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TERRY GROSS, Host:

The ABC drama series "Lost" returns to TV tonight after eight months, picking up where last May's unexpected cliffhanger left off. The castaways on that mysterious island now have rescuers on the way, who may not be rescuers at all. Meanwhile, "Lost" itself may be network TV's biggest hope of rescue from the current writers' strike. TV critic David Bianculli has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Last year, with its third season finale and a surprise announcement a few months later, the producers of ABC's "Lost" made some bold new moves. The final episode of 2007 ended with a surprise revelation. The subplot involving Matthew Fox's Jack, seen going through some tough times back in Los Angeles, was not an off-the-island flashback, an established part of each episode until then, but a flash-forward. That meant that Jack and Kate, also seen in this flash-forward, survived and got off the island. It meant that the writers could go in a whole new direction. Now the future, as well as the past and present, was open to them.

And on top of that bombshell, the creators of "Lost" soon added another. They announced a schedule for the remainder of the series: three seasons of 16 episodes, 48 episodes in all, that would run without interruption each year, and would, by the end, wrap up the story of the Oceanic Airline passengers. So far, so great. With an end in sight, the writers could pace themselves and serve us storylines and characters the way very few drama series, especially one so full of questions and mysteries, get to do.

But then came the writers' strike. Now, as "Lost" returns this week, it's planning to present only eight of the originally scheduled sixteen episodes this season. Whether those other eight shows will be added to the remainder of the run, or will be, in a word "lost," has yet to be determined.

But if we look at "Lost" the TV series in the same way it's now telling stories, looking at the future as well as the present and past, we can predict that this series and tonight's episode are pivotal when it comes to the history of network television.

The Writers Guild of America strike is close to entering its fourth month. Today also is the start of the February ratings sweep, a month-long period in which the ratings a program delivers are used to set advertising rates for the following fiscal quarter. There are some big-ticket special events in the February sweeps: the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Grammys, even the continuation of "American Idol." But when it comes to scripted drama, nothing comes close to "Lost."

"Lost" right now is the poster child for broadcast network TV shows written by real writers, directed by real directors, and acted by talented actors. During the strike, it's almost like a remote island of its own, surrounded by swampy sludge like "American Gladiators," "Moment of Truth," and NBC's newest, tackiest unscripted competition series "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad." In a contest called "My Network Is Better Than Your Network," NBC wouldn't even qualify. So the future of network TV in no small way is tied up with the success of tonight's lost. ABC has built it, but will we come? If we want more shows like this on the broadcast networks of tomorrow, we almost have to.

Luckily, the opener itself is fabulous. For viewers, it's been eight months since the last events on "Lost" took place; but on the show itself, it's been mere seconds. Jack has used a communications device from someone who parachuted onto the island to summon help, which is on the way. That communication was made possible because Charlie and Desmond invaded an underwater platform and turned off an island-wide jamming device. And as the show opens, Desmond returns in a canoe with a frantic message he wants to get to Jack about the would-be rescuers. Other familiar characters--Sayid, Sawyer, Bernard, Juliet--help Desmond beach his canoe and pepper him with questions. But only Hurley, who runs to the canoe while they're all talking, asks the most important question of all, about his best friend Charlie who died in last season's cliffhanger. No one but Desmond knows that yet, but they're about to find out.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LOST")

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Desmond) We need to get to Jack. We can't let him get in touch with that boat.

Unidentified Actor #2: Easy, Scotty. Everything's cool. The boat's on the way.

Actor #1: (As Desmond) What? On the way?

Unidentified Actor #3: (As Hurley) Hey, where's Charlie?

Actor #1: (As Desmond) That woman, Naomi, she lied. The people on the boat aren't who they say they are.

Unidentified Actress: What?

Actor #2: Then who are they?

Actor #3: (As Hurley) Desmond, where's Charlie?

BIANCULLI: (As Desmond) I don't know but we...

Actor #3: (As Hurley) Desmond!

Actor #1: ...need to get in touch with Jack now!

Actress: It's all right. We can call him. We have a walkie.

Actor #1: (As Desmond) Where is it? Get it?

Unidentified Actor #4: What do you mean the people aren't who they say?

Actor #3: (As Hurley) Where's Charlie?

Actor #1: (As Desmond) I'm--I'm--I'm sorry, brother. I...

END OF SOUNDBITE

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: I've seen the first two episodes of the new season. Sadly, that's 25 percent of the expected total. And they do everything you'd want "Lost" to do. They serve us old characters and, yes, introduce new ones. They shed light on some old mysteries and, yes, throw out some tantalizing new ones. We learn how many other castaways got off the island with Jack and Kate, but we don't yet know how, or, except for the identity of one other, which ones. And as for whether the rescuers are what they seem, put it this way: has anything on "Lost" ever been what it seemed?

GROSS: David Bianculli writes about television for tvworthwatching.com.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

CREDITS

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC )

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