Ken Tucker
February 03, 2010 AT 09:55 PM EST

Over the years, I’ve had my fun with Matthew Fox’s interpretation of Dr. Jack Shephard as The Mopiest Medicine Man Alive; I’ve used polite language to barely disguise my feeling that Evangeline Lilly is the most lissome actress to portray an escaped convict since Tuesday Weld in the 1968 B-movie Pretty Poison (NetFlix it now, Lost fans); and I have marveled at the way Michael Emerson evolved so quickly from Arrogant Dork to Most Sympathetic Arrogant Dork in TV history.

But last night, during Lost’s two-hour final-season premiere, it struck me that these actors, along with a number of others, are giving what may be the performances of their lives, all in the service of a show that doesn’t always reward great acting.

Which is to say, I was captivated by last night’s two-hours-minus-Grey’s-Anatomy-plugs extravaganza. Except for lurching for the mute button every time ABC’s promos tried to spoil tonight’s Modern Family jokes, I sat there just letting Lost wash over me, taking it in less as a working critic than as an admirer, a fan, as someone who was rooting for the series to do whatever the hell it wants to do this season.

It’s too early to tell whether the series is going to pay off on the almost unbearable promise that’s been imposed upon it by its devoted following — i.e., the Greatest Ending Of All Time This Side Of The Book Of Revelation. But it’s not too early to express a couple of judgments, and I’ll just limit myself to two for now:

• Jack is now shouldering the greatest amount of guilt, shame, depression, and despair of any character in contemporary broadcast television. (I’m leaving myself a loophole in that phrasing for about five characters I could name in The Wire. And a few in The Shield.) For two hours last night, Jack went from one sucks-to-be-him scenario to another, and Fox really rose to the challenge, giving shadings not only in his line-readings, but in his glances, his winces, his careful movements. Along with the writers and producers, he’s created a character of tragic heroism; he’s like Job with vodka.

• To watch what Terry O’Quinn is doing as John Locke is to witness an actor fully aware that he’s been given a gift and is unwrapping it carefully, knowing that it’s unique and precious. A few months ago, I got to plug O’Quinn’s performance in the underrated 1987 thriller The Stepfather when it appeared in a new DVD version. You can see some of the qualities O’Quinn uses now for Locke in his acting back then — the gleeful glint of madness combined with steely determination, for instance. But you can also now appreciate just how much strength O’Quinn possesses as an actor to play the various sides of Locke. The humbled cripple; the self-pitying rager; the sly bull-artist; the supremely confident leader of men. Plus a half-dozen other facets of Locke that have been or probably will be revealed as the series hurtles to a conclusion. It’s just amazing to watch him.

From my point of view, and maybe yours, Lost stands far above most fantasy series (and yes, I’m thinking of you, FlashForward, and you, V, if only because you were heavily promoted during Lost) not only for the richness of its storytelling, but also for the richness of these and other performances. As I said, I could discuss other actors and their characters, and probably will in the future.

I don’t claim to possess a tenth of the insight into Lost mythology that is the diligent inspiration and imagination of Jeff Jensen, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Lost on a different level. That’s what a good piece of art does anyway: It allows you to take it in in ways even its creators could not have expected.

My grade for the premiere: A.

Agree? Disagree?

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For more: Lost recap: What’s Your Worldview?

Totally Lost: Our season premiere will get you ready for theirs!

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