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Wednesday, September 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
Intriguing new dramas full of possibilities

Detectives "Mac" Taylor (Gary Sinise, left) and Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes) track a serial killer on "CSI: NY."
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One luxury of staying in instead of going out is that you always know where the TV set is. Clubs come and go according to trendy whim. The living room remains a solid bet.

But clubs and television do have this in common: Once a destination gets too busy, the HOT night of the week changes. Must-be-seen-Thursday becomes Let's-avoid-the-crowds-Wednesday.

That's exactly what's happened on the small screen. After years as the water-cooler night of the week, Thursday is in a rut. "Joey," "Survivor," "Extreme Makeover" — even with "The O.C." recently added, the thrill is gone.

That leaves us searching for the Next Big Thing. And for this week, anyway, it's Wednesday, with the multiply intriguing "Lost," "Veronica Mars," "The Mountain" and "CSI: NY" all debuting tonight.

The effect may be as transient as a traveling circus, since some shows will migrate to other time slots. But meanwhile, this evening offers a rare concentration of hot new TV.

"Lost," 8 p.m., ABC: A plane crashes. A band of passengers begins to sort themselves out. The prognosis for rescue is, in theory, several seasons away.

Terry O'Quinn, left, and Dominic Monaghan in ABC's "Lost," about an airplane crash and the struggle of survivors to stay alive on an island inhabited by a monster. At least it's not another police procedural.
Having tried femme fatale mystery in "Alias," creator-producer J.J. Abrams now turns his fertile and genre-obsessed brain to outdoor action-adventure. The curious result might be dubbed "Survivor: Metaphor."

This time, the hero is former "Party of Five" star Matthew Fox. He plays a sober-sides doctor who takes charge in the aftermath of a disastrous flight that lands people, dead and alive, on a tropical island.

As we meet Fox's fellow travelers — a process guaranteed to take an entire season, since the cast numbers nearly 50 — we learn each is carrying a secret.

To this internal tension is added a scary external counterpart: a bloodthirsty, mythical monster lurking on the island somewhere.

Hurray for the monster. The action scenes in "Lost" are way more compelling than the formulaic characters and second-rate dialogue. Call it homage all you want, but evoking a history of fiction from Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" to "The Poseidon Adventure" doesn't make the ABC product look better.

We get the standard types, including Evangeline Lilly as the woman with a shadowy past, Dominic Monaghan as the comic relief and Naveen Andrews in the suspicious foreigner role, then wait to see who's going to live, die or turn out to be a Nazi.

Kristen Bell stars in "Veronica Mars" as a teen who helps out her private investigator dad — and is even tougher than Buffy.
It's a longish wait. Based on the first two episodes, "Lost" feels like a feature film stretched to 22 episodes.

But in a two-hour movie or even "Alias," perfectly tailored to 44-minute attention spans, we'd barely notice the weak attempts to make people interesting because the action would arrive at a faster pace.

"Lost" instead gives us too much time to contemplate illogical plotting, Fox's dramatic weak points and some artsy stabs at existentialism.

That said, "Lost" could click. The pacing is fixable. It's not another police procedural.

Moreover, disenchanted "Smallville" viewers are seeking thrills elsewhere at 8 p.m. Wednesdays. For them and for easy-to-please sci-fi fans, "Lost" offers succor, and it may not matter if the truth — or monster — is really out there.

"Veronica Mars," 9 p.m., then moves to 9 p.m. Tuesdays on UPN: If there's a stealth network this fall, it's UPN. The provider of past disasters such as "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" has turned up with the highest new-show batting average of 2004, so set aside your preconceptions.

The best of these is "Veronica Mars," which skillfully updates classic California film noir through the prism of a hard-boiled high-school girl who may be this season's most interesting character creation.

Since 90 percent of television is what the polite folks call derivative, it only pays to get annoyed at the imitations that are badly done. This one-hour drama has "Alias" in its attitude, Raymond Chandler in its writing and "The O.C." in its class-consciousness.

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is strictly low-C. She and her private investigator dad (Enrico Colantoni of "Just Shoot Me") are a pair of lone wolves driven from their Orange County paradise by a nasty spiral of murder, social ostracism and family dissolution.

