Welcome to a spoiler-free zone, as "Lost" engrossingly kicks off its strike-shortened fourth season still riding the wave of last spring's dazzling twist introducing a flash-forward component.

Welcome to a spoiler-free zone, as “Lost” engrossingly kicks off its strike-shortened fourth season still riding the wave of last spring’s dazzling twist introducing a flash-forward component. The season premiere continues to offer tantalizing clues about what that future holds, while dealing with fallout from the suspect rescue party’s arrival and a key character’s heroic sacrifice. Notably, though, the second episode risks missteps similar to those that have bogged the show down before, with new faces and backstories to absorb. That said, “Lost’s” return goes down like a welcome tonic as scripted TV fades to black.

In many ways, this ABC drama has become the most paranoid show since “The X-Files,” with every ray of hope raising flags about suspect motives and who can be trusted. Each season has brought a fresh contingent into view, from weaving in the Oceanic plane crash’s tail-end survivors to the mysterious “Others” and their beady-eyed leader, brilliantly played by Michael Emerson.

The first hour — written by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and directed by Jack Bender — highlights the ongoing tension between the survivors’ natural leaders, Jack (Matthew Fox) and Locke (Terry O’Quinn), while providing an unusually generous array of juicy moments for the large (and, at times, neglected) cast. By episode two, however, the show is plunging deeply into this season’s mystery regarding the freighter, relegating some characters to the sidelines.

Even with a designated end date three years (and 48 episodes) off, it’s clear the revelations will be sparse, with each new one clouded by another wrinkle. Winston Churchill famously referred to the old Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” and “Lost” is much the same way — a show whose structure virtually requires countering every step forward with one back to protect the secrets of that confounded island.

This narrative tango has inevitably curbed the program’s mass appeal, causing viewers to drop out as the density of “Lost” lore approaches levels that would vex most English-lit majors. Nevertheless, those who have settled in for the ride continue to be rewarded, despite the occasional irritating or misguided detour along the way.

The jolt from last season’s ending came at a welcome time, but for better or worse “Lost’s” place in primetime’s pantheon will ultimately be judged by whether the final payoff was worthy of the journey. Yet for now, anyway, the series is best enjoyed by not sweating the details, fastening your seatbelt and putting one’s faith in the show’s pilots to know where the hell this flight is heading.

Lost

ABC, Thur. Jan. 31, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Hawaii by Bad Robot in association with ABC Studios. Executive producers, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burk, Jack Bender, Carlton Cuse; co-executive producers, Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Drew Goddard, Stephen Williams, Jean Higgins; supervising producer, Elizabeth Sarnoff; producers, Ra'uf Glasgow, Pat Churchill,; director, Bender; writers, Lindelof, Cuse.

Crew

Camera, John Bartley; production design, James Newport; editor, Stephen Semel; music, Michael Giacchino; casting, April Webster, Veronica Collins Rooney. Running time: 60 MIN.
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