First things first: The fall's opening six installments were not this ABC drama's finest hour(s) -- subjecting the trio of Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) to psychological and physical abuse at the hands of "the Others," the mysterious group occupying the island on which they crash-landed.

First things first: The fall’s opening six installments were not this ABC drama’s finest hour(s) — subjecting the trio of Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) to psychological and physical abuse at the hands of “the Others,” the mysterious group occupying the island on which they crash-landed. That said, this show at three-quarters-speed is better than most, and the series begins a “24”-like run of 16 consecutive episodes in characteristically intriguing fashion, working to extricate its leads while offering the first “Other”-centric flashback. The plot thickens, and even with flaws, “Lost” remains one of TV’s zestiest stews.

Lest anyone has forgotten the cliffhanger, Jack has been drafted to perform spinal surgery on Ben (the deliciously creepy Michael Emerson), the Others’ ostensible leader, but leveraged the opportunity to stage a bold gambit to secure Sawyer and Kate’s release. What he doesn’t know is that they’ve been relocated to a neighboring island, meaning one of those traditional races through the jungle won’t be enough to get them back to the beach this time.

The story also flashes back to reveal more about Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), one of the Others who has befriended Jack but whose motives have remained murky. As with the members of the plane’s tail section who turned up in season two, expanding the show’s mythology to incorporate back stories for the Others is another deft sleight-of-hand trick, creating a whole new layer with which to dazzle and confound.

That confounding part, of course, is “Lost’s” greatest challenge, and until this season the producers had done a fairly astounding job of providing some answers while further embroidering their web of mysteries, which has doubtless frustrated some viewers and contributed to audience erosion. Evading the “American Idol” juggernaut with this second time-period shift should help somewhat, but the lead-in from ABC will be virtually nil, requiring an audience (including “Idol”-ators who reach for the remote) to come find it.

The key question then becomes whether “Lost” will keep being found, and how long its puppet-masters can keep such a perilously fragile narrative inching forward without revealing too much, satisfying the insanely loyal core as well as more casual viewers who aren’t obsessed with the Dharma Initiative or deciphering that perplexing numerical sequence.

Casting the likes of Emerson, Mitchell and guest Robin Weigert of “Deadwood” has been instrumental in maintaining the show’s status among TV’s elite, but this upcoming flight of episodes should be crucial in determining how much gas the “Lost” tank has left, both creatively and among that wider audience. On the first score, anyway, this new hour is pretty damn good and includes one genuinely jarring moment.

So please take your seats on the couch, and prepare for takeoff.

Lost

ABC, Wed. Feb. 7, 10 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Hawaii by Bad Robot in association with Touchstone Television.

Crew

Executive producers, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burke, Jack Bender, Jeff Pinkner, Carlton Cuse; director, Stephen Williams; writers, Cuse, Pinkner. Running time: 60 MIN.

With

Sayid - Naveen Andrews Desmond - Henry Ian Cusick Claire - Emilie de Ravin Ben - Michael Emerson Jack - Matthew Fox Hurley - Jorge Garcia Sawyer - Josh Holloway Jin - Daniel Dae Kim Sun - Yunjin Kim Kate - Evangeline Lilly Juliet - Elizabeth Mitchell Charlie - Dominic Monaghan Locke - Terry O'Quinn
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