No more mysteries. No more clues. No more questions wrapped inside questions with secret compartments for extra questions. What you need from ABC's castaways-in-paradise cryptodrama Lost are answers, and we're going to give you one right here, right now. The exact wording is being formulated by star Matthew Fox as he sits in the shade of a twisted tree, pulling tufts of grass from the Hawaiian soil. The answer is simple and definitive, and his brown eyes flicker with defiance as it passes through his lips: ''No.''
Don't worry: Elaboration is forthcoming. We're nestled in the lush foothills of Oahu's north shore, where Lost is shooting the 13th episode of its controversial third season. If you recall the opener in October, you'll recognize this idyllic village setting, with its cookie-cutter cabins and garden gazebo, as hostile territory. ''Welcome to Othersville,'' says Michael Emerson, a.k.a. Ben, the creepy-cunning leader of Mystery Island's devious denizens, the Others. ''Everything's relaxed. The stakes are low. And naturally, all of this is a big setup for...something.'' The spoiler cops won't allow us to reveal that something, let alone expand upon such intriguing sights as Others-recruited fertility doc Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) pushing Ben in a wheelchair, or Jack (Fox) cheerfully lobbing a football to his sworn enemy Mr. Friendly (M.C. Gainey). ''Everyone should be wondering what the hell is going on,'' explains Fox during a break. ''Has Jack been converted by the Others? Drugged? Is he pretending? All sorts of scenarios could be happening here.'' (At that moment, Evangeline Lilly a.k.a. Kate buzzes by and interjects: ''Don't believe a word he says. He's a liar!'')
Intriguing possibilities followed by maddening murkiness that sentiment seems to sum up Lost lately. As the show ends its three-month hiatus with 16 consecutive episodes (designed to eliminate momentum-killing repeats) in a new 10 p.m. time slot on Wednesdays (to shield it from that Nielsen polar bear called American Idol), Lost finds itself at a crossroads: its heady pop-phenom days in the rearview, and life as just a really good show looming ahead. The problem? A nagging sense that ''really good'' isn't good enough. Sucks to be a piece of highly profitable game-changing genius, doesn't it?
Coming off season 2's explosive finale, season 3's initial batch of six episodes fell short of lofty expectations and triggered concerns that Lost's mojo was as ephemeral as its infamous smoke monster. There's too much emphasis on the Others! Where are old faves like Sayid and Hurley? Mr. Eko's death was lame! I hate the new castaways Nikki and Paulo! Locke's sweat lodge was too...sweaty! While the demand for satisfying resolutions to dangling plot questions intensified and suspicions of written-out-of-their-rears hucksterism multiplied, the audience began to dwindle (down 19 percent from the same period in fall 2005). Lost's geek buzz teleported over to NBC's Heroes, and the drama drew fewer viewers in its last two fall episodes than oh, the unsexy horror! Mandy Patinkin's Criminal Minds on CBS. Suddenly, the show everyone loved to theorize about had become the show everyone loved to bitch about.
Yet cast and crew see another side to the story: The critics are wrong. Those who pine for episodes filled with beloved characters and familiar situations can't appreciate the true ambition of Lost, which is to tell a deep, sprawling, intricate saga; one that is slowly, if sometimes tangentially, building toward an ultimate end. Mistakes have been made (Mr. Eko's sudden demise, a lackluster fall cliff-hanger), concede executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, but they also believe that their allegedly dubious creative choices are about to be vindicated. Hopefully. ''I feel like we're playing a chess game,'' analogizes Lindelof, ''and in the first six moves, we've lost our queen and two bishops, and the audience is saying 'They are the worst chess players in the world!' What they don't realize is that we're nine moves away from checkmating you. If we lose, we lose. But that's the play, and we're standing by it.''
Nobody is more proud and more defensive about Lost than Fox. The fall from amazing grace? That's just the headline-hungry media tearing down what the cast and crew built up. The ratings decline? Those were simply hype-intrigued looky-loos who've decided Lost isn't for them and gravitated toward less complicated fare. ''Good riddance,'' says Fox. Besides, as the actor rightly points out, the show still ranks No. 5 ''in the category that makes this world go around'' the 18-to-49 demographic. And what of the devotees who yearn for those innocent invisible-peanut-butter-flavored beach days? ''The people who rag on it that way aren't strong enough fans, really,'' he says. ''Those people are copping out.''
So...Lost hasn't lost it? ''No.''
It's an answer. Simple. Definitive. Defiant. The question is, Do you buy it?