Jack is back on the beach! The Others can't make babies! And ding-dong...Nikki and Paulo are dead! Yes, the stormy third season of Lost is finally clearing up, in case you haven't noticed and judging by the ratings, you haven't. Since the castaway drama returned to ABC in its new time slot (10 p.m. on Wednesdays) on Feb. 7, viewership has slipped by nearly 20 percent to 11.7 million, and the series is down 12 percent from its season 1 highs. Exec producer Damon Lindelof is blunt about the ratings drop: ''It sucks.''
To be fair, numbers alone don't tell the whole story of Lost's health. Despite the decline, the show still wins its time slot in the 18-49 demo, and it's also one of the most watched shows outside of its time period, thanks to Internet downloading and DVRs. ''Because we moved it to 10, it does seem as if the percentage of DVR recording has gone up. It's tough for people to stay up,'' says Larry Hyams, ABC's chief of research. ''The numbers should be building toward the season finale.'' While ABC has renewed Lost for another year, the producers admit that their demanding enterprise isn't the weekly must-see that it once was, especially during this strangely scheduled, awkwardly crafted third season. ''We've always felt Lost was a cult show at heart. I think what we're seeing now is a marketplace correction,'' says exec producer Carlton Cuse. ''The research shows that for the most part, the audience that started with the show is still with us, though they may be watching it in different ways.''
The producers are working very hard to keep the fans who are still watching satisfied and tuned in. That's why they (literally) buried Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro's unpopular newcomers, Nikki and Paulo. Originally, the diamond-swiping crooks were to have anchored a winking arc of stories; one twist-ending episode would have devoted its flashback to actress Nikki's cheeky TV show, Exposé, about strippers who solve crimes. But faced with mounting disdain toward the abruptly introduced characters and ramped-up viewer frustration with the show's aggressively enigmatic storytelling the producers decided in December to telescope their ideas into a single kiss-off episode. ''Back when we had more good faith with the audience, we could have gotten away with these shenanigans. Given the backlash against them, we had to clean up the mess,'' says Lindelof. ''We're now judged on an episode-by-episode basis. There's not a lot of room for error.''
The encouraging news: A sneak peek at upcoming episodes finds Lost delivering some serious storytelling goods. The April 18 outing sheds more light on Desmond's future flashes and brings a new character to the island. The April 25 installment building on the recent disclosure that women who get pregnant on the island appear doomed to die reveals the paternity of Sun's baby and has an ending that will leave theory spinners reconsidering their scenarios. And on May 2, fans will learn the answer to one of Lost's biggest mysteries, ''something we set up way back in season 1,'' says Lindelof. Care to be more specific? ''No way.''
The season's final three episodes are cloaked in mystery. Will the May 9 hour, entitled ''The Man Behind the Curtain,'' finally lay bare the Dharma Initiative mythology? ''No comment,'' teases Cuse. ''But it would be interesting if we finally met someone who was actually part of the Initiative.'' As for the two-hour May 23 finale, rumors of war and death abound. (RIP, Dominic Monaghan's Charlie and Michael Emerson's Ben?) Lindelof says they wrote the finale mindful that viewers probably won't see Lost again until January 2008 when it would launch a rerun-free season, and perhaps the beginning of the end of the show itself. The producers have long approached Lost as a novel with a definitive final chapter, and have been in negotiations with ABC about determining and announcing an end date for the series. Such a move would be fairly unprecedented in broadcast television and could imbue Lost with renewed urgency. But for now, neither side is commenting on the talks. ''Discussions continue'' is all Cuse will say.
However season 3 ends, Lindelof hopes Lost will again be on friendly terms with its rabid but easily frustrated audience. ''We made a promise back in the pilot,'' he says. ''We believe by the end of the season we'll have made good on it. And don't start pestering us about which frigging promise. Trust us. You'll know.''
(Additional reporting by Jennifer Armstrong)