Few things are more unpredictable and perilous to careers than the Good Pilot That Doesn’t Make Clear the Ensuing Series, as is the case with this expensive, intriguing prototype from “Alias” producer J.J. Abrams. Featuring a huge cast marooned on a mysterious island, “Lost” must demonstrate it isn’t really just a good “Twilight Zone” episode and sustain the thrills on a weekly basis. Well promoted, show figures to open reasonably well, and Abrams has worked wonders in keeping twists coming on “Alias.” Still, like its premise, the answer to its long-term prospects lies somewhere … out there.
Opening with a bang, “Lost” quickly ensures it will never be shown on any domestic airline, as the survivors of a horrific jet crash sift through the scattered wreckage of their flight. Beyond the casualties, there’s also the little problem of where they are, and whether anyone can locate them.
As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s something lurking in the forest that’s really, really big, causing trees to shudder like King Kong when it’s in motion. Occasionally, this unseen creature becomes quite hungry — so much so that if the program were to continue at the premiere’s rate of attrition, the remaining passengers would be side dishes by Thanksgiving.
Heading the eclectic group of reluctant beach party guests is the well-traveled Matthew Fox as a doctor, which comes in handy; “The Lord of the Rings” alum Dominic Monaghan, as a druggie rock star; and Evangeline Lilly, who has her own shrouded past. Flashbacks of the crash provide sometimes surprising glimpses of who they were back in the real world, with a pair of vacant handcuffs and a dead marshal indicating there’s also an escaped convict in their midst.
More than any of the current shows lensing in Hawaii, “Lost” makes sumptuous use of its tropical surroundings, even if the precise location isn’t revealed within the show. Abrams (who co-wrote and directed the pilot) also does a nice job layering on the tension, from the strained relations that already occur involving an Iraqi passenger (Naveen Andrews) to the “Where are we?” question that hovers over the series.
Still, that latter point creates a confounding problem underscored by the pilot, which features an intrepid subset of the stranded attempting to contact the outside world. While enthusiasts of the genre might warm to the idea of an open-ended mystery, it’s suspect how well the show will hold up without a more concrete sense as to what’s really happening, barring Gilligan and the Skipper showing up to whisk them away.
Abrams’ misspent youth serves him well tapping into various sci-fi conventions, as he has to some extent with the spy world on “Alias” — never much of a ratings grabber despite its magazine cover-friendly star. The narrative structure he’s set up, however, poses an enormous challenge, on a network that knows a little something about challenges in all shapes and sizes.
For ABC and Disney, “Lost” represents a significant gamble. In its favor, the show is certainly much better than the network’s last genre stab, Stephen King’s understaffed “Kingdom Hospital.” After ABC’s extended dry spell with new dramas, it would actually be nice to see a scripted series set in the jungle turn out to be a true survivor.