A good friend remarked years ago that, based on the near-daily occurrence of high-speed pursuits on local news, he imagined police car chases would become the new jury duty, requiring more and more of us to participate. The call would come, we’d have to jump behind the wheel, and the cops and copters would follow. It was something of a cosmic shock, then, to watch Fox’s new one-hour action series Drive and see the popcorn-drama manifestation of that offhand joke, as a group of disparate characters from around the country receive a mysterious anonymous phone call telling them to be in their vehicles pronto and head for Florida if they want to join a cross-country, illicit and dangerous road race that could change their lives. For the better, many participants assume. But as one person is ominously told by a race liaison after things get going, “Try not to be last. It’s bad to be last.”

Creators Ben Queen and Tim Minear obviously can point to other sources of inspiration in developing their genre smash-up: There’s Lost (random characters thrown together and a mysterious presence), Death Race 2000 (menacing violence), The Most Dangerous Game (players as pawns) and of course the task-oriented reality juggernaut The Amazing Race. But in the first hour of its two-hour premiere episode — the only portion that was available for review — Drive quickly asserts itself as an enjoyably diverting peel-out — brainless but not stupid, a well-stirred conspiracy/action mixture in keeping with Fox’s no-seat-belts hits 24 and Prison Break. The velocity ethos isn’t relegated to the impressively shot freeway chases either: There are swerving, careening Steadicam shots of walking and talking actors that feel like speed-limit violations themselves. Which is why at its best Drive is almost elemental in its storytelling pull — who doesn’t love a high-paced treasure hunt? But at the same time, it’s encased in the kind of fashionably open-ended enigma that networks need to allow for multiple seasons. How many contestants are there? It’s unclear, so fresh faces can join in as needed. How many legs are there? If it’s a hit, I’m thinking 22 a season. Where’s the finish line? Cancellation day. Who runs the Dharma Initiative? Wait, wrong show.

Although we’re introduced to a lot of entrants, it’s easy to pick the central character: Look for the one with the most to lose. Here that would be truck-driving husband Alex Tully (Nathan Fillion), whose wife is missing and who believes those behind the Race are keeping her as the big prize. He eventually hooks up with a fellow racer of the hot blonde persuasion named Corinna (Kristin Lehman), who has already incurred the wrath of the Big Brother–ish organizers by stealing valuable information that may give them an edge. High on the sympathy scale, too, is new mother Wendy (Melanie Lynskey), grateful for the excuse to skedaddle from an abusive husband, ex-con Winston (Kevin Alejandro), shunned by his wealthy-politician dad and eager to connect with a half-brother (J.D. Pardo) he’s just met.

Comic relief seems to account for the nerdy-scientist father (Dylan Baker), who enters the race as a way to impress his too-cool 15-year-old daughter (Emma Stone). Then there’s a trio of cute young female Hurricane Katrina survivors, and an Iraq-war vet (with girlfriend in tow) who’s not above playing the help-a-soldier card in putting a CB call out to patriotic 18-wheeler drivers to box in the competition.

In other words, there may be solo racers in the grand scenario, but Drive isn’t an exercise in high-octane existentialism like Steven Spielberg’s mano a mano (or auto a semi) hunting flick Duel. Drive may have a visual concept, but like most TV it likes the buddy system of dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.

“You can’t do this race alone, Tully,” Corinna tells our brooding, suspicious hero, in trying to convince him to match forces. “No one can.”

And how would she know? File that away, theorists!

Of course, she also mentions to him during one do-or-die moment, “It’s a marathon, Tully, not a sprint.”

And yet, who doesn’t think Drive — as entertaining as it promises to be — needs an out-of-the-gate ratings sprint to ensure its own chances of a marathon run?

Sci Fi’s new series Painkiller Jane, loosely based on the comic book by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada, is about a granite-tough female DEA agent (Kristanna Loken) who joins a rogue investigative team created to track down gene-tweaked superhumans called “Neuros” with the ability to control minds. (Neuros have to be close to their targets, though, so I imagine they occasionally get as frustrated as cell-phone users when they can’t get a signal.) Shows built around the presence of “others” who have strange abilities — and might use them for evil! — is the current vogue, thanks to The 4400 and Heroes. But Jane is closer in concept to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in that its crime-fighting heroine discovers her own personal mega-ability, in this case a regenerative power that instantly repairs physical injury but can’t extinguish the pain, which would make for a difficult infomercial selling point should she ever find it in pill form. The problem, one of many, is that Kristanna Loken — most recently seen on The L Word — is not an anguish actress. Decked in tight red leather and hurling herself at Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3 or spin-kicking a Neuro here in Jane, her fembot physicality makes an impression, but things get irreparably silly when Loken slows down for indignation, woe-is-me complexity, bitter tears or even the simplest nuance. In the pilot, Jane has to go undercover in a high-rise to tail a corporate bigwig who might be aiding Neuros, but the almost psychotically purposeful gaze on Loken’s face as she pushes a mail cart down a busy hallway would provoke a call to security from anybody walking by. (Much more curious is the vaguely homoerotic spark in any scene Loken has with another woman, which will inevitably get the chat boards buzzing.) Not helping matters either are the wretched dialogue, indiscriminately moody lighting, stock characters (gruff boss, dweeby tech guy, ripped chauvinist colleague), and crushing lack of suspense. I felt the pain, believe me.

DRIVE | Fox | Mondays, 8 p.m.; special two-hour premiere Sunday, April 15, 8 p.m.

PAINKILLER JANE | Sci Fi | Fridays, 10 p.m.

LA Weekly