There was some commotion among fantasy film and TV enthusiasts when news broke that J.J. Abrams, creator of the outstanding Alias, had conjured a new series that somehow crossed Survivor and Jurassic Park. Reported to be the most expensive pilot in history (exceeding $5 million), Lost‘s first episode was also one of the most eagerly anticipated.

Lost showcases the adventures of the 48 survivors of a plane that crashed on a desert island and offers the potential of exploring the complex social dynamics that arise when a pack of humans is isolated from civilization. And similar to Alias, which often diverges from its serious espionage yarns to present a convoluted story-arc dealing with the supernatural Rambaldi, the premiere episode of Lost delves into the fantastic. However, it is quite unfortunate that such incursions turn out to be too outrageous, seriously hindering the dramatic impact of the series.

Directed by Abrams himself, this episode begins with a few silent frames of complete darkness. These are followed by the image of Jack (Matthew Fox) waking in a peaceful bamboo forest. He appears inadequately dressed for the situation, wearing a dark suit and a tie. A Labrador retriever stares intently at him, then runs away. Jack stands, feels intense pain, and looks puzzled at the tiny bottle of vodka he finds in his pocket. With no other information, we share his bewilderment.

As Jack walks towards the beach, screams and the sounds of grinding metal fill the air. The camera shows what he sees: a crashed plane. As he gapes at the wreckage, the shot brings to mind the final scene of Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston stares at the washed-up Statue of Liberty. Here again in Lost, the remnants of civilization loom ominously.

The images that follow reveal the frail structures of human society, a theme at the heart of the series. Surrounded by fire, smoke, debris, and corpses, the survivors are in a panic. As Jack is a physician and apparently “natural” leader, he fearlessly runs forward, organizing his fellows and helping the injured. In the middle of this pandemonium, Jack makes tourniquets, gives CPR, and instructs others what to do. Lost skillfully plays with the viewer’s expectations, what appeared to be a wretched man dealing with a terrible hangover, turned out to be a hero in the middle of a life shattering event. To further highlight this point, the frantic music, rapid editing, and quick camera movements of this scene stands in stark contrast to the peaceful opening shots.

So far, Lost hasn’t explained why the plane crashed. Instead, individual flashbacks reveal on-board events from limited perspectives. These scenes, along with the rubble images, are truly harrowing, making full and complex use of post-9/11 flying anxieties. Not the least of these emerges in some survivors’ response to Sayid (Naveen Andrews), who quickly becomes the target of racial profiling. At the same time, the show resorts to stereotypes, populating the group with a set of “diverse” cut-outs. Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim), a Korean couple with rigid moral values, quickly feel alienated from the rest, and so begin to question their relationship and even their ideals.

While they’re threatened by hunger and the elements, the survivors also face consequences of their own behavior. When distrust erupts over a pair of handcuffs discovered in the wreckage, the group behaves much like the characters in Lord of the Flies and its game show reinvention, Survivor, forming and breaking up a series of “alliances.” The strongest of these develops between Jack and Kate (Evangeline Lilly). Together, in the company of drug addict Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), they trek into the jungle looking for the cockpit, hoping to find the transponder and call for help. They discover the pilot is still alive, just long enough to report that, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, the plane lost radio contact and the crew was forced to change their route in an attempt to make an emergency landing in Fiji. Thus, when they crashed, they were 1000 miles off-course: rescuers are likely looking in the wrong spot.

As if things aren’t bad enough, an unseen creature shakes the fuselage and sucks up the pilot. Later on, some of the survivors are attacked by a polar bear, looking hot and bothered on that tropical island. Lovely Kate isn’t who she pretends to be. And the transponder receives a strange recorded message in French, apparently continuously transmitted from somewhere on the island for the past 16 years. All this while the enigmatic Locke (Terry O’Quinn) behaves bizarrely, suggesting he has a personal connection with the mysteries that haunt the island.

If the crash scenes are harrowing for their inevitable referencing of 9/11, then these subsequent events diminish their impact. As a matter of fact, troubled by narrative incoherence and wacky occurrences, Lost brings to mind the final twist of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (where ghostly apparitions torment a young woman after a car crash, only to find out that she died in the accident). At this early stage, Lost seems distracted by its scares.