NEW YORK -- As a "Lost" fan, I'm well-versed in its many clashing versions of reality.

Now the end of "Lost" is near, with its two-and-a-half-hour finale airing May 23 at 9 p.m. on ABC (WCIV-TV) following a two-hour retrospective. But even with that hefty end in sight, I have no difficulty picturing an alternate universe where "Lost" not only isn't ending, but instead never existed in the first place.

Of course, a TV universe that had never known "Lost" would be incalculably duller.

It would be a universe where viewers had never been transported, dazzled, heart-tugged, challenged, teased and exasperated at anywhere approaching the level "Lost" has staked out. This would be a TV universe untouched by the sprawling ambition of the "Lost" creative team and the generous pocketbook and patience of ABC, which (bucking every taboo of broadcast TV) has let the series roam wherever its outrageous, epic vision carried it.

Nearly six years after "Lost" arrived on the scene, I'm not counting on another series its equal in scope, majesty and longevity. I'm not holding my breath for another show so unapologetic in how it zigs when the viewer is expecting it to zag, then zigs and zags a few more ways -- maybe simultaneously.

Consider: Several of the castaways marooned on that island in

the middle of nowhere eventually gained rescue and returned to the "normal" world they came from. Then they scooted right back to the island again! The island isn't done with them, they're always saying. Or they aren't done with the island. Except for the ones who want to leave it again. But none of them can leave it alone.

That goes double for "Lost" viewers.

In an alternate universe where no one ever heard of "Lost," what would people do with all that time they didn't spend immersed in "Lost" lore and theories? What would they have found to investigate and argue about otherwise? Sports, politics, religion -- how elementary without "Lost" factored in!

Lately, everybody's psyched by the emergence of 3-D television. But "Lost," from its start in fall 2004, was destined to leapfrog from TV's traditional flat surface into multiple dimensions of time and space. Flashbacks! Flash-forwards! Parallel narratives! Sideways, too! "Lost" has always surpassed 3-D, and without those funny glasses.

The pilot episode put us on notice. Its opening scene showed a bloodied young man (Matthew Fox) regaining consciousness in a bamboo grove, then stumbling to the nearby beach to find a ghastly spectacle: pieces of an aircraft strewn across the sand with his fellow passengers injured or dying. This was Oceanic Airlines flight 815 from Sydney, which crashed for no clear reason en route to Los Angeles.

From that haunting two-hour premiere (which ABC will re-air May 22 at 8 p.m.), "Lost" has never loosened its grip.

It has continued to be gorgeous cinematically, from its lush Hawaii locations to its meticulous-in-every-detail art direction. The musical score is evocative and stirring.

Dozens of the characters will stick with fans for good, along with the actors who played them. The aforementioned Fox, plus Evangeline Lily, Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson spring instantly to mind, just for starters. Other actors not nearly so accomplished -- like dimpled hunk Josh Holloway, whose skill set is limited to cockiness and snarling -- are also lodged forever in my mind.

Speaking of unforgettable, I marvel at the nearly countless cultural references the show has drilled into my brain. The eerie numbered sequence (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42). Smokey. The Others. The Dharma Initiative. The hatch. "Dude!" Polar bears. Fish biscuits. The frozen donkey wheel. And on and on.

Meanwhile, I bow to the show's ever-thickening deposits of mythology. Its hairpin, sometimes preposterous plot twists. Information fiendishly withheld or kept in crazy-making flux. The circular, oblique dialogue. Putting it simply, nothing has ever been simple on "Lost."

"Lost" is a trippy serial whose barrier to entry grew increasingly steep, if not insurmountable, once it got rolling. Regular attendance was required to keep up, with many viewers making tracks to blogs, online communities and Google after every episode to dig deeper into what they had witnessed. Or just get a clue.

Dealing with good vs. evil, light vs. dark, faith vs. reason (and whatever else the powers-that-be thought up), "Lost" has bred an unprecedented brand of TV wonkishness.

In February, a PaleyFest2010 event in Los Angeles gathered executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, along with cast members, directors and writers. The panel discussion was dense, with granular allusions and overarching speculation, thanks especially to the audience's esoteric questions.

Despite my status as a viewer who has seen nearly every "Lost" episode, I was often scratching my head through the session.

Watching "Lost," I'm often scratching my head.

But what about this season, which presumably is pushing toward a satisfying finish?

Toward that end, far-flung scenes have placed the characters in alternate situations illustrating what might have happened had the plane not crashed. And, yes, along with these what-ifs, viewers have been treated to pieces of the puzzle. Still, it wouldn't be hard to argue that this every-which-way storytelling scheme has made the saga more scattered by the hour.

Like the lady said on this week's episode, "Every question I answer will simply lead to another question." I confess: Lately my hopes for full "Lost" enlightenment have ruptured and sunk like Widmore's submarine last week.

But so what? What if "Lost" goes out the way it came -- trailing unresolved questions and refusing to make sense? What does "making sense" mean, anyway, in the world that "Lost" occupies?

With the end of "Lost," will the island finally be done with all those characters? And with the audience? I'm bracing for the verdict to be "no, not exactly." But I'll live with it. "Lost" has taken TV to a new and magic realm. That matters most. However things turn out, I'll always be glad to have lived in the world "Lost" found.