Once again, Wednesday night is one of the best television nights of the week, with several great shows going head to head. The latest hit is the show Lost from creator J.J. Abrams, who also created the shows Felicity and Alias, and who’s due to helm Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3. The premise of Lost: a plane crashes on an island, stranding 48 survivors. Oh, and there’s a mysterious creature running around terrorizing them. Gilligan’s Island this ain’t. Survivor the scripted show, this ain’t.

There are several things that characterize J.J. Abrams writing. He has a love op pop culture, but doesn’t mistake pop culture references for good writing (very few shows can mix pop references naturally into the rhythm of the show and still produce interesting characters and dialogue and not give into in-joke winking at the audience. An example of the former would be Gilmore Girls; the latter, the movie Shark Tale). He loves witty, romantic banter. He loves strong women. He loves thrillers with constant twists and surprises, and he’s not afraid to veer into science fiction territory, which means he writes above the expectations of the audience, never condescending to them.

No matter how intriguing the premise, if you don’t care about the characters, no one’s going to watch. Abrams focuses on just three folks, making us care about them while whetting our appetite to learn about the others. Based on his previous shows, I expect a love triangle of some sort to develop before too long. The other thing to expect is that no one is as they seem. Jack (Matthew Fox), the doctor, helps the injured and maintains order and civility. Kate (Evangeline Lilly) was a prisoner being transported on the flight. There is a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard; a junkie, British rock ‘n roll bassist (The Lord of the Rings‘ Dominic Monaghan); a black father (Harold Perrinneau, from Oz) and his young son; and a squabbling, supposedly adult, brother and sister among the cast of characters. As a testament to how well the characters are developed, there is an Asian couple who don’t speak English. Yet, despite the language barrier, we know that he is a domineering husband (who at one point orders her to button the top button of her blouse when she is talking to a man) and that she is submissive, but yearns for more (as she unbuttons that same button when he turns his back). Identity and motives all come into question as Abrams layers intrigue with the jockeying of alliances and constant deception.

The whole concept of man on an island reminds us of who we truly are. “Three days ago we all died. We should all be able to start over,” Jack says. Who they were before the crash was their old nature. This time on the island represents their chance at redemption — if they want it. When stripped of the conventions of society, without the veneer of civilization, are we the cast of Lord of the Flies waiting to happen or can we rise above our basic nature? Terry O’Quinn’s character, when talking about backgammon, explains, “there are two players: one is light and one is dark,” echoing the sentiment that there are ultimately two sides, good and evil. The mysterious creature on the island reminds me of the Bible passage “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8).

If you like popcorn thrillers with an air of wit and intelligence, this show is easily one of the best new shows of the year.