UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. -- ABC's "Lost" returns tomorrow, and viewers will soon ask a new question: It's not, "Where did the island go?" but "When did the island go?"
In May's fourth-season finale, Jack (Matthew Fox) and five other survivors of the crash of Oceanic Air flight 815 escaped the island, which then disappeared in a flash of white light. In the fifth-season premiere (9-11 p.m. tomorrow, WTAE) it quickly becomes apparent that when Others leader Ben (Michael Emerson) turned a wheel on the island, he didn't move the island through space but through time.
"It is kind of a variable mine field to do time travel," acknowledged executive producer Carlton Cuse, "yet it also is incredibly exciting. What we didn't want to do is have season five, the penultimate year of the show, just be a stall."
This being "Lost," it's not just a time-travel show. There are flashes forward to Jack and Ben attempting to return to the island with the body of John Locke (Terry O'Quinn). Because viewers know the island has healed Locke before, might returning his body to the island bring him back to life? And Hurley (Jorge Garcia) lets his imagination run wild, conjuring a deceased "Lost" cast member, who makes a cameo appearance.
When not three years in the future, the two-hour "Lost" premiere also spends time on the island immediately following the flash of white light. Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) wonder where the beach camp has gone, only to discover they're on the island before the airplane crash, hence, no camp. Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) attempts to explain what's going on to Sawyer while Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) dismisses the questions of an in-the-past Locke, saying, "I wish I had time to explain it," a convenient escape for the "Lost" writers, who want to reveal only little bits of the show's mysteries at a time.
The episode is a fast-moving two hours that answers enough questions to satisfy fans and raises still more questions in an effort to further the intrigue. However, the whole mythology of the show has grown so convoluted, it's unlikely anyone new will be interested in coming to this party.
The show's producers seem to be OK with that.
"The network and studio have been enormously gracious," said executive producer Damon Lindelof. "Normally, you would expect a tremendous amount of pressure to do a lot of recapping in every episode, so characters are standing around, talking about what happened last week. But I think that they all accept that 'Lost' is a serialized adventure, and the audience that we have is the audience that we have."
At the same time, the producer said they enjoy hearing stories of new viewers who join the series in progress after catching up on past seasons on DVD.
"We're hoping that, as the show wraps up, that people are going to want to join the journey for the last couple of seasons of the show," Cuse said. "And we're really much more in answer mode. As we go deeper into the season, you're going to learn a lot about the island's history."
The new season's third hour, airing next week, is especially revelatory with several "ah-ha!" moments as those on the island skip through time and a new love story is revealed. There's also a touching acknowledgement of a deceased fan favorite.
Producers acknowledged that Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) remains a series regular, although they won't say if he survived the freighter explosion at the end of last season. With all the time-hopping, it's possible he'll be seen only in flashbacks. Claire (Emilie de Ravin) won't be featured much this season, but producers said her story will come to the fore in next year's final season.
Among the many benefits of setting an end date for the show is the ability to lock in some of the actors who portray the show's important secondary characters, including actor Carbonell.
"In the case of Nestor, basically he was on the show 'Cane' last year, and we found ourselves in a position where if that show had been successful and had been picked up beyond the 13 episodes and he was a series regular on the show, you probably never would have seen Richard Alpert again. We had to have a plan B, which would have been sort of catastrophic for us as we had sort of weaved Richard Alpert into the show in such a significant way. Once 'Cane' did not get picked up, we did a deal with Nestor, which basically secured his services, should we choose to pull the trigger on them, until the end of season six so we would have him until the end."
ABC unveiled a new airline in the "Lost" universe Friday: Ajira Airways, based in Mumbai, and its associated Web site, AjiraAirways.com. When asked about Ajira, Cuse said, "That's a very good question," and then moved on without addressing it. Hmmm.
TV comedies have been in a drought of late, but that may come to an end next fall. Executives at CBS and ABC indicated they're looking to get more comedies on the schedule and perhaps more traditional sitcoms as opposed to the many single-camera series we see now (e.g. "30 Rock," "Scrubs," "The Office").
"A lot of the comedies are observational, and I do think there's an intimacy that's missing when the sitcom is almost nowhere on the air," ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson said, citing past ABC hits such as "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement." "I would like to see us get back to contemporary versions of those shows I don't see on the air. I think there's a real place for that."
Don't get me started on WTAE pre-empting "Brothers & Sisters" Sunday night for "breaking news" coverage of the Steelers win. (How can the outcome of a scheduled sporting event in any way be considered breaking news that's worthy of network pre-emption? It's not.)
I didn't think the station would be able to rerun the show based on past experiences with network shows that local stations have been unable to rerun, but Channel 4 has managed to schedule a rerun for 2:05 a.m. Wednesday. So set your VCR/DVR to record the show after midnight tonight.
Contact Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or firstname.lastname@example.org .