Big Question for ‘Lost’: Will Short Season Help or Hurt?

Strike shortens new season from 16 episodes to 8; how will the show be affected?


Jan. 31, 2008 — -- Giving a ravenous "Lost" fan eight new episodes is kind of like offering a recovering alcoholic starlet a swig of vodka.

The taste is bound to leave both wanting more.

But that's not likely to stop viewers addicted to ABC's hit drama about plane crash survivors stranded (presumably) on an island from savoring the shortened season of "Lost," premiering tonight. The Hollywood writers' strike threw a wrench in production of the original 16-episode season, highly anticipated because producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse promised it would start the show's 48-episode advance to a final climax in 2010.

"I think the audience can expect that we can finish our story," Cuse told in May, adding that the show's certain end date would allow him and Lindelof to "take our remaining mythology" and plan out an ending "with great specificity."

But now, with fewer episodes in the can, can "Lost" fans really expect their questions about the show to be answered? What, if anything, can an eight-episode season of such a complex series accomplish?

"This is the not the season that 'Lost' wanted this year and it won't be the season that viewers wanted," said David Bianculli, who reviews TV on National Public Radio and at "They may still be able to roll out a satisfactory ending to the series. We may still see the 'Lost' series that we were going to see. But if they don't extend the number of episodes into next season, or overall, something's got to give."

It doesn't help that "Lost" has been criticized for spreading new episodes too far apart over seasons, taking too long between seasons (both of which are actually decisions made by the network, not producers) and muddling its narrative arc with outlandish plot twists and turns. (Season three ended with scenes showing survivors off the island and back in normal life, making viewers wonder if previous flash-backs were actually flash-forwards, flash-sideways or something else entirely.)

"Here's the problem with 'Lost,'" said Ben Grossman, Los Angeles bureau chief of Broadcasting & Cable. "The first season of 'Lost' — critically, ratings, everything — set the bar incredibly high. The show unfortunately has to live up to its own bar and that's been pretty tough to do."

The first season of "Lost" averaged 18.5 million viewers an episode — the third season, 15 million. While that still makes it a hit, ABC is trying to bump up the audience for the season four premiere by airing a special episode Wednesday and an hour-long, multi-season recap Thursday before the new show at 9 p.m.

"It's still a tough entry point for new viewers because the show is so far along into a complex story arc," Grossman said. "But they might get viewers who have left."

"Lost" may also benefit from being one of the few scripted, long-running shows to air new episodes in a writers' strike season dominated by reality TV and repeats.

"The show has the ability to get a lot of buzz because there's not as much competition," Grossman said. "If the first episode does well and makes fans happy and gets people going, it does have the opportunity to stand out."

It won't take much to rev up die-hard "Lost" fans. Most have been on the edge of their La-Z-Boy since season three wrapped in May, and while they bemoan the shortened season, they said some "Lost" is better than none at all.

"The strike screwed things up a bit but at least it wasn't a complete 180," said Sasha Wolff, a 34-year-old "Lost" addict from New York. "Of course I say that, but as soon as episode eight airs, I'll probably freak out."

"Without a doubt we're going to be hanging. Without a doubt we're going to be pulling our hair out and lamenting, waiting to see what happens next," said Ryan Ozawa, 33, who runs the "Lost" blog The Transmission out of his Hawaii home. "Hopefully it'll be enough to carry us over into the next one."

But the more casual viewer may not be as hungry for what amounts to an appetizer.

"The best way to see this show may be on DVD — watch as many as you want to without interruptions," Bianculli said. "The people who aren't obsessed, who just enjoy it, they could say, 'If it's only coming out for eight episodes, I'll just wait six or seven months and see it on DVD.'"

Season four could answer many questions. (How did Locke's father get to the island? What's up with the people in the rescue party?) But only one is guaranteed to be resolved after tonight's premiere.

"The question is not how many episodes are viewers losing because of the strike," Bianculli said, "but how many viewers is 'Lost' losing because of the strike?"

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