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NO MYSTERY ABOUT THIS HIT: ABC's 'Lost' lures millions to a remote Pacific beach
Duck, incoming pertinent cliché! "Lost" has already been found.
One of the fall season's most pleasant surprises, the stylish ABC adventure drama about the survivors of an airline crash has established itself as an early breakout hit over the past 3 weeks. It has been averaging more than 17 million viewers and dominating the 8 p.m. Wednesday time slot for the formerly forlorn Alphabet Network.

And Terry O'Quinn, the veteran character actor who plays inscrutable Locke, the bald, laconic castaway prominently featured in tonight's episode, had a feeling that "Lost" might be blessed with prime-time success.

"I didn't know how people would respond to it. But I knew it was different. I knew it was special," says O'Quinn of "Lost," which was cocreated by ace producer and master storyteller J.J. Abrams, who dreamed up "Alias" and "Felicity."

With prime time overrun by a glut of look-alike crime procedurals and bottom-feeding reality shows, "Lost" instantly offered a refreshing entertainment alternative for viewers fed up with the same old eye candy.

"I think the country was primed for some quality escapism," observes O'Quinn. "There's a bit of 'Indiana Jones' and 'Jurassic Park' adventure to this. It could be a little mystical. And maybe there's even a little 'X-Files' in there."

"Lost" and ABC's other early hit show dazzler, the tasty, twisted soap opera "Desperate Housewives," have given the network a big boost back toward respectability.

When you add a ratings surge for second-season reality hit "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and strong starts for two other new shows, "Boston Legal" and "Wife Swap," ABC is the only one of the major networks to enjoy an overall increase in viewership this fall. Fourth a year ago, ABC has quickly closed the gap on CBS and NBC and jumped into the No. 2 position in the crucial 18-49-year-old audience advertisers love.

"Lost," which is filmed in Hawaii, has become one of those shows that create water-cooler buzz and excitement among viewers. The series weaves the exotic, suspenseful tale of an eclectic group of people who boarded a plane in Sydney, Australia, and then "flew off to oblivion," says O'Quinn. Oblivion being the strange, perhaps uncharted Pacific island where their plane crashed. And where the sun-splashed tropical splendor includes spooky beasts and otherworldly occurrences.

The castaways are led by Jack (Matthew Fox, "Party of Five"), a rugged, compassionate doctor. Last week's episode focused on Kate (Evangeline Lilly), the group's designated tough cookie and fabulous babe, who we learned is a fugitive from justice. But we haven't yet discovered what her crime might have been.

During tonight's episode and over the next several weeks, Abrams and series co-creator Damon Lindelof ("Crossing Jordan") will be peeling the "Lost" storytelling onion to reveal additional layers of information about various characters.

"Someone would have to be a really good writer to give viewers a good piece of the puzzle every week without giving away too much," says O'Quinn. "And J.J. and Damon are really good writers."

O'Quinn, a Michigan native who grew up in Newberry and then studied acting at Central Michigan University, knows good writing and storytelling. He previously worked with Abrams on "Alias," Aaron Sorkin on "The West Wing" and Chris Carter on "The X-Files," "Millennium" and the short-lived "Harsh Realm." On those shows, he usually played a top-level government agent, a military leader or some other kind of Type A, tightly wrapped authority figure.

With the offbeat Locke, who has a Zen aura about him and a passion for backgammon, O'Quinn has enjoyed a little more breathing room in creating a character.

"It's wonderful to be playing a wild card," says O'Quinn. "It gives you a chance to stretch a little bit and take more chances."

"Lost" is the sort of show -- like "Alias" and especially "The X-Files" -- in which fans can become rather intensely involved in the series and its characters, gabbing online at various fan Web sites.

"There will be a lot of Trekkies," jokes O'Quinn. "I'm already being called Mr. Orange Peel."

That's a reference to the amusingly odd moment when Locke made a smiling face with an orange peel in his mouth on the series premiere. And this week, O'Quinn promises "a wonderful twist" when we discover a bit more about Mr. Orange Peel.

We'll find out in flashback what led Locke to board that plane in Sydney. Meanwhile, on the island, Locke leads Kate and Michael (Harold Perrineau) on a hunt for food. Last week, Michael's young son, Walt (Malcolm David Kelly), said Locke told him a miracle had occurred.

"What that miracle was is going to be revealed in this episode," says O'Quinn teasingly, chatting by phone from Hawaii early one morning last week.

"My sense of Locke is that he's fatalistic," adds O'Quinn. "He feels that he has a destiny, that there's a mission that we're sent here to fulfill. And his mission is being revealed. That may make him powerful; it may make him dangerous; it may make him wonderful."

So far, it looks as if "Lost" is also on a mission for ABC. Destiny?

To help the Alphabet Network once again feel a little bit dangerous, powerful and wonderful.

© Mike Duffy for Detroit Free Press 07/2004, freep.com