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Hiatuses for serialized shows a ‘Lost’ cause

ABC just decided that broadcasting a few episodes of "Lost's" upcoming fourth season is better than no "Lost" at all. Some folks never learn.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

ABC just decided that broadcasting a few episodes of "Lost's" upcoming fourth season is better than no "Lost" at all. But as anyone who sat through last season's excruciating first six episodes knows, that's just not true.

Some folks never learn.

The Hollywood writers' strike has put the future of nearly every show on television in question. But, in most cases, fans of shows such as "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy" can find solace in the fact that their shows have a few episodes left to air (and perhaps even film) before Warrick and Bailey withdrawal sets in.

In the case of most midseason shows, the news is even rosier. Most of those series, returning and new, have filmed as many as a dozen episodes. So assuming "One Tree Hill" doesn't start its fifth season until some time in February, fans could enjoy new episodes through May.

For highly serialized shows, though, part of a season does not a whole season make. That's why FOX announced its new January schedule last week without "24," which tells one story every season in real time over the course of 24 hour-long episodes. FOX will hold off debuting the new season until it knows when all the episodes will be done, which could mean waiting until January 2009.

That's a smart move. FOX has been starting the show's seasons in January in recent years so they could air uninterrupted through May. (Reruns and several-week hiatuses once cost it ratings momentum. )

Now, "24" only has eight or nine episodes ready to air until the strike is resolved, and if those completed episodes air as planned, they would run out by the end of February. New episodes wouldn't come until weeks later, and that's assuming the strike ends soon.

FOX made the right call. With a popular, critically acclaimed, serialized show like "24," you wait till you know when all your episodes will be done before committing to a start date.

Unless you're ABC.

ImpatientIf there is one thing ABC should know about fans of serialized shows, it's that they aren't patient with incomplete story lines — especially on "Lost."

When the intricately plotted castaway drama aired its "pod" of six episodes last fall before going on a planned three-month hiatus, fans revolted, and ABC can't blame them — the show was revolting. Its writers spent those six episodes focusing on "the Others," whose name must have been derived from "characters other than the ones we care about."

The showrunners asked viewers to be patient, to please wait to view the season as a whole before grumbling that they never got to see Hurley or Jin. And, to be fair, the season's final six episodes were some of the series' best. But by then, millions of viewers had lost interest.

Since then, everyone involved has admitted that the hiatus was a mistake. ABC struck a deal with the show's creators to develop three abbreviated seasons of the show that would air in uninterrupted 16-episode blocks.

"Lost" has completed only eight episodes of its new season, and the network is refusing to follow FOX's example and hold off on airing the first set of episodes.

It's the wrong move. "Lost" can't afford to lose any more momentum.

But it's wrong for another reason: Recent comments from “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof seem to imply these first few episodes will be paced similarly to those early season-three episodes.

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Interviewed on the picket lines, he told E! Online that he thinks the show will follow a similar course as last year: "When you are doing 24 straight episodes of a show, the first six episodes are a lot of tap dancing and some writers are able to tap-dance very effectively. Cable writers don't have to tap-dance at all, which is why all their shows are so great."

Missing the pointSure, cable shows have shortened seasons, but "Lost" does too now, so can't the pace quicken? Lindelof shouldn't be able to blame a "large" episode order for forcing viewers to sit through filler.

Besides, he's missing the bigger point. Seeing more of Hurley or Jin last November instead of waiting until March would have made fans happier, but it wouldn't have made those first six episodes any less disappointing.

The producers of "Lost" need to stop blaming the serialized format — and their own fans' so-called impatience — for the show's poor performance. Instead, they should take some cues from the folks at "24," because even if FOX weren't postponing the season, the first eight episodes of "24" will be better than the first eight of "Lost."

Long ago, "24" realized the dangers of too much "tap dancing," as Lindelof calls it. Sure, the show's premise makes so-called "filler" episodes necessary, but "24" has begun to find ways to inject even these episodes with the same adrenaline as those episodes ticking down to the finale.

And most importantly, "24's" writers don't blame the show's serialized structure for their occasional missteps. The cougar traps and amnesia bouts of the early years are mostly gone now. And the writers have learned how to weave enough smaller stories into a larger story arc to keep the tap dancing to a minimum.

Thankfully, FOX made the right decision. After all, "24" fans have waited a year to see Tony return from the dead. To get a small taste now, only to have to wait several more months for the conclusion, would be torture. And as much as "24's" writers like torture, they don't like torturing their fans.

"Lost" and ABC apparently do.

Jeff Hidek also covers television for the Star-News in Wilmington, NC. Read his blog at or contact him at .