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LOST - Season 4 premiere, 9 p.m. Thursday - "Lost Season 3 Finale Rerun," 9 p.m. Wednesday - "Lost: Past, Present & Future," 8 p.m. Thursday - ABC
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During the third-season finale of ABC’s “Lost,” a flash-forward revealed that Jack, the hunky doctor, and Kate, the equally foxy fugitive, make it off the mysterious island of polar bears, smoke monsters, hidden hatches and secretive people called the Others.


But all is not well. A bearded and clearly distraught Jack was seen pleading, “We have to go back, Kate!”


Back to that crazy place? Viewers know just how he feels. “Lost” returns with eight new episodes starting Thursday, and anticipation is building among fans who want to get back to the action and finally find some meaningful answers to what the heck is going on with the addictively complex drama.


NEW FACES ON `LOST’ A few new faces are expected on “Lost” this season, and, like the rest of the ensemble, they’re solid actors without the sort of fame that would distract from the complicated action. Here’s the lineup: Jeff Fahey, an intense movie and TV actor last seen in the movie “Grindhouse.” Jeremy Davies, who’s probably best-known for playing one of the soldiers in “Saving Private Ryan.” Lance Reddick, who plays Lt. Cedric Daniels on HBO’s drama “The Wire.” Ken Leung, a young actor who made a splash as Uncle Junior’s scary, unbalanced protege on “The Sopranos.” Rebecca Mader, a British beauty who had a small part in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Last season’s stunning flash-forward device was hailed as a genius stroke for a series that was struggling creatively and trying the patience of all but the most devoted watchers. “Lost” has found its way again, prompting a new sense of excitement that’s bigger than the weird four-toed statue that popped up not too long ago.


What do you need to know before you book your one-way ticket back to this time-bending drama? Let’s briefly go down the hatch of what’s already happened on and off the screen, and what’s in store.


Hooray for the future. Ever since Oceanic 815 crashed back in 2004, “Lost” has been an innovative series with a labyrinthine puzzle the likes of which broadcast television hadn’t seen before.


But during the end of the second season and a good chunk of the third, the show strayed perilously close to jumping the shark. Too many unanswered questions piled up. Constant flashbacks to the survivors’ past lives began to feel like padding, not canny plotting.


Then came the flash-forward finale that reinvigorated the show and indicated producers knew exactly where the story was headed - right off the island, shockingly enough. It opened the door for future episodes to jump intriguingly back and ahead in time, a wrinkle nobody saw coming.


“It completely changed the face of `Lost,’” says Jeff Jensen, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly and the “Doc Jensen” blogger for the magazine’s Web site. “We suddenly realized this story is so much bigger than we thought.”


The plot twist busted open the show’s whole mythology and rebooted the series for the better, says Sandra Deane, senior editor at AOL Television.


“People were excited and blown away,” she says. “Everybody had been saying for a while, oh, we’re so sick of the flashbacks. We’ve got everybody’s back story. We’re over it. Move on, already.” Now the buzz over the show is so intense, it’s luring back some fans who had drifted away.


Yes, there is an end in sight. When a show is a hit, it can drag on longer than it should (witness the interminable “ER”). That’s why some “Lost” fans worried there’d be years of cooked-up excuses for keeping Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley and the gang in island limbo.


Then last year, ABC agreed to let the show’s executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse do what makes the most creative sense: set an end date for the series. Under the deal, there’ll be 48 more episodes divvied into three seasons of 16 each (or that was the plan before the writers’ strike).


With the conclusion looming in 2010, the team behind “Lost” can now attempt to plot out the action better and ensure that every little moment counts towards a strong, artistically satisfying resolution, instead of, as Jensen notes, “the usual m.o. of TV, which is just to feed the beast, keep it on the air, keep it interesting for one more week.”


In the big picture, “Lost” also could encourage networks to do more bold experiments with limited-run series. The “Lost” makers “continue to change the culture of TV watching and I think it is evolving toward a place that can give us more meaningful television and more meaningful artistic expression within the broadcast realm, as opposed to just HBO or Showtime,” says Jensen.


And now for the new stuff. As “Lost” resumes, there are obvious questions left by the peek into the future. Who else gets off the island? How do they do it? Who’s left behind? Why is Jack so messed up and eager to return? Who was in the coffin shown in the finale? Who’s the male person that Kate apparently lives with?


But the fate of the island’s present storyline is also a delicious riddle. When last season wrapped, there was hope of imminent rescue by a freighter, something the unreliable Others leader Ben was warning the castaways against. Jack wants to go. Locke wants to stay. Who’s on that ship and are they dangerous or not?


According to Jensen, at least in the first four episodes, it should be pretty clear what’s happening, which isn’t always the case with “Lost.” And early on, viewers are likely to meet several new characters. Teeny-tiny spoiler alert: TV Guide says there’ll be a foursome of freighter people introduced, and there also should be more information coming this season about who else leaves the island, with one of them revealed during the premiere.


What about the writers strike? The Hollywood labor dispute has intensified interest in “Lost,” since there’s not much else exciting on broadcast TV these days (not even the predictably awful audition rounds of “American Idol”).


There are eight episodes of “Lost” in the can. The original plan was to show 16 new episodes without repeats, according to Variety, to create the sort of event feeling that seasons of “24” do. But that was announced before the strike.


If the conflict is settled by the end of this month and production starts back up, Jensen’s hunch is there’ll be a break of a few weeks after the first eight episodes air, followed by the airing of six or eight more episodes. But a longer strike could make it difficult to get a full season done in time.


Never seen it? Now’s the time. During the long stretch of the writers strike, some viewers have been catching up with “Lost” through DVDs and are primed for the fourth season, says AOL’s Deane.


If you don’t have time for a DVD deep dive or to check out some episodes at ABC’s Web site (abc.com), the network is rerunning an enhanced version of the Season Three finale at 9 p.m. Wednesday and an hour-long recap an hour before Thursday’s 9 p.m. season premiere.


Also at ABC’s Web site, there’s a nifty 8-minute, 15-second recap (as in Oceanic 815) that jams three seasons worth of highlights into a rat-tat-tat montage with a clipped, deadpan narration.


And, of course, there are a bunch of unofficial fan sites on the Web to rummage through, since “Lost” fans love to share their theories and chat online.


Just beware the spoilers, which are widespread on the Web, if not always reliable. Says Deane, who tries to live in a spoiler-free zone, “What you think you might know might not even be real.”


That philosophy applies to “Lost” in general. Don’t trust where you think the show is going, at least not yet. But enjoy it all the same.

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