...except for the monsters, the unhinged French lady, and some seriously stir-crazy castaways. But all this tropical turmoil makes ''Lost'' the most addictive thriller on TV.

By Dan Snierson
Updated December 03, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Rolling surf. Fragran air. Azure sky. Tweeting birds. It’s another made-to-order day in paradise, postcard-perfect for surfing, hiking, communing with nature…or, you know, digging up a rotting corpse that could help keep you alive on this sand-flea-infested nightmare beach.

Here on the Hawaii set of ABC’s hit drama Lost — that twisty mystery series about plane crash survivors fending for themselves on a South Pacific island inhabited by polar bears, a sadistic Frenchwoman, and unseen monsters — the cameras roll as Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Jack (Matthew Fox) stare at a mound of dirt marked with a wooden cross.

”Why didn’t you just put him with the others when you burned the fuselage?” asks Kate.

”Because I needed to bury him,” explains Dr. Jack solemnly.

The two pull out some makeshift shovels and begin exhuming the dead guy, a U.S. marshal who was bringing fugitive Kate to justice before disaster struck. See, this marshal carried a wallet. And that wallet contained a key. And that key opens an impenetrable briefcase. And the contents of that case are important enough for them to endure this hellish process, which involves gagging, maggots, and a startling betrayal that the island gods want to keep hush-hush for now.

But perhaps we can unearth some other secrets from this season’s most enigmatic series. After the scene is finished shooting, Lilly is questioned about this Pandora’s briefcase. She goes from zero to cryptic in one second flat. ”The case belongs to the marshal,” she says cautiously. ”That’s as far as I’ll go.” She’s starting to sweat. Is she cracking…or just wilting in the tropical heat? ”If the marshal’s carrying a case and he’s on a plane, there’s only so many things he can be carrying in it,” she continues. ”It’s not underwear. And it’s not a dinosaur.”

Intriguing, though not very helpful. Next, we track down Fox and interrogate him.

”Uhhh…well…um…uhhh,” he stammers. We stare. He stares. It’s awkward. ”There are some weapons,” he confides. ”A couple of other items…and something Kate wants really, really bad.”

Which is?

Fox grins firmly. He’s done digging. But we’ll be doing it all season long.

Heebie-jeebie hypothese and heady head-scratchers are the keys to Lost, and America doesn’t seem to mind the game: The nebulous, foreboding drama — evoking The Twilight Zone, Cast Away, and Lord of the Flies — has fast become one of the year’s most talked-about shows. In its Wednesday-at-8-p.m. slot, it has attracted 17.6 million viewers (impressive for an early-evening drama), making it the No. 2 new series of the season. And along with Desperate Housewives and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Lost is rescuing ABC from ratings purgatory — and giving viewers the meatiest conspiracy-theory fodder since The X-Files. In short, not bad for a new show without CSI or Law & Order in its title.

As trippy and unpredictable as Lost is, its journey into the pop-culture stratosphere has been equally surprising. Oceanic Flight 815 originated in summer 2003 at an ABC retreat in Anaheim, Calif., where then entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun threw out a wild idea for his struggling network: How about a Cast Away-meets-Survivor drama? ”The reaction in the room was what you’d expect if someone walked into a black-tie event wearing a T-shirt and gym shorts,” recalls Braun. ”You could hear the pages rustling on all the tables.” But the exec forged ahead undeterred — he even had a great name for it: Lost.

The first script, penned by Jeffrey Lieber (Tuck Everlasting), didn’t fly with Braun, so he rang up J.J. Abrams, the rising Hollywood hyphenate who cocreated Felicity and ABC cult favorite Alias. But Abrams was busy developing a bounty-hunter drama for Braun called The Catch. Moreover, he questioned the viability of the premise as an ongoing series. Yet the notion stuck to him like sand between his toes: ”I said, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ And I had one idea that got me excited — what if the island wasn’t just an island?”

Abrams agreed to meet with Crossing Jordan writer-producer Damon Lindelof, and the two came up with conceits that would liberate Lost from its inherent limitations: extensive flashbacks that ventured all over the globe, and an ongoing mystery that may or may not involve a man-hunting monster. Four days later, the duo submitted a 25-page outline. Braun loved it. As in, rush-this-thing-into-production-now! loved it.

