "American Idol's" regular night, to Thursday, and from 10 ET/PT to 9, an hour with more viewers.
In addition to new characters from the freighter, Michael (Harold Perrineau), who left the island with son Walt earlier, will return. Some on the island, most recently Locke (Terry O'Quinn) in the season finale, have seen a vision of Walt (Malcolm David Kelley).
Michael Emerson, who plays the spooky Others leader Ben, says that this season not only keeps up last season's momentum, but that the flash-forward opens great creative opportunities. "None of us knew what was going on until we saw the broadcast. I thought 'Hallelujah! This is going to make this show.' "
The future perspective is "how they're going to spin it out to be suspenseful and dramatic. Who has gotten off the island and at what price?" he says. "Now, there are these bittersweet notes of regret and missed opportunity that will come into play. To the extent the island was some crucible in which people could hope for redemption, maybe not everyone was redeemed, at least not happily."