SPOILER ALERT!!!

There, now that we've got that out of the way. … Holy crap, what an impressive start to the season, and I'm still not sure what exactly hit me.

LOSTSUPPER The eagerly awaited, nearly State of the Union address interrupted, two-hour kickoff to the final season of "Lost" finally aired Tuesday, without any advance screening by ABC other than a beach barbecue for die-hard fans in Hawaii. It was then followed by both "Nightline" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" interviews with the producers, which might bring promotional overkill to new heights.

As for all the hoopla, I'd say the show delivered. In this case, though, the flashbacks and flashforwards have given way to what could be a kind of "flash-sideways" — that is, what would have happened if the plane hadn't crashed. The gnawing riddle is whether those events are real, what's continuing to transpire on the island is real, or whether these two parallel universes can somehow coexist?

The producers have doubtless already resigned themselves to the fact the answers won't satisfy everyone, but the tidbits in the premiere were tantalizing — including identifying whatever's inhabiting John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) as the "smoke monster," and the posthumous statement by Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) that "It worked," referring to the explosion that was supposed to erase history.

Somehow, I suspect it won't all end up as a snow globe inside the mind of an autistic child (sorry, "St. Elsewhere"), but "Lost" has so many moving parts that there's really going to be no second-guessing the journey until we reach its conclusion. At this point, I have to imagine that anyone who hasn't been intently watching all along — and even a lot of people who have — are scratching their heads. But that's been a big part of the fun.

If nothing else, "Lost" seems intent to go out on its own terms, and leave us on edge about what's "real" until the bitter end. In fact, if I were ABC I'd schedule a primetime discussion show to air either the night following or a week after the final episode, giving the producers a chance to answer questions from fans and explain themselves. They'll do it anyway online, so why not cash in for an extra (relatively low-cost) hour or two on the network itself? And we've already established that ABC News will whore itself out for the entertainment division, so put them on the case.

Meanwhile, given this promising start, I'm content to sit back, try not to over-think things and simply enjoy the ride — whether it's heading backward, forward or sideways.

UPDATE: The premiere averaged a very solid 12.1 million viewers and a 5.5 rating among adults 18-49, but given the amount of promotion, that's also evidence that nobody new is really going to come back at this stage of the game. (Ratings were up about 6% and 10%, respectively, in viewers and 18-49 compared to last season's premiere.)

Odds are the numbers will dip slightly in the coming weeks, and rally slightly as the May 23 finally approaches.

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