By this time, though, pilot season was well under way, so Abrams and Lindelof began furiously writing and casting. Originally the noble doc Jack was to be quickly killed off (potential guest star: Michael Keaton), but the producers decided that the stunt was too gimmicky, and stayed Jack’s execution. Instead, Party of Five‘s Fox was tapped for this leading role. ”I knew that it was utterly original,” says the actor. ”[There] was nothing like it on television, and I felt that all the ingredients were there for something really, really big.”

Meanwhile, a pan-demographic parade of actors auditioned from the completed portions of the script. Or not. ”If an actor would come in that we loved, but there was no part in the show for them, we said, ‘F— it. Let’s write a character for that guy!”’ says Lindelof, citing Jorge Garcia, who plays the plus-size jokester Hurley. Soon, a massive cast began to take shape, including druggie musician Charlie (The Lord of the Rings‘ Dominic Monaghan); scruffy malcontent Sawyer (Sabretooth‘s Josh Holloway); former Iraqi officer Sayid (Naveen Andrews of The English Patient); creepy wise man Locke (Abrams’ staple player Terry O’Quinn, who appeared in Alias); very pregnant Aussie Claire (Emilie de Ravin); desperate housewife Sun (Yunjin Kim), whose domineering husband, Jin (24‘s Daniel Dae Kim), doesn’t know she speaks English; and dad Michael (Oz‘s Harold Perrineau), who’s seeking to bond with his young son, Walt (Malcolm David Kelley). After a protracted search for leading lady Kate, the producers happened upon a tape of Canadian import Lilly, whose face was so fresh, she hadn’t uttered a speaking line in Hollywood yet. “She was beautiful, but there was a goofy quality about her,” recalls Abrams, “so it didn’t feel like she wasn’t a human being.”

Visa issues nearly scotched this find; Lilly was cleared for work less than 24 hours before shooting her first scene. Not that she was sold right away: ”When I first read [the audition scenes], I was like, ‘What? Gilligan’s Island with 15 people? And what is the thing in the bushes?’ When I read the full script, I started to go, ‘Wait a minute — these guys can write.’ I’m not a sci-fi person. I’m not a big action-adventure person. I don’t even own a TV. But I remember thinking ‘Wow.”’

Armed with a first-class $11 million-plus budget for the two-hour pilot, the producers had no intention of flying under the radar. To pull off the fiery opening-scene crash, they bought a Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jet, chopped it into pieces, drove it to Oakland, then sent it via ship to Hawaii (total cost: $1 million-plus). ”While we were shooting the pilot, we’d look at each other and be like, ‘Best show ever!”’ chuckles Lindelof. ”We’d be launching polar bears into the sky, and there was a plane and we’ve got people running from the explosion. It was just like, ‘We’re having way too much fun doing it for anyone to ever want to watch it in a million years.’ There was a sense of fatalism.”

Lost could have gone down in flames after Braun left the company during an ABC executive shake-up in April. Typically the old regime’s pet projects go MIA, but incoming ABC prime-time entertainment president Stephen McPherson (who previously headed up Touchstone Television, the studio that produced Lost) had no intention of making the show disappear. After a company-wide screening of the pilot, ”there were people who were standing up and cheering, and other people were saying ‘I don’t know, it’s risky,”’ he remembers. ”But there were some undeniably great things about it. As tough a decision as it is to take a chance on something, [J.J. and Damon] made it about as easy as they could.”

Tell that to ABC’s marketing department, which had to figure out how to sell a complex, multi-character, moody, violent 8 p.m. drama on an ailing network. In keeping with the risk-taking theme, ABC used nontraditional promotional tactics: They planted 1,000 bottles on the beaches of several states over Labor Day, papered cities with missing posters featuring the last-seen specs of Dr. Jack and Co., and created mysterious radio spots (a crackling voice interrupting the broadcast: ”Help me…I’m lost”).

Lost premiered Sept. 22 with a gutsy two-parter that began at the site of a horrific plane wreck (whoa, that dude just got sucked into the engine!), featured a pilot being brutally killed by an off-camera creature, and ended with our veritable U.N. of survivors discovering a 16-year-old looped distress call indicating that they might not be alone. Despite having all the makings of a noble TV failure (glowing reviews, unusual premise), Lost drew 18.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched drama debut at 8 p.m. in five years (since NBC’s Providence), and proving that a killer high-concept series can be king. ”Still, to this moment…I can’t… it feels impossible,” stutters Abrams, whose previous shows have teetered on the cusp of cancellation. ”I see the top 10 list and I see Lost is there and it looks like something that a friend would mock up just to hurt me.”

