Mario Perez, ABC
Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Sun (Yunjin Kim) and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) get off the island.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — On multiple occasions in this column, yours truly has written that "Lost" took a sudden turn for the better.

That, once an end date was announced, the show quickly became much more watchable. Actually, that it stopped being unwatchable after a second season that drove viewers away by the millions.

I'm not the only one who thinks so.

"That made all the difference in the world," executive producer Carlton Cuse said. "We now basically knew exactly how much time we had left to tell our story, and we were basically able to blast towards that ending. I think that really completely changed our storytelling approach."

And made it much more pleasant at my house during and after each episode of "Lost." Because I no longer sit there and complain (to put it nicely) about how I'm wasting my time watching it.

In a way, the producers of "Lost" were given an impossible task. After the show's big first-season success, everyone wanted to keep the gravy train rolling as long as they could. And "Lost" isn't a soap opera that could keep rolling pretty much endlessly.

It was as if the show's writers were told to keep writing chapters for the middle of a novel built around a single premise, putting off the action and the ending for as long as possible.

Not exactly the makings of a best seller.

And, by the way, we've got two more 17-episode seasons to look forward to.

"We just feel fortunate that we know exactly how much more time we have," Cuse said.

THE PRODUCERS aren't taking anything for granted, however. With their second-to-last season coming up in early 2009, they know the pressure is on.

"This obviously is a tricky year for us," said Cuse, who compared the 2009 season to the second book in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

"It's like 'The Two Towers.' I mean, this is the year that links us from the past to the final season," he said.

And that final season is when the pressure will really be turned up.

"We're very excited about it, and we've known a lot of what we wanted to do there for a long time," Cuse said. "So, really, the challenge for us ... is how do we make this season engaging and exciting and really put us in a place where everyone is really excited about the final season of 'Lost."'

WHEN IT COMES TO impossible tasks on television, it's hard to imagine one any more impossible than what the "Lost" writers are facing.

They've got to come up with a series finale that:

• Merges all the timelines.

• Answers every question.

• Answers questions in a way that makes sense (within the reality the show has created).

• Satisfies viewers.

• Comes up, at the same time, with an ending that will be both exciting and surprising.

• Does all this when viewer expectations will be off the charts.

It's possible, although it doesn't seem likely. When you look back at the history of highly anticipated series finales, more often than not they've proved disappointing.

And this one will be harder to pull off than most.

"We feel the worst thing that we could ever do on the show is for the show to be boring," executive producer Damon Lindelof said (apparently forgetting about Season 2). "And we've always said, 'If we're going to be bad, we're going to be spectacularly bad.' And it's a show that takes risks."

There's huge potential for something that will go down in TV history. Whether it will go down as one of its greatest triumphs or greatest failures ... well, we'll find out in the spring of 2010.

THE "LOST" PRODUCERS rejected (rightfully) criticism that, by killing off Jin (Daniel Dae Kim), they're lessening diversity on TV by eliminating a Korean character.

"Because the show wasn't set in the states and because it featured people who were on a plane, and anybody could be on a plane, it opened the door for not just ethnically diverse casting, but people from all over the world," Lindelof said. "But at the same time, the show, in many ways has to be an equal opportunity murderer. ... We've killed a lot of white people.

"I can almost guarantee you we will be killing more white people this season. But nobody ever asks us about it."

Of course, this is "Lost," so we're never really sure who's dead. And being dead doesn't necessarily mean a character won't return to the show at some point.

"There will be more of Daniel Dae Kim in the series in some form," Cuse said.

"In human form," Lindelof quipped.

GOOD ANSWER: Cuse was asked an obvious question that he obviously is never going to answer — when are most of the characters in "Lost" going to get off that island and when are the two timelines in the narrative going to merge?

"By the end," he said.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com