Spoiler alert: Lost returns for its fourth season

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That seems to be the motto for the characters of ABC’s mystery/drama Lost, whose lives are as traumatic on the island as when they were off it — and as they will be once a select few make it back to the mainland.

Future tense is acceptable in season four, which premiered last Thursday, as the creators of Lost have added flashforwards to the show’s repertoire of character-defining flashbacks and on-island drama. For Lost, the flashforward technique debuted in the season three finale, a Jack-centric episode suggesting a grim future for those castaways unfortunate enough to return to civilization.

The episode, called “Through the Looking Glass,” followed spinal surgeon Jack, sporting a new beard and alcohol dependency to boot, as he arrived as the sole attendee to an unnamed islander’s funeral. As the credits rolled and Lost fans prepared for eight months of webisodes and DVDs, the question remained: Who’s in the coffin?

Season four’s opener, darkly titled “The Beginning of the End,” shed little light on the identity of the deceased. Viewers learned the phrase “Oceanic Six,” referring to the apparently six Losties able to make it off the island. The “Six” are something like B-list celebrities (perhaps on par with the “Numa Numa” kid), and include, so far as anyone knows, Jack, Kate, Hurley, the person in the coffin, and two unknowns.

Speaking of Hurley, the episode revolved around him — a surprise for fans, who were used to Jack-centric premieres, as was the case in seasons one, two, and three. Though unexpected, a Hurley-centric episode seems to be just what the show needed, as many viewers complained that season three dwelled on the comparatively svelte castaways Jack, Kate, and Sawyer.

“I was actually glad to see it was Hurley in the center,” said Ricardo Vilaro, a senior business major, longtime fan of Lost, and admittedly not a fan of Jack and Kate. “I thought [the third season] started off really slow,” he added, referring to the season’s first half, which revolved tirelessly around Jack, Kate, and Sawyer — before Lost got its act together and returned to the ensemble.

Hurley — the plus-sized islander who taught us that even a diet of fear, hopelessness, and papaya fruit can’t always trim your waistline — has always been a significant member of the show’s cast, cheering up his fellow Losties with diversions like an on-island golf course. As a Feb. 1 article in New York Magazine pointed out, Hurley’s jolly disposition and clean slate (he’s one of the few castaways that is neither a convict, addict, or divorcé) might have been a strategic choice by the show’s creators to balance out the premiere’s gloomy overtones. With a name like “The Beginning of the End,” you need all the help you can get.

Among the more gloomy moments of the premiere was the castaways’ split into two groups, led by “man of science” Jack and “man of faith” John. The source of the split is a soon-to-arrive rescue boat, which should either help the Losties off the island or, as longtime islander Ben warns, kill them all. John, perhaps still floored that the island de-paralyzed his spine, heads up the faction of boat-wary characters, while Jack — who wants to get the hell away from Kate, Sawyer, and the insipient love triangle — convinces the remaining Losties to wait with him for rescue.

A couple things are interesting here. First, Hurley is among the John-following castaways, while Kate sticks with Jack, suggesting that — somehow — members of the “Oceanic Six” could come from either side of the rift. Sawyer stays with John as well, while three-year islander Juliet tags along with Jack, which means the Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle may soon become a Jack-Kate-Juliet.

Moreover, as New York Magazine observed, all of the characters on Team John are a little crazy (Hurley’s been in a mental institution, for one thing), and most of them are single (Alex and Karl are dating, but hey, they’re teenagers). The Internet has already erupted with fan-based speculations on what this arrangement might lead to; for example: Frenchwoman Rousseau could wind up canoodling with Ben, who kidnapped her child 17 years earlier.

In addition to the major plot turns, the Lost premiere included some small (and yet still fascinating) twists as well. Case in point: The letters “H” and “O” were featured prominently throughout Hurley’s flash-forward, as documented on the Lostpedia fansite, at www.lostpedia.com. First, Hurley freaks out at a local convenience store when he sees Charlie’s ghost appear before a rack of Ho Hos. Then, the mysterious newcomer Matthew Abbadon interrogates Hurley about the island, while the letters “H” and “O” are on the wall behind them. Last, Jack and Hurley play the basketball game “Horse,” stopping when Jack has the letters “H” and “O.” And if that isn’t eerie, “H” and “O” are respectively the eighth and 15th letters of the alphabet (the numbers eight and 15, among others, are important in the show).

What does it all mean? We don’t know yet, and we may never fully understand, but that mystery is exactly what pulls so many fans to Lost.

The Lost premiere posed many questions while answering none, which means fans — whether they like it or not — are going to have to wait a lot longer than 85 minutes to satisfy their curiosity.

“I don’t really think too far ahead,” Vilaro said. “I just want to know who’s in the coffin.”