The pilot episode of Lost, the new J.J. Abrams-produced series premiering tonight on ABC (8 p.m. ET), takes the entropic logic of Murphy's Law to a new extreme. It's always something. If you're not being washed up on the shore of a desert island by the crash of a jumbo jet, you're getting stalked by some rapacious, unseen jungle monster who likes to leave his victims' bloodied corpses high in the branches of trees. Then, wouldn't you know it, just when you're done shooting the polar bear that inexplicably emerges from the depths of the tropical jungle, you discover a long-lost radio transmission (in French, no less), suggesting that you may be trapped in some sort of supernatural no-man's land. Some days are just like that.
In addition to being swept up in these events, individual members of Lost's 48-character cast also experience ad hoc surgery with a travel sewing kit, premature labor, and a really bad encounter with the still-spinning turbine of a jet engine. By the end of tonight's opening hour, the survivors are more frightened and fractured than they were in the starkly terrifying opening scene, which plunges us, Saving Private Ryan-style, into the first few minutes after the crash. People crawl from the wreckage or wander the beach, alone and in shock. There's a good deal of aimless staggering, hysterical screaming, and standing stock-still while staring into the void.
Only one competent, rational, and ethically sound individual seems to have survived the crash: a surgeon named Jack (Matthew Fox, reprising his aggrieved but responsible good-guy role from Party of Five). Jack is a one-man trauma team, bounding around the crash scene, tending to the pregnant woman, rescuing a man trapped under the landing gear, and pulling shrapnel from the wounds of an unconscious U.S. marshal. His attempts to elicit assistance from his fellow survivors are discouraging (one faints at the sight of blood, another administers bad CPR) until he meets up with Kate (Evangeline Lilly), who's plucky, supermodel-gorgeous, and possessed of a dangerous past. (Gee, wonder if they'll get together at some point in the show?) The two, along with a washed-up, drug-addicted rocker named Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), soon begin searching the island for the plane's missing cockpit. Charlie is the high point of the show, a comic Sancho Panza to Jack's heroic Don Quixote. Unfortunately, the talented Monaghan suffers from his Lord of the Rings fame—he's indelibly marked by his role as a hobbit, and you keep expecting him to break into a furry-footed jig.
The cast is so huge that following the eight or so subplots competing for space in this first episode makes a viewer feel at times like a crabby schoolteacher trying to make a head count. Where's that angry redneck guy who accuses the Arab passenger of being a terrorist? Mysterious bald man obsessed with backgammon? Korean couple who speak no English? Oh, they're out on the beach, whipping up ceviche-style concoctions for their fellow passengers. By the end of the first hour, about a dozen of these figures have emerged as, if not well-rounded, at least identifiable characters. Presumably, the rest will become familiar—or be systematically killed off—as the season progresses.
Lost has been roundly hailed as one of the new season's headline shows. There's no doubt that it's visually arresting and intricately plotted. And for those viewers who, like me, have a fear of flying, it's almost sickeningly exciting, with multiple flashbacks to the crash itself from various characters' points of view. But there's something overanxious, even patronizing, about Abrams' need to stimulate his audience with ever-greater suspense. What's with the monster, and the polar bear, and all the supernatural mumbo jumbo? Why assume that a plane crash and the resulting struggle to survive on a desert freaking island isn't enough to keep viewers interested? Indeed, Lost seems curiously uninterested in the minutiae of survival: Who's responsible for dividing up the food, building the fires, burying the bodies? How would strangers thrown into this situation really talk to each other? In one unintentionally funny line, Jack, looking for someone to stitch up a gash in his back, asks the shellshocked Kate: "Excuse me, do you have a minute?" What are they, on a subway platform?
Abrams, the creator of the labyrinthine spy series Alias as well as the teen soap Felicity, has insisted in interviews that, really, it's not about the monster. The mysterious predator that stalks the island, he says, is more of a metaphor for the conflicted inner lives of the characters: "If you call it a monster, it … feels kind of irrelevant or gimmicky. But if you have something that represents terror and represents fear and the darkness of this place, that to me is incredibly valuable." Fair enough, but, at least in this first episode, the moment the pace slackens, the metaphor arrives to pillage and maul. Abrams and his co-creator Damon Lindelof (Crossing Jordan) do a terrific job of piling on the plot twists, but they neglect to provide a believably textured world, or any time for the characters to interact between crises. As a result, Lost is at once heart-stopping and strangely dull.