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LOST article in TIME

5 more days, 5 more days...

Hey LOST fans,

I was just reading through the current issue of TIME and came across an article about - wait for it - LOST.

So what would you guys rather have: more episodes with a storyline that may drag on and on or less episodes with a stronger plot?

Don't worry. The article doesn't contain any spoilers.

The producers of Lost have found the secret to resuscitating a great TV show: make less of it. Last year, in the middle of a third season that was criticized by fans as slow and aimless, they proposed to end the hit show after three more seasons of 16 episodes each, six or so fewer than a typical TV-drama season. ABC, stunningly, agreed, though it had the contractual right to frog-march the lucrative property ahead for as many seasons as it liked.

Plotting its own demise was Lost's best innovation yet. Some big-network hits, like Mary Tyler Moore and Seinfeld, have gone out on top but not with an end planned years in advance. Others limp to the finish; next season is the last for ER, which began airing back when physicians used leeches to drain the body of ill humors.

But Lost, whose Season 4 finale airs May 29, is not like a sitcom or a doctor soap. An elaborate sci-fi/fantasy thriller about plane-crash survivors stranded on an island, it has told a single, wildly complicated story involving--deep breath--time travel, conspiracies, a monster made of smoke, a utopian experiment gone bad, ghosts, polar bears in the tropics, philosophy, metaphysics and a mystical set of numbers that may have to do with the end of the world.

As such, it was vulnerable to the X-Files syndrome: a complex story vamps aimlessly, adding shaggy-dog tales and swapping out stars for years too long. ABC's decision--which made the show more like a limited-run British series or The Sopranos--freed Lost to launch an endgame. In last season's finale, the show threw in a mind-blowing twist, jumping forward in time to reveal that several characters made it off the island. The move expanded the canvas yet pointed to a conclusion and made the series compelling again.

Then the writers' strike hit. Season 4, which debuted to fans' and critics' raves, had to pause after eight episodes and cut two of its planned hours. Disaster, right? Wrong. Early seasons of Lost tended to get slack and digressive in the middle. At nearly half the length of previous seasons, this one couldn't afford to. It was focused and propulsive, hurtling the action forward on the island (where the survivors have been found by "rescuers" of murderous intent) while revealing new dimensions to the characters in the flash-forwards to the future (where we learn that six castaways escaped, at a yet unspecified moral cost).

Setting an end date has obvious plot benefits. In a show with a finite run, actions can have consequences, major characters can die, questions can be answered. But it's even better for the show's emotional impact. Lost is a good sci-fi yarn, but what makes it a great story is that it is about the struggles of people: about faith vs. reason, fate vs. free will and, especially, redemption. Jack (Matthew Fox) is haunted by his relationship with his father--literally haunted, as Dad may have come back from the dead. Locke (Terry O'Quinn) balances his faith, which gives him a connection to the mystical island, with a lifetime of having been lied to by loved ones. Even villain Ben (Michael Emerson), leader of the cultlike "Others" who inhabit the island, is driven by a twisted sense of morality. "We're the good guys," he's fond of saying, and Lost holds out the possibility that he just might become one.

But redemption depends on change, and traditional network TV depends on characters staying more or less the same for as many years as it takes for the ratings to give out. The time-bending sci-fi premise in Lost--certain characters become "unstuck in time" and can re-experience past events in their lives--dramatizes a human dilemma: Can you change your future, or are you fated to make the same mistakes forever? In a meta-way, that's the dilemma of traditional TV characters, who are damned to repeat the same patterns, trip over the same ottomans, forever. The revitalized Lost has offered them an out.

And it may just offer a way forward for TV. It may seem insane for ABC to leave money on the table by limiting Lost to six seasons. But Lost is a series that harnesses intense interest--for instance, to sell millions of DVDs because fans want to watch the complex episodes repeatedly. In an era of smaller audiences, networks need programs that can monetize a devoted fan base. But that requires assuring the fans--as limiting Lost's run has done--that they won't be jerked around forever. TV may be an excessive medium, but the brilliant, groundbreaking Lost may just show it that quality can beat quantity.