At the very least, Lost has become a show no longer dogged by skepticism that its producers lack a master plan. ''The question of 'Do you guys know where you're going?' kind of evaporated,'' says Cuse. ''People are no longer fearful that they're going to be led like lemmings to a cliff edge and plunge off.'' Nobody is more thrilled than the cast; across the board, their enthusiasm and, in some cases, relief is palpable. ''Now, the story carries everything and we're just players in it, which I like,'' says Holloway. ''The writers can be concise. I like that, too.'' Adds Fox: ''Our writers have always said we needed an end in order to start ripping. Now, we're ripping.''
This isn't to say that season 4 has been perfect. After hitting a high-water mark with ''The Constant,'' a deftly plotted, unabashedly romantic time-travel yarn that ended with Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) finally making contact with soul mate Penelope Widmore (Sonya Walger), Lost slowed the pace and muffed some plays. A trick ending She's in the future! He's in the past! to an otherwise powerful episode featuring Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun alienated some perplexed fans. And the hyped-up return of castaway traitor Michael (Harold Perrineau) defied continuity logic and generally failed to meet expectations. Still, these are minor concerns compared with past infractions such as a guest turn by Bai Ling and last year's awkward introductions of we hesitate to even bring up their names Nikki and Paulo.
Ironically, season 4's overall strength and sophistication may have renewed Lost's creative mojo, but it has also sealed the show's rep as an intimidating weekly TV commitment. Viewership has steadily declined throughout the season, from 17.8 million for the season 4 premiere to 13.4 for episode 8. When the show returns April 24, it will air after Grey's Anatomy, at 10 p.m., and while it may get some draft from the hospital hit, it's a less-than-McDreamy hour for a series that demands maximum alertness. But ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson says that even though he'd ''love to see the show grow...the reality is that the numbers are pretty good.'' And he's as excited as anyone about the new direction. ''Lost has established itself as one of the great shows of all time. I'm proud that by agreeing to end the show, we have freed them up to do what they want to do.''
NEXT PAGE: ''We're starting to close the loop on the end of last season. Jack in the future is a man marked by weakness, but the Jack of the present is strong. You're going to understand how he made that transition.''