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In an instant, 9 lives interrupted

With shadings of `Lost' and `Six Degrees,' ABC's captivating new drama `The Nine' follows hostages during and after a bank robbery.

October 04, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Of all the season's new mystery serials, the most pointedly, hugely, melodramatically mysterious -- and at the same time, the most down-to-earth, the most concerned with (relatively) ordinary human affairs -- is "The Nine," an involving ABC drama about a bank robbery, a hostage situation and its aftermath. Its central conceit (or gimmick, if you prefer) is that we see the robbery as it begins, and then as it ends, with a 52-hour blank in the middle that the series will fill in as it goes along and the survivors move into their post-traumatic future.

There are few things in this world as potent as a secret -- just say you have one and people won't leave you alone trying to pry or piece it out. And so to post a giant question mark at the heart of a story makes devilish good sense; a crowd will stick around just to find out what it doesn't know. And there's the "Lost" paradigm again: These characters are virtually stranded in the middle of the city, bound to one another by virtue of what they've been through, and alienated, to varying degrees, from everyone else.

The pilot throws out hints and clues like Johnny Chapman with his famous apple seeds. There is a lot of intimation and very little explanation:

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"About what?"

"About what happened in there."

"A lot of things happened in there."

But unlike "Lost," which appears to be built on shifting sands, it's hard to imagine that this show's creators -- brother and sister Hank Steinberg (creator also of "Without a Trace") and K.J. Steinberg, who wrote for "Judging Amy" -- have not worked out exactly what it is they're not telling us. "The Nine" will proceed along a dual track, revealing the past on which the evolving present depends -- its end is in its beginning, as it were, which remains purposely obscured. It will be doled out in bits, just enough to keep you hungry for more. Or such would seem to be the plan.

Without making any great claims for the show's depth, I do sense a desire behind the sensation and soap to investigate something significant, if deceptively simple: how life changes in a moment. That this is the explicit business at hand, and not merely incidental to it, is made clear in a flash-forward right at the top of the pilot: "I woke up, I went to work, it was a regular day; and then I wound up in there, with all these people," says hostage Lizzie (Jessica Collins), speaking straight to the camera.

A similar idea also animates its network companion, "Six Degrees," but there the characters meet gradually, while in "The Nine" everyone is bonded so tightly by the time the SWAT team arrives that one imagines they'd spent their unrevealed captive hours playing trust games instead of, you know, lying face down on the floor and being quiet. (Which I believe is the customary procedure in these things.)

The robbery and rescue scenes suffer a little from a surfeit of style, but pilot director/executive producer Alex Graves ("The West Wing") does a good job of keeping the action clear, the players distinct and the information flowing. And whenever the production seems to fly away from reality, the actors, consistently underplaying, nail it in place and keep you from noticing too quickly that they have been cast as types: handsome detective (Tim Daly, importing a gambling problem from the last season of "The Sopranos"), stringy-sexy ambitious prosecutor (Kim Raver, "Third Watch"), fresh-faced young doctor (Scott Wolf, "Party of Five"), doughy nerd (John Billingsley, Dr. Phlox from "Star Trek: Enterprise"), portly banker (Chi McBride, "Boston Public").

If the characters don't represent quite the full range of human endeavor or social status, they suffice to make the point that shared experience can cut across lines of culture and class. They are perhaps all a little too good (they do have their problems, which will surely get worse), and the production tends to sanctify them a little, as victims often are. But the show is not less intriguing for it.

Like the upcoming "Knights of Prosperity" (another ABC serial series), about a plot to rob Mick Jagger, the premise seems to imply a single-season story, and it would be nice to think that the filmmakers had decided to leave it at that -- that they'd tell the story they had to tell and move on. Of course, if the show flops, it's a moot point, and if it succeeds, well, there is no such thing on American television as a successful series that retires at the age of 1. I suppose the idea is that by the time 22 episodes have worked their will upon you, you'll have come to love these characters so much that you'll follow them anywhere -- perhaps they'll open a restaurant together or a detective agency. But there is a long way to go yet between here and there.


`The Nine'

Where: ABC

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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