Do You Want To Get Lost?

Even the biggest hit shows have millions of people who have never sampled them. Once a series has attracted attention, viewers have to make the conscious decision to try it and see what all the shouting is about, or decide that it's not worth the effort, for whatever reason.

Under most circumstances, those who never got on board with Lost in the fall of 2004 would not have had much reason to regret it. Either the eerie elements of the basic plot would not have had appeal to them, or the show's reputation for denseness and a complicated backstory would have scared them away, or perhaps they were just fans of other shows on at the same time. But the situation is a bit different as of today, the beginning of the fourth season of Lost. Even in the absence of a writers strike, its return to the ABC lineup after eight months would have been noted in the same way as was the return of American Idol, in large part due to its excellent creative comeback in the second half of last season. But after three months of gloom occasioned by the strike, and the possibility that this is the last hurrah for scripted programming until September, Lost is being greeted with something approaching hysteria.

Except for Scrubs, all the usual suspects on Thursday night are tapped out on original episodes now: no more Grey's Anatomy or CSI or Without a Trace or Ugly Betty or ER. Given this situation, some may turn an envious eye towards their Lost-watching friends and wonder if it's too late at this point to join in the fun, even if you have no idea what "the numbers" are, or don't know Hurley's real name, or are unaware of the significance of Nikki and Paolo (I can answer that last one for you: they didn't have any).

For those newbies who are worried about tuning in and being literally lost, I would suggest going for it anyway. For starters, the Lost obsessives that can sometimes come across as so intimidating are a minority of the show's audience and always have been. Quite frankly, I rely on them to do the work my brain is too cluttered to worry about. Part of the experience of watching every episode is coming online afterwards to see what significant elements of the hour slipped my attention (this has been cited as one of the reasons Lost always had trouble acting as a lead-in at 9:00: its viewers would click off the set right afterwards to obsess on the Internet). You're already online or you wouldn't be reading this, so if there's anything that's puzzling, rest assured that it's easy to find an answer.

ABC and hardcore fans of the show are well aware that Lost can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, which is why such an large infrastructure has developed to educate people on the mythology and provide reminders of what has already happened. ABC has had every episode of Lost available for streaming in recent weeks, and tonight's premiere at 9 will be preceded by a one-hour "Past, Present, and Future" episode that will serve as a recap and a partial preview of the new season. Last night's repeat of last May's season finale was enhanced by banners across the bottom of the screen to serve as virtual footnotes as the episode played out. The Lostpedia is an invaluable guide to every aspect of the series (warning: once inside, you may find it almost impossible to leave), and there are numerous other great fan sites all over the Web.

It's true that no show is as dense as Lost, but it can be surprisingly easy to pick up on the ins and outs of veteran shows. My work on About Last Night has exposed me to a lot of programs I had never thought to pay attention to before, and with only an exception or two, I have had little trouble figuring out what was going on. If a show is well made, both new viewers and old will gladly go along for the ride. If a show is, well, Prison Break, no amount of knowledge of the backstory or past episodes will help one make sense of it.

The best reason to give Lost a look is that you don't want it to play out without ever having sampled it. I was among those snobs a decade ago who thought the very idea of a series based on the forgettable film Buffy the Vampire Slayer was ridiculous on its face, and since I was not at that time a 14-year-old girl, there was no need for me to pay it any mind. Even as the show began getting a sizable cult, and critical attention from certifiably serious people, I still resisted. By the time a semi-famous novelist told me that Buffy had the best writing on TV and I didn't know what I was missing, I was inclined to think that she might be right. But the series was already more than halfway through its its run by then, and I didn't see the point of trying to figure things out at that late stage. This was a mistake I now regret. Now, no matter what else I accomplish as a TV writer, the mark of shame will always be with me that I never once saw an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Don't let this happen to you.