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Television | THE FALL TV SEASON

First out of the box: Fox

He's behind the conspiracy

August 20, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

THE fall TV season officially begins on Sept. 18, but Fox kicks off its new line-up Monday at 8 p.m. with the sophomore return of "Prison Break" and what the network hopes will be another action-adventure, thrill-a-minute-mystery, "Vanished," at 9 p.m. ("24" returns in January.)

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JOSH BERMAN certainly had the pedigree. He received two Emmy nominations during his six years as a "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" writer-producer. By age 26, he had earned a bachelor's degree in public policy from Princeton University, a master's in history as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia, and an MBA and law degree from Stanford.

But it was his 7 1/2 -inch, meticulously indexed research binder that sold Fox on his new mystery thriller and has landed him a coveted time slot on the fall prime-time schedule.

Berman, 36, is the creator of "Vanished," an edge-of-your-seat drama centered on the wife (Joanne Kelley) of a prominent Georgia senator (John Allen Nelson) who goes missing. Her disappearance turns out to be part of a much, much larger conspiracy, dating back thousands of years.

Berman pitched the idea for the show last summer to Fox President of Entertainment Peter Liguori, but his was no ordinary outline. Not only was his plot developed over 10 episodes, Berman had pages and pages of historical, forensic, religious and political research as well as minor details, such as the types of guns that FBI agents use and the uniforms tactical teams wear.

"I've never seen anything like it," Liguori said. "I was really impressed."

Berman says he wasn't trying to show off. His binders are his "security blankets," and now that the first series he is running is well into production, he's got several more on his desk. "When you're holding your answers, you know you can just look it up," he said recently while on the Paramount lot, sitting on the set of the fictional FBI office created for the new series. "It's all about a good table of contents. My binders are organized so that anything I need, if I want to suddenly find research on how long it takes to defrost a body, it's at my fingertips. It's an efficiency issue."

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Launched at a lunch

BERMAN was still at "CSI" when he struck a four-year deal to create pilots at 20th Century Fox Television. His goal was always to write and produce his own show, one involving a serialized mystery. The key plot point was born at a lunch meeting last year with his studio boss, Dana Walden, co-president of 20th Century Fox Television, when they began discussing their mutual fascination with the way the media treats cases of missing women.

"I thought it's a very interesting relationship between the news media, the police and the families," Walden said. "Originally when these investigations start out, the women are put on holier-than-thou territory and then through the process of investigations, particularly the long ones, other sides are shown to them."

Berman said he took the seed that Walden planted and put his history background to work: "What if this woman was from a Kennedy-esque family and she goes missing and how can I root that into a historical tapestry, where it makes sense, where it's not just a kidnapping?" he recalled thinking.

"I want to do for history what 'CSI' did for science," Berman said. "I know, it sounds wild. But basically we will uncover that this woman's disappearance is not an isolated event but part of an ongoing conspiracy that goes back thousands of years that's been building and building to a crucial point now."

"Vanished" viewers will be able to do their own sleuthing, much like fans of Fox's "Prison Break" or ABC's "Lost." The difference is that the clues embedded in "Vanished" have historical significance. (Berman offers viewers this head start: The pilot contains two clues that, when googled together, lead the audience to a historical place involved in the fictional investigation.)

"It's a great way to tell a story," said executive producer and TV veteran Mimi Leder, who directed the pilot and will direct three additional episodes. Leder uses a hand-held camera and a long lens to give the feeling of fast movement. "Josh's got a very quick and brilliant mind. I love his discovery of ideas. He's very passionate."Before "CSI," Berman worked at NBC Studios as a midlevel creative executive for three years. While he was there, he wrote and produced a short film as a vehicle for a friend who was an actor. That film, "Allyn McBeal," a spoof of "Ally McBeal," put him on the map of Hollywood writers, which is where he had always wanted to be even though his education covers urban and educational planning, history and law.

The son of an English teacher and a physician, Berman says he put himself through three graduate programs because "anyone who wants to become a storyteller for a living should get as much education as possible."

But the most important lesson didn't come from the Ivy League.

"I've always loved to write," said Berman, who grew up in Encino. "I still remember every essay I wrote in junior high school. [My mom] would make me write it out double-spaced and she would go through every word. 'Can we make this word better? Can we make this sentence better?' And then we would do a second draft together. She really taught me ... the discipline of never being satisfied with the first draft."

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