Cast members aren’t sure what to make of the hubbub either — especially because they’ve been marooned far away on Hawaii’s North Shore since shooting began in July. (They’ve finished 13 of 23 episodes and will wrap in March.) ”The agents call up from L.A. and say, ‘Here’s how you did last night,”’ says O’Quinn (Locke). ”I’ll have to have the empirical evidence before I believe anything.” And on that rare visit back to the mainland? ”I did take a trip to L.A. recently with Matthew, and we were in the airport and we had a few really bizarre looks from people hoping that we weren’t going to get on their flight,” says Monaghan (Charlie). ”It’s definitely weird walking around airports now, because we are associated with bringing down a 747.”

They’re also connected to a series that raises more questions than a philosopher on speed. Are they all dead? What’s up with the black and white stones? Will Gilligan ever hook up with Mary Ann? (Oh, wait — wrong island.) The query most often posed to the Lost bunch, though, is even more perplexing: What in the name of Mr. Rourke is that people-chomping creature tromping through the trees? ”It looks like a camera on a stick,” quips O’Quinn, whose character is the only one who has seen The Thing. Even when it comes to their own backstories, the cast receives just the essential info. ”Which, by the way, could be a two-syllable word,” says Ian Somerhalder, a.k.a. Boone, brother to spoiled babe Shannon (Maggie Grace). ”I’ve been waiting for over 100 days to find out what the hell I’m about. It’s like J.J. and Damon are playing a chess game, we’re the pieces, and they’re just like, ‘That was a great move! Check.”’ Then again, certain cast members don’t take nothing for an answer. Notes Grace: ”There’s always an on-set writer and we can’t resist. So we’ll go out for drinks, wait till the wine kicks in, and go, ‘Oh, hey, so about that monster…’ But they don’t usually bite.”

Considering those tantalizing TV mysteries that ultimately disappoint (damn you, Twin Peaks!), fans need to know: Are they getting strung along here on a creative high-wire act? While Lindelof promises that Lost isn’t ”a big smoke-and-mirrors trick,” Abrams acknowledges that they’re still discovering the show for themselves. ”It’s like using a Ouija board. You’re telling this story, but you’re like, ‘Are you pushing it?’ But we have a big-picture idea of eventually where this should go,” continues the cocreator, who excuses himself twice during the interview to jot down story ideas that have popped into his head. ”I will say that if we can do a version of an ending that we’ve discussed, it would be mind-blowingly cool.” Perrineau (Michael) sums up the challenge thusly: ”Our writers have a really big mountain to climb, and if they climb the mountain, then they’re the champs. And if they don’t, then yeaaaah, we’ve all crashed — but wasn’t it an interesting ride?”

Here’s what’s lurking in the more immediate path for our fearful explorers (put on your anti-spoiler glasses before you read this paragraph): Locke makes a huge discovery. Someone will build a raft to try to escape. We’ll meet other folks on the island who weren’t on the plane, and learn two secrets about Hurley. The Bermuda Triangle continues to overlap with the Jack-Kate-Sawyer Triangle. (”I have a feeling that in the near term, it’ll be Sawyer and Kate, and in the long term, it’ll be Jack and Kate,” says Fox. ”[But] there’s not a whole lot of room for romance in the situation that these people are dealing with.”) Let’s also heed this advice from Lindelof: ”The flashbacks serve as a great conduit to learn more about these characters, but that’s not all they’re there for. The idea that these people — way before they got on this airplane — have interacted with each other either directly or through third parties is one of the cool pieces of tapestry of the show.”

Of course, our Lost boys and girls have a few ideas of their own about what should happen on Danger Island. ”I’m just hoping it’s going to go in this direction where we discover some magic nut in the jungle that’s some sort of hallucinogenic,” says Andrews (Sayid). ”I was hoping it would grow into an area where we have communes and free love.” Holloway, clearly channeling his character, Sawyer, takes it one hedonistic step further: ”I would like to throw a big party with all my alcohol, and set up a little bar and have the girls dancing on the bar on bamboo stripper poles. It would remove us from all that ehhh for a minute. Dom already has the guitar. You could have people jamming, girls in their little torn-up stuff, and it’d be like, Yeah! Perfect episode.” The one episode that they won’t dare to think about, though, involves the R-word: rescue. ”No, dude,” scoffs Perrineau. ”I want to have a job.”