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Oh happy daze: Lost returns Wednesday

All 13 of the above figure prominently in Season 5's bag of tricks.

Add "Shotgun Willie" to Lost's already abundantly intricate obstacle course.

Let the record show that Willie Nelson's heretofore less than hallowed 1973 ditty is spinning on a turntable during the opening minutes of Wednesday's two-hour return engagement on ABC. (8 to 10 p.m. central).

Putting needle to vinyl is -- sorry, that would be a step too far. But here's what he/she hears before the LP starts skipping: "Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear. Bitin' on a bullet, pullin' out all of his hair. Shotgun Willie's got all of his family there. Well, you can't make a record . . ."

Well, you can't make this stuff up either. But of course you can go quietly insane trying to deduce what the deuce it all means. They'd just better not reprise Roger Miller's "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" in any way, shape or form. Imagine what might be read into that.

The first three hours of Lost's 17-episode Season 5 again prove to be both maddeningly involving and prone to dawdling. But the show's creators remain in no particular rush. They'll still have 31 episodes to go after this week's double dip and next Wednesday's single hour.

Through it all, there's always the temptation to declare, "I'm out." Millions already have made that choice, judging from Lost's season-by-season viewer attrition. But at last count, roughly 11.5 million hopelessly devoted fans are still trying to navigate the show's weekly hurdles in hopes that its planned May 2010 finish line will merit all this exertion. The brain's already starting to burst at the seams, but better that than throwing the old IQ for another loss with another non-taxing time-waster.

Lost signed off last season with a closing shot of John Locke/Jeremy Bentham (Terry O'Quinn) in a casket while a very frayed Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) tried to digest what duplicitous Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) had just decreed.

A return trip to the island is the only way to save those left behind, Jack was told. But all members of the so-called "Oceanic 6" must make the redemptive journey, along with the newly deceased Locke/Bentham. Otherwise it's no go, and all for naught.

Daniel Faraday's a key ingredient; "Shotgun Willie's" an appetizer.

Lost doesn't stay too long in any one place during Season 5's opening three hours. The first segment, subtitled "Because You Left," puts last season's mysterious, blinding white light into perspective, particularly for Locke during flashbacks to his continued island wanderings. For him the central question has become, "When am I?"

Physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) also takes on added import. His past activities were of major import. And his message to one of the island escapees sends that tortured soul on a search that obviously will prove to be only the beginning of new travails.

Some of Lost's early season revelations count for more than just another little drop in its bucket. At other times, though, the series loses its grip a bit. Hour 2's continuing mainland misadventures of Hugo "Hurley" Reyes (Jorge Garcia) strain credulity, even for Lost. They include his brief meeting -- imaginary or otherwise -- with a character left for dead in a previous season.

Ageless island denizen Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) is back, too, emerging in a big way to further muddle things as Locke's time-traveling guidance counselor.

"Richard's always been here," the still perplexing Juliet Burke (Elizabeth Mitchell) tells Locke in next week's Episode 3.

"How old is Richard?" Locke wonders.

"Old," says Juliet.

Although he's still arguably Lost's central character and leading man, Jack Shephard is borderline inconsequential as the show re-baits its hook. He'll no doubt be back in play in bigger ways as this season unfolds. In the first three hours, though even the ever-caustic Miles Straume (Ken Leung) has a bit more to say and do. His swashbuckling tongue is almost a match for that of James "Sawyer" Ford (Josh Holloway), who reliably keeps the nicknames and insults coming.

Amid all the uncertainty, it seems certain that Lost eventually will put the "Oceanic 6" and Locke back on the island they left behind three years ago. After all, time is of the essence, as you'll hear at the end of Wednesday's Episode 2.

But on Lost's new season, time also is the essence. Never more so than now. Or then. Or who knows when.

GRADE: A-minus

Here's ABC's scene-setter: