So what's the deal with that number sequence — 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 — on ABC's serial drama "Lost"? The truth is, it indicates the points during each episode's hour when the network takes a commercial break. No, that's not right.
The truth is, it's based on the relationship between the freckle count on Kate's face and the times per hour Hurley says "Dude."
That's not right either.
But as "Lost" heads to its season finale Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT, it promises to settle certain nagging questions and teasing mysteries. What information, and satisfaction, will we take from the "Lost" finale with us into its long summer hiatus? Only time will tell. Or not tell.
A year ago, when "Lost" ended its first season, the castaways blasted open the mysterious hatch. Big deal. Viewers didn't get so much as a peek.
But by now, we've hung out plenty down in the well-appointed bunker as it became an additional location for the castaways (and the action), supplementing the island's beach and jungle interior.
And here in the bunker was introduced perhaps the series' cleverest conceit: a computer into which must be typed the sequence 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 (then the execute command) every 108 minutes, or else — well, no one knows what happens otherwise. Up to now no one has dared to find out. What a bleakly funny comment on the human condition: enslavement, through blind faith or fear, to a chore whose purpose is no more known to its followers than the consequences of their not doing it.
On the finale maybe we will find out what's the deal with this so-called "button" ritual.
Maybe we will also find out more about the Dharma Initiative, the mysterious research institute that built the bunker, left behind supplies and murky instructions, and at bad moments has the castaways dancing like puppets in the service of a so-far inscrutable exercise.
Maybe we'll even find why Oceanic flight 815 from Sydney crashed here, in the middle of nowhere, to start the whole "Lost" adventure — itself a basic piece of information up to now withheld from viewers.
But no matter how generous "Lost" proves on its finale, it is wrapping a season even richer and more groundbreaking than its freshman year. More assuredly than ever a set of paradoxes, "Lost" is infuriating in its lack of information yet overwhelming in its thick deposits of lore.
It is almost punishing in the demands it places on the viewer who seeks to be more than a surface observer. But at the same time, it is liberating: If the writers give their own imaginations free rein, which they obviously do, then "Lost" invites the viewer to do the same, if only to keep up.
Indeed, early on its viewers appropriated "Lost" for themselves. It belongs to the audience. The writers and actors just do most of the work.
But not all. "Lost" is not a series for couch potatoes. Parsing out buried meaning and clues has become part of the viewing process. The show gets in our heads and, like it or not, we ponder each episode for days. This is not a series to watch from the sidelines; it almost compels on-the-field participation.
Just as the bumblebee theoretically can't fly, "Lost" was a series that just couldn't work — at least, according to conventional TV wisdom. It was a stupid idea with a bloated cast, more beach time than "Baywatch," and — since the main motivation was solely to get off the island — limited dramatic possibilities.
In practice, the show's biggest threat was, on the contrary, its vast possibilities.
Among the many original acquaintances the viewer made were: Kate, the freckled former jailbird (Evangeline Lilly); Hurley (Jorge Garcia), the portly sweepstakes tycoon who says "dude" a lot; Jack, the doctor (Matthew Fox); and the mystical outdoorsman, Locke (Terry O'Quinn). But there is no shortage of new characters — both friends and enemies — replenishing what we first knew as the core group.
Every character represents another point of contact for the viewer, and another point-of-view: any event has multiple versions, thanks to each person who experienced it. Meanwhile, the flashbacks to characters' lives before that fateful crash let the series time-shift and place-shift wherever it might roam beyond the island.
As I envision the show's future, I can imagine a subset of characters somehow escaping from the island to rejoin the "real" world — where they are unable or unwilling to arrange help for the castaways they left behind. The series, while remaining on the island but also tracking the tortured readjustment of The Returnees, could then further expand to coexist in two or more realms at the same time.
That's just an idea, and maybe a lousy one.
My larger point is that, as "Lost" concludes a second year, it has demonstrated that what might have first seemed to be a silly gimmick — a random bunch of people thrown together in a crisis — instead has nearly inexhaustible potential for development.
The only real limits: writers' fatigue and viewers' fickleness. But on a series where dangers seem to lurk everywhere, neither of those seems likely to be among them anytime soon.