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The Ensemble Age 

Shows of actor armies are taking over prime time

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
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It’s like some weird new TV-physics law: As prime-time network viewership declines, the casts on TV shows seem to get bigger. There are so many new series boasting armies of actors that you can already imagine the character confusion awaiting. Which one has the cubicle worker who believes he can turn back time? Six Degrees? No, Heroes does that. So Six Degrees has the cubicle worker obsessed with the stranger he met in a hostage situation, right? No, wait, the hostages are on The Nine. Or is that the one with nine people who survive a nuclear attack? And which one is Jericho? Tim Daly’s on one of these shows, right? But not the one with Skeet Ulrich. What’s my name again?

You could say we have Lost to thank for the influx this season of a particular kind of ensemble drama, in which assorted characters are thrown together for reasons cosmic or human, their mettle tested, their mortality made real, their heartbreaks and ecstasies heightened, their ability to work together challenged. But there are other equally suggestive factors that have led to this deluge: the one-big-story addictiveness of 24, plus the goopy LOVE/FEEL/CHOOSE ethos — to borrow its billboard-campaign terminology `— of Grey’s Anatomy. I think another important factor is the still-nervy, squishy emotional remnants of the 9/11 tragedy, which served to bring a wide spectrum of people together and, in the wake of political decisions made afterward, just as quickly polarized those same citizens.

Sometimes the connection to our fractious post-9/11 world is obvious, as in CBS’s Jericho, which chronicles a Midwestern town’s efforts to band together and avoid civic breakdown after a mushroom cloud forms on the horizon where Denver is supposed to be. What’s intriguing about the series is the absence of a visible enemy — with a citywide communication breakdown, hardly anything is known about the status of the rest of America — and the focus on keeping citizens from becoming their own worst enemies. The de facto lead is Skeet Ulrich (ah, there he is) as prodigal son Jake, who comes rolling back into town the day of the blast to handle some unfinished business with his mayor dad (Gerald McRaney). But this is ultimately a mayhem-and-survival hour about disaster readiness, a potentially more hard-hitting and immediate show for our times than more rock-’em-sock-’em hunting-terrorist shows the networks have tried on us like Threat Matrix and E-Ring. There are dramatic flourishes attractive to both progressives — McRaney calling out his election rival for politicizing the calamity in an impromptu speech, for example — and fear mongers, who should like the scene in next week’s episode where Jake’s deputized brother provides such a forceful description of radiation death that he not only scares a bar full of unfazed pool players into finding shelter, he wins a sexy lip lock from a redhead. Truly a primer for pickup lingo in the Cheney era: Your undisclosed location or mine?

On NBC’s new show Heroes, there’s a surfeit of human capability without corresponding catastrophe. Heroes sounds like it’d be about firefighters, but in this case we see the kinds of heroes who don’t seem to need protective outerwear when they enter a massive blaze, nor aloe vera afterward. The setup is a group of disparate individuals from around the globe — okay, only one, a nerdy Japanese office worker (Masi Oka) is from outside the U.S. — who start to discover they may be nascent world saviors. A blonde high school cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) in Texas, for example, learns she can repeatedly fall from tall heights without killing herself and instantly regenerate a hand mangled by the garbage disposal. Others show flying ability, temporal manipulation and a gift for seeing the future. Meanwhile, creator/writer Tim Kring displays an unfortunate inability to strike the right balance between grand comic book notions and thorny human drama. (The 4400 is a stellar example, for instance, of socially minded sci-fi that loses none of its fantastic wonder even when diving into messy human details.) The heroes’ lives will ultimately intertwine, since there’s an Indian genetics professor (Sendhil Ramamurthy) working on a hunch from his missing father that Men of Steel and Wonder Women walk among us, and perhaps the title will eventually add the “Super” in front of it. But judging from the pilot, the show is too diffuse, hokey and self-consciously portentous to suggest suspenseful possibility.

Much more gripping in its exploration of the binding power of radical change within a set of strangers is ABC’s The Nine, which uses the as-yet-unexplained details of a 52-hour bank-robbery hostage situation in Los Angeles as a kind of life-altering catalyst. The show aims to draw tension out of the unexpected ways a traumatic incident creates hiccups and detours in a seemingly straight-ahead existence, with slowly dribbled-in flashbacks to the momentous two days of captivity providing clues to the new behavior of the main characters. You’ll be primed for the gimmick, too, if you already follow the show before it — the secrets-within-secrets memory playground of Lost. But The Nine doesn’t quite feel like a Lost knockoff since its missing-piece, jigsaw-puzzle construct has a basis in reality: the unknowable feelings of those who have weathered personal crisis. As long as we don’t find out that someone’s unusable appendages are suddenly working, this should be an engaging drama/mystery. It also has a solid cast, including Chi McBride, Tim Daly (finally) and Kim Raver, who, after appearing in the no-time-to-reflect peril parade known as 24, should be more than ready to dig into a character’s post-traumatic stress.

There’s an even more impressive cast on the same network’s New York–set Six Degrees, including indie film stalwarts Hope Davis and Campbell Scott, Erika Christensen (Traffic) and the appealing Jay Hernandez, who is unfortunately saddled with some truly dopey opening narration about how the person sitting next to you on the subway might be your soulmate. (New singles-getaway idea: Club Metro!) Once you get past this romance-novel nonsense, you’ll find that executive producer J.J. Abrams (Lost) and creators Stuart Zicherman and Raven Metzner have crafted a pleasantly diverting bumper-car drama of chance encounters, new friendships and random triggers that keep six yearning Manhattanites somehow connected to each other, and hopefully not to Kevin Bacon. A show like this thrives and perishes on you buying the believable forward momentum of its domino-like coincidences, and so far I do, although (a) I just knew no one would be able to resist that blasted closing-montage/droning-pop-tune/dumb-voice-over coda shit, and (b) I could have done without Scott’s artistically blocked, principled photographer finding inspiration again by happening upon Iraq-war widow Davis weeping on a stoop. A sap move.

But until that point, it was refreshing to see these intelligent actors bring their gift for flinty reserve, offhand wit and barely concealed melancholy to what could have been an unbearably coy urban fairy story of mystical oneness. I also love that Abrams is shrewd enough of a prime-time showman to include one Lost-like enigma in case he needs to snap viewers to attention: a mysterious box that Christensen’s shady, vagabond hedonist guards with her life. (Lost secrets in there maybe, ABC? I smell a crossover episode!) In fact, I’m in such a connect-the-dots mood now, I’ll even point out that the pre-TV Abrams popped up in a hilarious bit role in the 1993 film version of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, playing a college student who reams out his father on the phone for allowing a con artist into their home, for being awful and for, well, everything.

“Why you had to bring me into the world!” he screams. Something tells me we won’t be hearing dialogue like that on a show aiming for the swoon-ready Grey’s Anatomy audience. And Grey’s Anatomy is the hospital one, right?

Jericho | CBS | Wednesdays, 8 p.m.

Heroes | NBC | Mondays, 9 p.m. Premiere episode Sept. 25.

The Nine | ABC | Wednesdays, 10 p.m. Premiere episode Oct. 4.

Six Degrees | ABC | Thursdays, 10 p.m.

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