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One of the few guarantees on TV in the past few years has been that ABC’s “Lost” will have a spectacular stunner of a season finale, and it looks like we’re headed there again Thursday night.


The two-hour episode (at 9 p.m. EDT) may not match last season’s mind-blowing flash forward that put the show into an entirely new realm, but who cares?


That “game-changer” last May, as the producers called it, set up this season’s wholly original and mesmerizing storytelling, with flashes forward, backward and sideways across the island and the Pacific. It gave the show a supercharged energy, as viewers sort of knew where things were headed and also were entirely baffled. That, ladies and gents, is great writing.


But it’s been more than that, too. The always-good acting seems to have stepped up across the cast, and the new crowd this season is keeping pace. The result is that we’ve got a thrilling action-mystery mixing with an involving set of characters. That’s the other key piece to “Lost”: Fans care about these people a lot.


Executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof said in a phone interview recently that for all the attention to the mysteries of the island and Oceanic Flight 815, they believe the real draw is, as Cuse said, “the mystery of these people.”


“The characters are nothing less than mythic,” Lindelof said. “We joke about this all the time that most of our characters have committed cold-blooded murder, but people care about them and want to know more about them.”


The episode setting up Thursday’s season-ender showed the Oceanic 6 - Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Sayid (Naveen Andrews), Sun (Yunjin Kim) and baby Aaron, if you haven’t been counting - arriving in civilization after their rescue, which we still know nothing about. It was immensely touching and sad, because we know them and know about the tragedies they’ve seen and the ones still to come - we think.


If you’ve been watching this show, you are bonded to these people, yet all we really know about them is, they’re all in a mess, both on the island and in the future. And we still don’t know if other survivors will be rescued, how many more will die, if the Oceanic 6 comes back, and, still, what is up with the island.


That’s the kind of stuff that makes for great television, so I believe Cuse and Lindelof when they say Thursday night’s episode will, once again, change how we watch this breathtaking show.


___


Today’s agenda for What’d They Do to My Shows starts with one of the most uncalled-for finales in a while. Put simply, I’m griping about the season-ender for CBS’ “NCIS,” and judging from calls and e-mails, so are a lot of you.


For those who missed it, the generally chipper-toned procedural killed one character, Jenny Shepard (Lauren Holly) - the NCIS director and love interest/object of sexual tension for Agent Gibbs (Mark Harmon) - which was kind of expected. But then in a last-minute shocker, the new director broke up the team.


Is that real? CBS hasn’t said. But the two important clues are that CBS hasn’t said, and that it was a typically cliche, irritating season-ending shocker.


Just like viewers, I also don’t get why networks feel the need to punish loyal fans by leaving them with some terrible, cliffhanging events. Apparently, the nets think they need to manipulate the fans who’ve been supporting them all season. How about just ending with a good episode? That would get me back. (See “Lost” above.)


The simple explanation for why they do this goes back to 1980 and the Who Shot J.R.? bonanza for “Dallas,” a rare cliffhanger at the time, and a genuine cultural event. Networks and producers keep trying to recapture that magic, as if anything could.


The more complicated explanation involves executive fear, changing viewer habits, and, I’m saying, network stupidity.


Anyway, as for “NCIS,” OK, they killed a character. Fine. People leave shows. The rest was unnecessary and a blow to faithful viewers.


So will the show be getting a new lead team? The guess here is no. The show’s only a so-so crime story, but what makes it a ratings hit is the cast chemistry and a deftly handled lighter touch. CBS would be foolish to mess with one of their biggest hits that much.


And because there’s been no word in Hollywood about new hires for the series, I’m thinking CBS is just messing with fans, and things will get worked out next season. In any case, I’ll keep you posted.


A couple things about “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” It wasn’t on my recent list of shows renewed by the networks. That’s because “Criminal Intent” is technically a cable show.


It aired this spring on NBC, but those were - also technically - repeats, because the first runs showed up on USA. More new episodes, finishing out the seventh season, return to USA starting June 8.


And the good news for fans, including me, is that NBC Universal - which owns USA, and of course NBC - renewed “L&O: CI” for an eighth season of 16 more episodes. There was no word exactly, however, when those will air.


The writers’ strike is making “Rescue Me” wait out the summer - FX said its 22-episode fifth season will run sometime in 2009 - but to hold fans over, the show will air 10 five-minute shorts weekly starting in June.


FX says they’re stand-alone shorts and will have a lighter, funny tone to them. They’ll run at 10 p.m. Tuesdays and will likely also be available online.


Although fans have to wait until January 2009 for another season of “24,” Fox announced recently that it’s planning a two-hour episode/TV movie on Nov. 23 that will set up the seventh season.


Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) will, of course, deal with some sort of international crisis, but even better, this will be a chance to see how the show might work if it switched out of its “real-time” format of each episode equaling one hour.

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