A Paranoid Prime Time Looks Over Its Shoulder
All kinds of crimes darken the fall season, but homicide is the least of them. That may be because killings on police shows have come to seem so straightforward, the obvious start to a whodunit that ends with the ritual unmasking of the culprit. The new dramas are less about discovering who did it than figuring out what the hell happened in the first place.
Plots turn elliptically around kidnappings, hostage takings, art theft, fugitives, and even genetic mutations and nuclear holocaust. The occasional dead body is just a sideshow in these sinister intrigues, a cost of doing black business in a world that gets ever more complicated and conspiratorial.
This fall the procedural has been replaced by the paranoidural.
It’s tempting to ascribe the sudden surfeit of ominous suspense to the uncertainty of the times, but mostly it is because of “Lost.” That spooky ABC series about plane-wreck survivors emboldened network executives to take on large casts, layered stories and delayed denouements. Its success spawned a generation of cinematic dramas that begin in the middle of the narrative and zigzag — often with jerky time-lapse photography — from the beginning to the middle and back to an episode-clinching cliffhanger.
“Heroes,” an NBC series about a group of strangers who all develop different but seemingly paranormal abilities, taps into a “Lost”-like taste for the supernatural. Others, like ABC’s “Nine” and “Six Degrees,” toy with the chemical reactions of strangers suddenly tossed together.
Bad things always happen to rich people on television, but now money is not the only motive for their torment. On NBC’s “Kidnapped,” the son of a Wall Street mogul is held for ransom by criminals who seem to have connections or an agenda set by someone on high. On “Vanished,” a Fox kidnapping series, the wife of a Kennedyesque senator is snatched, but as soon as she disappears, clues surface that suggest she is not who she claims to be.
Both series revolve around an ornery, maverick investigator. On “Kidnapped” Jeremy Sisto plays a brusque former F.B.I. agent who warns clients not to call in the feds. On “Vanished” the brusque current F.B.I. agent warns clients not to take matters into their own hands.
“Jericho,” on CBS, is the clearest example of prime time’s tense mood. After a nuclear confrontation with an unnamed enemy, Jericho, Kan., appears to be the one town in America left intact. Global warfare is not the only mystery. Just what was the hero, Jake (Skeet Ulrich), doing in the five years before he returned home? He tells some neighbors he was in the Army, or the Navy. Others are led to believe he was playing minor league baseball.
“Smith,” a CBS drama about a gang of art thieves, is less apocalyptic but equally enigmatic. Ray Liotta plays a suburban family man with children, a loving wife (Virginia Madsen) and a secret second life: he heads a gang of gifted, ruthless criminals — attractive but much meaner and deadlier than the cuddly con men of “Hustle” on AMC — who get their assignments from a glamorous Middle Eastern woman.
“It will all be over in five minutes,” is what one of two bank robbers tells employees and customers at gunpoint on “The Nine.” The next thing on screen are the words “52 hours later.” There are grainy, time-lapse shots of a rescue, but what happened for those two days and four hours is not revealed. Instead, hints leak out in flashbacks and snatches of conversation.
Tim Daly (“Wings”) plays a troubled cop who happens to be in the bank but fails to stop the robbers. His first act after rescue is to find the hostage negotiator and punch him in the face. A handsome young surgeon who was held along with his fiancée apparently did or said something unforgivable under pressure. “It was a moment, Lizzie, a moment,” he pleads with her after they are set free. “Does it have to mean everything?”
Even shows aimed at teenagers are cryptic. “Runaway,” on the CW is not your daughter’s “Everwood.” A lawyer is on the lam after being falsely accused of murder and takes his wife and three children with him. As the F.B.I. closes in, they rent a house and the teenagers start high school under false names. But law enforcement is not their only problem. The real killer, or killers, are also on their tail, for reasons that are only hinted at in the grainy, black-and-white flashbacks to the days before and after the murder.
Every season prime-time dramas narrow the gap between television and movies, and this time the two nearly converge. “Kidnapped” owes a noticeable debt to “Man on Fire,” a 2004 thriller that starred Denzel Washington, while both “The Nine” and “Smith” look a lot like “Inside Man,” a 2006 thriller that starred Denzel Washington.
The cinematography behind the new shows is stylish and different from conventional network drama, but the series also all sound and look sleekly alike: even the most anodyne location shots are pumped up with music and spooky sound effects: the swooshing roar of a jet or a heartbeat amplified to the level of jungle drums. Indoor and outdoor scenes are shot in washed-out film that gives every scene the look of a 40’s film noir. Even a Kansas farmstead on “Jericho” looks like something out of a Wim Wenders movie.
These thrillers are not the first time the networks have tried to create their own version of “Lost.” Last year the fall schedule was crammed with science fiction. “Surface” on NBC featured a sea monster, while “Threshold” on CBS and “Invasion” on ABC went for aliens from outer space.
Those flopped, but some networks caught the new wave early. USA got lucky with “The 4400,” about people abducted by aliens who return to earth with strange powers but no memory of what happened. Fox, which had a proven success with “24,” last year introduced “Prison Break,” and that series, which began its second season last month, also serves as a model for this year’s crop: a thriller told in soap opera installments.
It took an entire season for its hero, Michael Scofield, to escape after getting himself sent up the river with the blueprint of the prison tattooed on his chest to break out his brother, Lincoln Burrows, from death row. That complicated plan intersected with a larger conspiracy on the outside: the person who framed Lincoln for the murder of the vice president’s brother was the vice president, and by season’s end, she became the commander in chief.
The new season began with Michael, Lincoln and their merry band of convicts out of prison and on the run. Only now they are being hunted down by an ace F.B.I. investigator, who is played by William Fichtner, the villain on the canceled ABC show “Invasion.”
Many of the stars of the new shows look familiar, and a large number of them were recruited from Fox’s “24,” which is still going strong on the eve of its sixth season. At least four alumni show up in the new season: Leslie Hope, who played Jack Bauer’s wife in the first season of “24,” is the mother on “Runaway.” Kim Raver, who played Bauer’s girlfriend in Seasons 4 and 5 is now Kathryn, an assistant district attorney who is held hostage with the others in “The Nine.” John Allen Nelson, who played Walt Cummings, President Logan’s shifty chief of staff in Season 5, is Senator Jeffrey Collins in “Vanished,” while Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Iranian actress who played a snaky Muslim conspirator on the fourth season returns as the mysterious crime boss on “Smith.”
Gerald McRaney, the former star of “Major Dad,” is double-dipping: he is George Hearst on HBO’s “Deadwood” and also Mayor Green on “Jericho.”
Hollywood has no shortage of unemployed film and television actors, so the networks’ insistence on hiring actors who made their name on other hit series seems almost superstitious. Like primitive tribesman who carry totems of rival warriors, network executives must hope that those stars will bring some of their previous successes to the new genre of drama. Autor: Alessandra Stanley