Everything that writer-exec-producer-director J.J. Abrams has been involved in, from Alias and Felicity to the scripts for Armageddon and Joy Ride, has been characterized by a thorough knowledge of and affection for pop-culture conventions. Unlike most of his showbiz contemporaries, however, he doesn't presume that these qualities set him apart from the rest of America. Abrams assumes we all enjoy the comforts of familiar genre tropes (thriller chills; playful romance dialogue) but also want variations and twists. By never writing down to the consumers of his entertainment, he has limited the size of his audience (because people have to keep up with the bristling energy of his wayward inventiveness, and lots of folks just don't want to put out the effort). But he's also developed a hardcore fan base that will follow Abrams wherever his imagination takes him.
This season, following Abrams means getting Lost. You've no doubt heard the premise: Fortyodd (some very odd) people survive a plane crash, landing on an island they know not where. Front and center is a doctor named Jack, played by Matthew Fox, who helps with injuries and maintains civility lest the crisis turn into The Donner Party of Five. Every Jack needs a Jill, and how convenient it is that amid all the flaming rubble, corpses, and disoriented passengers, the first person Jack meets to help stitch his own nasty gash is the willowy Kate (Evangeline Lilly, a Canadian Kate Beckinsale with a harder stare). But there the nice TV-drama coincidences end, thank goodness. The rest of the cast is fascinatingly varied: a squabbling, bratty grown sister and brother (Maggie Grace and Ian Somerhalder); a father and his young son (Oz's Harold Perrineau and Malcolm-David Kelley); and a frowsy British rock-group bassist (The Lord of the Rings' Dominic Monaghan) who's miffed that no one recognizes the onetime big hit by his undoubtedly lousy band, Drive Shaft.
And, oh, yeah, the island also comes with a big, violent, quickly moving creature whom we hear but don't really see, and who kills the plane's pilot with swift, bloody grisliness. The doomed flier is played by Abrams' childhood friend and good-luck charm Greg Grunberg, who's appeared in every one of Abrams' TV projects. (He's a pun here: the pilot in the pilot, never to be seen again.) Anyway, the island soon takes on a malevolent air -- as if the survivors didn't have enough trouble just mending their injuries and scrabbling for food-and Lost ventures into sci-fi or at least fantasy territory.
But if you aren't a big fan of those genres (I'm not), don't worry -- Abrams excels at making you care about people and situations you think will leave you cold. Very quickly, you really want to know what's up with the large young hippieish fellow (Jorge Garcia) whose geniality radiates calm. By contrast, you want to know why Terry O'Quinn (a familiar baldy from The X-Files and Alias) distances himself from everyone and gives off a spooky vibe. This is the kind of show in which an apparent main character, Monaghan's rock star, has both a drug habit and the key, climactic line that speaks for everyone: ''Guys-where are we?'' It's the kind of show where I have to write ''apparent'' a lot because I know there are going to be lots of unexpected revelations about the islanders' identities and motives. Abrams, whom ABC lured to help exec producer-writer Damon Lindelof develop the project, injects elements that keep this crash epic, well, grounded.
Doubters have already poked fun at Lost as Gilligan's Island Goes Into the Twilight Zone-a Fantasy Island of Lost Souls. But as far as I'm concerned, Abrams and Lindelof have created one of only two new shows this season at the end of which I was yearning to see a second hour right away. (The other is ABC's Desperate Housewives: It could be hoot heaven, could be labored camp.) I was tempted to hedge on my final grade, because Lost is the kind of show that could go anywhere. Then I realized that's exactly why I should commit to the ride.