Sometime last year, in the middle of Lost's third season, the fate of Oceanic Flight 815's passengers went from being an urgent national concern to an annoying recollection. As the series banked into a downward spiral of unsolved mysteries, dull characters, and a bajillion dead-end sub-plots, it was reasonable to expect an imminent crash.
After all, viewers had their pick of jumped sharks: in flashback, Jack met a skanky tattoo artist (the skanky Bai Ling) in Thailand and got some sort of voodoo ink that only Thai underworld figures are apparently allowed to have; Kate and Sawyer had sex in a cage while Jack watched on closed-circuit TV; and Hurley's dad turned out to be Cheech. Lost's third season featured so many more "oh, brothers" than "ah hahs!" that it was enough to make you lose faith in the Dharma Initiative.
But the fourth season has been redemptive. The show's writers have rediscovered that maddening tension between making you think you know what's going on and not letting you have the slightest clue. Which means you'll have to watch the next episode. Again. And as the opaque layers of misdirection get peeled away, it's becoming apparent that Lost is not so much a supernatural morality play as it is a mystery of science.
So what's going on? Well, that would take a roomful of laptop-equipped grad students working round the clock on a wiki to even begin to list the myriad plot points, but the most interesting part is this: The castaways are finally getting off the island. Some of them, anyway. Maybe. Or not. Jack was able to radio a ship offshore that he believes has arrived to rescue them, and a helicopter is sent in with a ragtag team that may or may not have the survivors' best interests in mind. Each member is revealed to have a mysterious connection to the island and the survivors of Flight 815. Also, it should be noted that news reports state that there are no survivors of Flight 815 as the plane is sitting on the bottom of the ocean.
That's as far as we dare explore the storyline(s) here. All you really need to know is that the new characters are a good deal more interesting than last year's Nikki and Paulo (who were thankfully buried alive, and not a moment too soon). The supposed rescue squad is well cast with twitchy characters: physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies), a skittish mumbler of big ideas who may know the secret behind the island's mysterious properties; Ken Leung's bitchy, self-serving speaker to the dead, Miles Straume; arrogant anthropologist Charlotte Lewis (Rebecca Mader), who clearly doesn't care one whit about the survivors' well-being; and good ol' B-movie actor Jeff Fahey as crusty but lovable chopper pilot Frank.
So, who has assembled such a motley team? Why is a psychic necessary for the mission? What does that anthropologist really want? And when is this physicist going to start making sense? Oh, wait till next episode; surely things will become clearer then.
But we do know this much: Some of the survivors make it off the island. And the reason why we know is that the writers have finally ditched those stale flashbacks for edgy new flashforwards. Now we get to see Jack, Kate, and Hurley in our own world, the real one... and they're stinkin' miserable. Why? How could life here be worse than on that accursed island? Did I mention you should watch the next episode?
Despite all the improved conflicts and intriguing cliffhangers, Lost still suffers from one recurring frustration that threatens to deflate every episode: Why don't the characters ever ask their tormentors what the hell is going on? Even when Jack has evil mastermind Ben at his mercy for the second or third time, beaten to a pulp, he neglects to say something along the lines of, "Who are you? What are you doing here? Why are you tormenting us?"
That's not too much to ask, is it? But at a certain point, Lost's scribes will be forced to allow their characters to pose the questions that any normal human being in those particular circumstances would ask. And, dammit, I'll probably be watching.