Editor's note: David Bianculli is TV critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross and the http://www.tvworthwatching.com/ Web site, and teaches TV history at Rowan University. His new book is "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.' "
(CNN) -- After eight months in hibernation, ABC's "Lost" returns to television tonight to finally explain, among other things, the dazzling white light that ended the 2009 season not with a whimper, but with a bang.
Was it a nuclear blast? A quantum-leaping time shift? A reboot to the story's preflight origins?
These are key questions as broadcast TV's most ambitiously complex drama series presents the beginning of the end -- the first of 16 final-season episodes before ending its time-rearranging, sympathy-shifting narrative. But the most important question of all, six years after "Lost" was launched in 2004, is this:
That's not a flippant question, because both TV and the audience have changed in the years since "Lost" pulled back from Jack's eyeball to reveal, slowly and masterfully, the panicked insanity of a remote island plane crash.
Little more than a decade ago, "Lost" would have been riveting "appointment television," but DVRs and DVD boxed sets have changed the rules of the game.
Instead of clearing calendars to watch in real time and line up for the water-cooler conversation the next morning, fans of such shows as "Lost" and Fox's similarly serialized "24" might just as easily record and time-shift their viewing, avoiding office chats until they watched on their own schedules. Or, even more aggressively, they might actively avoid the broadcasts of their favorite show, just for the delayed gratification of watching the entire season later on DVD -- gobbling up episodes at their own pace, and without commercials.
It's a very different TV world than in 1967, when the long-awaited ending of ABC's "The Fugitive," with David Janssen's Richard Kimble finally coming face-to-face with his wife's one-armed killer, drew enough viewers to set a TV record for entertainment programming that beat even The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" three years earlier.
Or in 1983, when the finale of CBS' "M*A*S*H," with its end to the Korean War, drew 77 percent of all TV viewers that night, and set a viewership record of 121.6 million that still stands. And, given the fragmentation of TV audiences, most likely will never be equaled.
"Lost," at its viewer zenith in season two, boasted an average of nearly 19 million viewers. By last season, that number was below 12 million. And the season finale -- the episode that, in a reverse-polarity nod to the abrupt blackout ending to HBO's "The Sopranos," concluded with an unsettling fade to white -- attracted about 10 million viewers.
In the interim, the broadcast networks attempted to copy the "Lost" formula of season-long mysteries and unanswered questions, but all the attempts ("Threshold" from CBS, "Invasion" from ABC, etc.) came up short, and vanished without concluding. "Lost," at least, is marching towards an actual ending -- and that alone makes it a TV event worth embracing.
After all, how many more opportunities like this will viewers get? On cable TV, perhaps many. But on broadcast TV, how many shows are left that are even worth caring about -- much less anticipating their conclusion?
It's likely that many viewers who gave up on "Lost" in years past will return for this final lap, hoping to witness something special. And they will. The creators and show runners of this labyrinthine drama series have known for years what the final image will be (my guess, and my hope: an extreme closeup of Jack's eye, ending the show just as it began), and are crafting this final season with an eye (so to speak) to the show's beginnings, as well as its endings.
Despite all the changes in technology and viewership, "Lost" is a series that rewards, if not demands, watching in real time. ABC didn't even provide critics with preview copies of the final-season premiere -- and even though I'm therefore deprived, I'm not complaining.
This is a show I want to watch as it airs, and discuss with friends afterward. I don't take for granted how rare that is these days -- and neither should you.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Bianculli.