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TERRY GROSS, host:

Last night, ABC presented the two-hour season premier of "Lost," a mystery-shrouded drama series in its final year. The network was so secretive about the show's contents, it made only the first five minutes available for critics to preview. So our TV critic David Bianculli is here the day after with a review, but before that, with a larger look at the "Lost" phenomenon.

DAVID BIANCULLI: The Catch-22 with discussing the super-secret final-season premiere of "Lost" is this: If you're a TV critic, and you preview it the night before it airs, you really, truly don't know what you're talking about.

And if you wait until the next day, then everybody who cares, either has seen it already, or doesn't want too many details because they're waiting to see it on their own time, on their home recordings or, later, as part of a DVD box set.

But the way I see it, TV critics in the golden age of TV used to review everything the day after because television was live. Reviews were for the record, for posterity. And sometimes, as in the case of the drama "Patterns," by a young writer named Rod Serling, after-the-fact reviews could make a reputation overnight and eventually call for the live drama to be mounted again.

With "Lost," one of the things worth talking about, even the day after, is the whole idea of time-shifting. In fact, it's perfectly appropriate, because time-shifting turns out to be one of the show's central plot gimmicks. Characters spent last season popping in and out of various time lines, victims of a mysterious remote island whose unstable core somehow was able to play with time, and even with space. The island itself, with all the people on it, was here one minute, gone the next.

Now think of that, if you will, as a fitting metaphor for the entire series. "Lost" the TV series, like the island, has vanished and reappeared on its own peculiar timetable. The last episode we saw was eight months ago and because of both a demanding production schedule and the recent writers' strike, "Lost" has gone from a fall TV staple to a midseason relief pitcher. And as the time between seasons has stretched out, and as plots and characters become more unpredictable and complicated, viewers have begun to vanish, too.

Last season's cliffhanger season episode of "Lost" the one where the islanders successfully set off a nuclear device that was supposed to detonate a time shift and return them to a safe place before the plane crash stranded them there was seen by an estimated 10 million people. By today's broadcast-TV standards, that's a lot, but it's only about half of what "Lost" was pulling at its peak. Where, to use another "Lost" parallel, did the others go?

Some got bored or confused by so many questions and so few answers. And some, while still loyal fans, have decided to wait until each season came out on DVD, to enjoy them at their own pace and without commercials.

Either way, this does not bode well for the chances for broadcast TV to continue making deeply textured shows such as "Lost." But "Lost" is something ABC should be proud of, and viewers should be supporting. When the show finally winds up this May, its finale will be, in broadcast-TV terms, a big deal. And except for the crowning of the next "American Idol," how many of those are left?

My answer is "Not many." And "Lost," last night, began its final year by answering its own questions for a change. And this is the point where I'll start talking about the contents of last night's show, specifically.

The five-minute opening sent to critics was a tantalizing tease. It started by recapping that fade-to-white nuclear explosion that ended last year's finale; then the white faded back to reveal clouds, seen through the airplane window by Jack. Along with everyone else, he was back on the doomed flight, but this time it wasn't doomed. They made it through the turbulence and began their descent into the Los Angeles airport. That's what ABC showed critics in advance but the very next moment, shown last night, depicted Jack, back on the island, waking up, after having lost consciousness from the underground nuclear detonation. Oh, man: Was it all a dream? Was the time-shift explosion a failure?

As it turns out - yes and no. The explosion split the timeline into two alternate realities. In one, our heroes are still on the island, convinced the escape attempt failed. In the other, they land safely in L.A. and we follow what would have happened to them had they not crashed. And already it appears that they're better off on the island than off it.

That's one mystery you can put in the "Solved" pile. Another is whether John Locke, whom we saw killed by Ben yet subsequently living on the island, was dead or alive. John Locke the good guy apparently is dead. But there's someone or something taking his place, and his shape, on the island. It might even be that strange Smoke Monster that pops up from time to time.

And in this scene from last night's show, Ben, played by Michael Emerson, confronts John Locke, played by Terry O'Quinn, after Ben kills an island leader name Jacob because Locke told him to. Except that Ben suddenly realizes it may not be Locke after all.

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Mr. MICHAEL EMERSON (Actor): (as Ben) What are you?

Mr. TERRY O'QUINN (Actor): (a John Locke) I'm not a what, Ben. I'm a who?

Mr. EMERSON: (as Ben) Youre the monster.

Mr. O'QUINN: (a John Locke) Let's not resort to name calling.

Mr. EMERSON: (as Ben) You used me. You couldnt kill it yourself so you made me do it.

Mr. O'QUINN: (a John Locke) I didnt make you do anything. You should know. He was very confused when you killed him.

Mr. EMERSON: (as Ben) I seriously doubt that Jacob was ever confused.

Mr. O'QUINN: (a John Locke) I'm not talking about Jacob. I'm talking about John Locke. Do you know want to know what he was thinking while you choked the life out of him, Benjamin - what the last thought that ran through his head was? I dont understand. Isn't that just the sadist thing you ever heard?

BIANCULLI: When John Locke said he doesnt understand, believe me, I know how he feels. I can't make sense of a lot of this yet, and, to be honest, I'm not spending a lot of energy trying. It's like watching "Twin Peaks," after a while, you either roll with it or you don't, and no final explanation will be as satisfying as the ride itself.

That's why I think people who are hoarding these episodes and waiting to watch them later are missing most of the fun. "Lost" is best enjoyed fresh. It's the only time, with a shared sense of excitement, you can talk about it or review it the day after.

GROSS: David Bianculli writes for tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University. He's the author of the new book "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

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GROSS: You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter and friend us on Facebook at nprfreshair.

I'm Terry Gross.

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GROSS: At the Super Bowl Sunday, on the sidelines, frantic coaches will be sending their quarterbacks messages like:

Mr. BRIAN BILLICK (Former NFL coach): Tiger personnel, I right, Z short, 22 zone, X crack, backside chip.

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Super Bowl-winning former coach Brian Billick translates the language of football.

Join us.

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