Season 3, like Season 2, opens on a new character, Juliet. She's in a suburban-looking home, making muffins in advance of a book club meeting. One of the book clubbers mentions a man named Ben, which provokes a strong reaction from Juliet. Then, an earthquake-type rumble occurs (just like in Season 2), and the book clubbers rush outside to see what's going on. They're in what looks like a Technicolor version of Leave It to Beaver's hometown. Ben, whom we've heretofore known as Henry Gale, comes out of a house, and we see him giving orders. Juliet and Ben have a tense conversation, and then the camera zooms out to show us New Otherton (the nickname for the village coined by the producers) in the context of the island.
In interviews, the producers have said Season 3 is about the Others, but it's also about how there's more to the island than we were led to believe. The final shot before the commercial break expands the audience's understanding of the island's geography. It's actually quite large, not just a speck on the map. Similarly, seeing the Others in their suburban setting clashes with the impression, formed in the first two seasons, that the Others are primitive—previously we saw them walk barefoot and wear shabby, shredded clothes. Ben, it quickly becomes apparent, is the leader of the group and a central character this season. Juliet's reaction to Ben's name and her tense conversation with him are the key to her behavior later on, when the audience is meant to question whether her allegiance lies with Jack or Ben (and by extension with the survivors or the Others).
Season 4 is the only premiere to begin with a character we already know, although that's not initially apparent. It opens with a high-speed chase: Somebody driving a Camaro is trying to outrun the police in Los Angeles. Jack watches the chase on TV and mutters, "Damn it" as he pours himself a screwdriver. When the police eventually corner the Camaro, we discover that the driver is Hurley, looking older and more ragged than he did on the island. Before the cops arrest him, he screams, "Don't you know who I am? I'm one of the Oceanic Six!"
Hurley's grizzled appearance and run from the law, plus Jack's morning drink, clue us into the essential message of Season 4: The so-called Oceanic Six were better off on the island. The fact that Hurley drives a Camaro—a car we know has sentimental value for the character—indicates that the Oceanic Six are trying, unsuccessfully, to move on by reconnecting to the past.
Of course, upon first viewing, it's impossible to know that the introductory scenes reveal the central concerns of the season to come. In fact, it's difficult to know what's going on at all since the premieres begin in medias res and the camerawork almost always hides the identity of the characters in the first few minutes. The genius of Lost is that the first few minutes set up the rest of the season not through clearly worded hints but through a barrage of questions. How did the plane crash? How are they going to survive? What is in the hatch? What's with the button? Who is this blond woman making muffins? Who's driving that car?
I suspect that the initial three or five minutes of Season 5 will, true to form, reveal the main preoccupations of the season to come—the principal characters, themes, and mysteries. Check Slate on Thursday morning for a follow-up post analyzing the premiere, complete with predictions for Season 5.