If you're tuning into "Lost" for the first time tonight, some advice: Don't. You'd be better off watching a soap opera in Turkish. It will make no sense. People who have been watching the show since day one are still confused. People who know the show so well they can tell you which kidney Locke gave his father in season four are still confused.

When it's all done, you'll ask "but what about..." and then your head will start to ache, and you'll hit the Internet, where someone must know the answer. Better that you accept it as the grand sweeping wrap-up, content yourself with all the pleasure it's given, and tell yourself: It's done.

Oh, people will pick "Lost's" bones for years, but it's all guesswork after this. The show cannot possibly end with every question answered, every plot hole neatly cinched shut. But is the last "Lost" really about the answers? OF COURSE IT IS. It had better be. We've loved "Lost" because it raised two questions for every one it answered. We've hated "Lost" because it raised two questions for every one it answered, and also made us rethink the previous answered question.

Mysteries alone don't make for a rabid fan base, though. "The X-Files" piled mystery on top of mystery, and ended up boring everyone who'd cared in the first place. (Its finale made the end of the original "Prisoner" look like "Saved by the Bell.") It's the nature of "Lost's" mysteries that drew us in.

You've got your metaphysical puzzlers -- good, evil, predestination. You have literary mysteries, such as why everyone is named for a philosopher or scientist. If I saw a preview where Sawyer said "Brilliant deduction, Einstein," I'd think he was using someone's actual name. You have endless practical mysteries, such as the ability of the castaways' clothing to remain more or less intact. It only took "Lost" a few episodes to establish that everything and everyone was a mystery.

But even that's not enough to hold our attention. Here are some of the reasons we love "Lost":

From the start, it played out on parallel tracks. There was the story of the castaways, which was both a contest of personalities and a supernatural mystery, and the story of the Oceanic passengers before they got on the plane. We forget how cool those flashbacks were: Someone stopped, looked alarmed and confused -- cue the whoosh! -- and then we were back in time to events that had nothing to do with the Island. Or so it seemed. We knew more about the characters than they knew about each other. Of course, they all could have known these things about each other if they'd just sat down around the fire and swapped stories, but that wasn't the way things went on the Island. By the time you got your pig and fruit, you were exhausted.

The sheer number of inexplicable details. The numbers. The whispers. The polar bears. (Yes, yes, released from Dharma Project cages, but why did they have them in the first place?) The dad. The hatch. The ship in the jungle. The revelation of the Dharma Project. Hurley's ability to maintain his weight. Jack's tattoos. Locke's legs. What happened to the engines, for heaven's sake? Don't think the tide took them.

The characters. Deep bench. Admirable Jack, Reluctant Alpha; Devious Sawyer, Outlaw with a Good Streak; Kate Freckles, who looks fetching while being stern and sweat-drenched and caught between two male archetypes. Locke, who radiated strength and resilience. The second tier had Charlie, washed-up rocker with a heroin habit; Hugo, the huggable stoner-bear; Claire -- hey, did you know she was pregnant? -- and of course Sayid. It was a brave move to put a member of the Iraq Republican Guard on the show, to make him sympathetic without raising an atom's worth of political intent. Sun and Jin brought to TV something new: scenes conducted entirely in Korean. And that's just the main characters. There are about 40 more.

It's a testament to the writing and acting that few characters are just a collection of traits and ticks; we feel we know them, but they still surprise us. Desmond, for example: What's he up to? Why is he collecting Team Sideways? Guaranteed we'll know tonight.

The villains. First up was Ben Linus -- whose fake ID said he was from Wayzata, Minn., by the way. Simply one of the best bad guys TV has produced. Cold-blooded, controlling, dead-eyed. An inscrutable man with a mission, but what? Over the years his character deepened, and he became more sympathetic; lately he's been reduced to tromping around the forest with everyone else, defeated and empty, haunted by the wreckage of his life. You want him to be redeemed. If it happens, it won't be like Darth Vader suddenly deciding to throw the boss down a hole. It'll follow from everything we've come to know. If it doesn't happen -- well, that's Ben Linus, too.

The music. "Lost" doesn't really have a theme. The weird keening sound that accompanies the floating title isn't really a theme; no one's whistling that in the shower. The music is forgettable when it's busiest. But there's a simple two-chord theme that sums up the show like few others; it has regret, resignation, acceptance. Lonely, but never bereft. It reminds you that the quietest moments on the show are the most powerful. Unless there's dynamite involved, and then they're powerful and hilarious.

The Island itself. Lately it's gotten a will of its own: Someone dies, "The Island was finished with her." Someone is brought back, "The Island wants you to stay." Someone orders fried chicken, there's an earthquake, and "The Island wanted a side of slaw."

We will learn what the Island is, and it's probably a prison for the Smoke Monster, to keep him from escaping into the world and killing everyone by standing closer than 20 feet to a building entrance. According to the third-to-the-last episode -- perhaps the only piece of mainstream TV that had a flashback to 450 B.C. -- we know that the Island is the Source of Life and Death, which pretty much covers it all without telling you much. Just like the show itself.

It's hard to say how influential "Lost" will be. "Fringe" probably will be the only survivor of the wave of "Lost"-like shows. "Flash Forward," which had a great mystery but spoiled everything with lackluster characters and a hiatus so long it trained everyone to forget the show existed, is already gone. Talk of "V" taking up the "Lost" mantle -- well, hold still, pig, this lipstick's getting all over your snout.

Maybe we don't want another show like this one -- it's exhausting, takes half a decade to figure out, and leaves a big hole when it's gone. The biggest mystery of "Lost" may be this: how something this smart and engrossing made it on the air in the first place.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858