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Mysteries of ‘Lost’ detract from the characters

At the conclusion of "Exodus," the three-hour season finale of "Lost," another slow-motion montage showed each of the passengers boarding Oceanic flight 815. They navigated the aisles, slipping past one another, nodding politely or eyeing each other suspiciously. Watching them find their seats was extremely familiar, even boring; it's something many of us do on a regular basis.

When the episode jumped to the present a few moments later, Locke and Jack slid the lid of the hatch aside. The camera pulled back from their faces and traveled down into increasing darkness, revealing only a ladder but opening up a whole new set of possibilities.

But in an episode of big surprises, the flashback to the passengers boarding the airplane still carried the most weight. Forty-eight of those lives were about to intersect; the rest were about to end.

This is the power "Lost" holds over its audience: the series really delivers when it focuses on its characters in their off moments, but the mysteries distract viewers, blinding them — and sometimes the show's creators and writers — from "Lost"'s true power.

Plenty of clues to pick over during the summerIf nothing else, these last two hours of the first season of "Lost" had their share of shocking moments: still devastated over the loss of her own child, Rousseau kidnapped Claire's baby; high school teacher Arzt exploded while handling dynamite; the raft encountered a boat piloted by people ("the others"?) who kidnapped Walt; the monster appeared, rattled its chains, and then ingested dynamite, burping smoke; Hurley saw his winning lottery numbers on the side of the hatch, but Locke blew it open despite Hurley's protest's and Walt's earlier warning.

These moments hit hard, and they will certainly leave the faithful hunting for clues, about everything from the numbers to the possibilities that they suggest. But with the exception of Walt's kidnapping, the events had little lasting impact. After a season full of questions, a finale full of new questions — instead of answers — is somewhat of a letdown.

So, too, are the overused plot devices that are repeatedly deployed simply to keep the mysteries of "Lost" frustratingly hidden. Next year, after another 25 episodes, the mysteries will probably still not reach any conclusion; this is the nature of serial television. On "Lost," the mystery island plot is clearly moving in circles. Even though they're concentric circles that move a bit farther from the center with each pass, the storytelling borders on manipulation.

And viewers are being manipulated, but into believing that the monster and the numbers are what matter. They make for interesting discussion, imaginative theorizing, and detailed analysis, but they are not powering the series. Thankfully.

Is there a there there?Fans of "Lost" co-creator J.J. Abrams' other series, "Alias" and "Felicity," have reason to be apprehensive. Abrams knows how to craft a show, infusing storylines with full-bodied, flawed characters who seem realistic even in the most implausible of situations. Yet Abrams' shows haven't really maintained their momentum past a season or two, crippled by the weight of their set-ups and increasingly convoluted stories. "Alias" has managed to stay afloat only by restarting, essentially reverting back to its original structure.

Is "Lost" all set-up and no delivery? Is there a definite story here, one with an eventual climax? Or is it just a quirky idea? Will its premise fold back onto itself so many times that it smothers under its own weight?

The finale answered those questions, sort of. By refusing to provide answers, the series now has two paths to take through the jungle. It can let the mystery prevail, dragging its characters through the woods until they're sucked up by "the security system that eats people," as Hurley called it. Or the series can follow the lead of "Deadwood," "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," and other exceptional ensemble dramas, and let its characters lead the way.

It's all about the charactersWithin Locke, Jack, Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Michael, Walt, Sawyer, Sun, Jin, Claire, and Shannon are the real answers to their future on the island. As the flashbacks have shown, these characters' lives intersected with one another before their fateful flight, but they didn't notice one another, not as human beings. Aboard airplanes, legs bump into other legs; strangers stand up to allow passage to the microscopic bathroom; but these strangers were mostly invisible to each other, just as so many of us are to each other every day.

By necessity, the only real knowledge the castaways have gained in their time on the island is about the people with whom they crash-landed. Viewers have (smartly) been kept from seeing the island's monster; the scariest things are, of course, those that we cannot see.

Likewise, the castaways have been kept from knowing much about one another, except for the pieces they reveal occasionally or accidentally. They didn't and don't know much about their new friends, and some of them frighten each other, but they still had to quickly learn to trust their fellow passengers — at least a little, especially since most of them don't trust themselves.

Who takes charge in a place without order? How does a society emerge from chaos? The answers to these, the true mysteries, lie within their interaction.

Ironically, "Lost" — with "Desperate Housewives," one of the two ABC shows that resurrected both scripted television and ABC — is about 48 people stranded on an island. Sound familiar, perhaps like a reality show that has been a powerful force for the past five years? While CBS' "Survivor" is a game, the drama in its episodes ultimately focuses on the pawns and their interaction with one another.

"Lost"'s characters are pawns in a very mysterious game, but ultimately it should be all about them.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.