The pilot is launched in the laconic voice-over tones of a Philip Marlowe, only it's Veronica dispassionately dissecting the social structure of an Orange County town where there's no middle class, just the rich and their servants.

The setup: Veronica's father once was town sheriff. This, and Veronica's dating of one of the town's richest and most popular boys, vaulted them over class divisions.

But all that fell apart when Veronica's best friend — her boyfriend's sister — was killed under gruesome circumstances. Sheriff Mars' prime suspect was the rich family's dad, and when another suspect was arrested, his career was in ruins. Mrs. Mars left home.

As Veronica, Bell delivers a compact, terse performance, which, combined with her elfin features and hazy, distanced eyes, make for a perfect blend of adolescent bravado and alienation.

In the psychological tradition of noir, "Veronica Mars" is appealing and repellent. The flashbacks recounting what's happened to Veronica since exile, including being drugged and raped, place the series closer to gritty pulp fiction than to the gauzy coming-of-age stories we like to associate with teenage make-believe.

But the darker side of American high school and social life rings resoundingly true. As with the shootings at Columbine, Veronica's rape is directed to underlying causes.

Veronica herself is cut from the cloth of empowered and vulnerable heroines. She's got the moves, but needs the support provided by her dad and a group of social misfits ranging from the head of a motorcycle gang (Francis Capra) to a bullied black student (Percy Daggs III) who becomes her best friend.

Not that she'd ever admit to this weakness, except in a voice-over. She's a tougher Buffy for the 21st century.

"The Mountain," 9 p.m., The WB: The strength of this nighttime soap lies in a schedule slot when the only real rival for young female viewers is "The Bachelor."

Unfortunately, the newcomer's weaknesses may outweigh those of ABC's waning reality series. "The Mountain" attempts to put "The O.C" concept on snow and, instead, puts it on ice.

The story concerns a prodigal son (Oliver Hudson) who returns to the snowy resort empire owned by his family for several generations. There, his ticked-off, responsible older sibling (Anson Mount) awaits him, as does a "Dallas"-like saga of business rivalry.

Unfortunately, it's very hard to get interested in the story because whenever you do, "The Mountain" abruptly cuts to what looks like a Mountain Dew-sponsored video of carefree young people snowboarding.

The dramatic potential also is frittered away because of The WB's weird insistence that family tensions always be balanced by family lovingness. Barbara Hershey, who plays the mom here, is emblematic of the waffling; she's no Joan Collins.

I think I'll wait for UPN's "Kevin Hill," debuting next week at this time.

"CSI: NY," 10 p.m., CBS: Some reviews virtually write themselves, and this will be one of them. As Detective "Mac" Taylor, Gary Sinise may be the best of the "CSI" franchise heroes. His face is mobile and pensive, reflecting a deeper register of emotion than his acting peers in Miami and Las Vegas.

As sidekick Detective Stella Bonasera, however, Melina Kanakaredes appears either out of her depth or underwritten. She is the weakest of the "CSI" heroines at first glance, lacking the Southern steel of Emily Procter or Marg Helgenberger's sexy, barbed demeanor.

Still, character is only part of the equation. And it's here one must report that the "CSI" skein may have reached the point where there aren't enough good stories to support three separate shows. Tonight's certainly is both perfunctory and far-fetched: A mad scientist has turned serial killer.

This is a little complicated for a pilot episode, especially as details fall victim to some hasty editing. A consequent incoherence attends the forensics that are a part of the show's popularity. Frankly, I couldn't really tell at times what medical and scientific information was being dished up.

It also seems the detectives of "CSI: NY" have even better luck than their predecessors at unearthing clues. This apparent ease diminishes efforts to show us the painstaking nature of investigation, lab work and paper-thumbing.

The show is uncommonly handsome. Despite being on well-worn turf, the photography of the city in tonight's episode is exhilarating and occasionally revelatory despite being shot through with blue, this fall's favorite TV tint.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of "CSI: NY" will take place in the Nielsen ratings. Pitting their show against NBC's formidable "Law & Order," CBS executives have said they don't expect to beat it. That's a safe assumption, based on the pilot.

Kay McFadden:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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