The show must go off: Lost and ABC planning exit strategy (Press Tour/Day 6)

Full house: The Lost team picture numbered 14 Sunday. Can you find Matthew ("Jack") Fox? OK then, how about Evangeline ("Kate") Lilly?

PASADENA, Calif. -- It would be the end of their world as we know it. But when?

The creators of Lost and ABC executives are wrestling with that multi-million dollar question even as the show gets set to return on Feb. 7 with an uninterrupted 16-episode run that will ring out Season 3.

"That's one of the things we're in discussions with the network about right now, is picking an end-point to the show," co-executive producer Carlton Cuse said Sunday during a packed session with TV critics. "Once we do that, a lot of the anxiety and a lot of these questions like, 'We're not getting answers,' will go away. They really represent, I think, an underlying anxiety that this is not going to end well or that we don't know what we're doing."

"None of us want to be doing a show that is the stalling show," added Cuse's creative partner, Damon Lindelof.

Knowing when to fold 'em is critical to the show's legacy. Many fans already are complaining about a sometimes snail-paced progress toward resolving all those myriad unsolved mysteries, even if Cuse says Lost at its core is a "character show with a mythology frosting over the top."

Or to use another metaphor, "the show has always been much more about the monster inside our characters than the monster outside our characters." That's from co-executive producer Jack Bender, who runs Lost's day-to-day operations in Hawaii while Cuse and Lindelof play its mad scientists in Hollywood.

Pinning any of them down on a specific timetable is akin to asking President Bush to set a withdrawal timetable for Iraq. But Cuse said it won't be a secret when an accord is reached.

"I think we would work it out with the network and then make an announcement," Cuse said.

The best-guess scenario is a five-season run, which also conveniently is the time when contracts with many of the show's major stars hit their expiration dates. Still, the show's helmsmen seem sincere in saying they don't want to stay too long at the party

The X-Files, which mixed monsters of the week with mythology revelations, "was a great show that probably ran two seasons too long," Cuse said. "That show was a bit of a cautionary tale for us."

Lost mainstays Evangeline Lilly, Matthew Fox, Josh Holloway

Meanwhile, the Feb. 7 episode, made available to critics, sets an escape mechanism in motion that will reunite Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly) and "Sawyer" Ford (Josh Holloway) with their original plane crash mates. Most of them have been largely invisible in the season's first six episodes, which focused on the trio's imprisonment at the hands of "The Others" on a separate island.

"I think it was a really riveting six episodes," ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson said with due diplomacy. "But I like it when they're all together."

What McPherson likes generally is what ends up happening on any ABC show. You're living on Fantasy Island if you think otherwise.

"You go to the grocery store and you buy seven things to eat for dinner," said Cuse. "Then you come home and you eat, like, one of them. We sort of found ourselves in that situation. We had to service the story of Jack and Kate and Sawyer in captivity. By the time we did that, we ran out of time to do a lot of other stuff."

"What the audience wants is more beach stories," Lindelof said. "More sort of Season One stories, a return to the sort of early Charlie, Claire, Sun and Jin of it all . . . That is the drum that is beating the loudest for us in terms of what the audience craves."

The producers did most of the talking Sunday, largely because a large majority of questions were aimed at them. The actors are pretty much kept in the dark anyway -- on Lost more than most.

"I still don't know who the baby's father is for my character," said Yunjin Kim, who plays Sun Kwon. "That's how little we all know."

Holloway's acerbic Sawyer endured beatings and a filthy cage for much of the first season's opening arc. He's reconciled to getting less screen time after the Feb. 7 episode plays out.

"We love coming out of the gate working hard every day," he said. "And now we know the storyline is going to switch."

Lilly's character, Kate, remains torn between Jack and Sawyer.

"Who do I want to end up with?" she asked when asked. "I think the writers have a very tricky job in dealing with the romance on the show and when to bring people together and bring them apart. And I wouldn't claim to be smart enough to figure out which is the best answer for that."

Jorge Garcia, who plays oversized Hugo "Hurley" Reyes, is happy that his time is coming again -- and soon. Still, it's also nice to sleep late.

"As actors we like to act," he said. "So we like when we get our chances to do it. But like any job, sometimes you also like a week off.