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Tune In Tomorrow

The newest shows track one complex plot over a whole season. But are they really worth the investment?

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So far through the first two episodes of Kidnapped, Dana Delany, the one-time sweetheart of China Beach, merely shakes her locks and wrings her hands. But as Ellie Cain, the well-bred and well-groomed wife of tycoon Conrad Cain (Timothy Hutton), Delany has been arche­type­cast. If you were a self-made multimillionaire, she would be the ravishing embodiment of all the reasons why you’d crossed the bridge from the outer boroughs in the first place, sort of like MoMA or the Chrysler Building. And then, of course, you’d find that not even class, money, sex, and power are a defense against the evil eye.

Kidnapped is Kurosawa noir. “Kurosawa” because the executive producer Jason Smilovic (Karen Sisco) tells us he was inspired by the Japanese master’s abduction movie, High and Low. “Noir” because everybody has a guilty secret, we wander down very mean streets, and the arty camera work often makes it hard to see what’s going on. Besides, “Cain” suggests the Bible, not to mention Orson Welles. And the name of their son, the boy kidnapped on his way to school, is Leopold, as in Leopold and Loeb. Naturally, the Cains hire a private eye (Jeremy Sisto) to retrieve Leo­pold. Coincidentally, before he had a breakdown, Sisto used to partner with FBI agent Delroy Lindo, who postpones his retirement to work the case because Audra McDonald asks him to.

Don’t get used to this astonishing cast. Sisto and Lindo will take all season to crack the Leopold case, after which, presuming they return next fall, a new case and new cast await them. Meanwhile, Kidnapped faces the same problem as half a dozen other new dramatic shows, all serials. Unless the networks are programming for an eventual DVD, they must figure out how to give us just enough closure each week while deferring the ultimate gratification. What this means is subsidiary plots, subsidiary complications, and subsidiary corpses.

By the second hour of Kidnapped, there are already four dead bodies and one severed ear, which may or may not be Leopold’s. By the second hour of the other new season-long abduction show, Vanished, the senator (John Allen Nelson) whose wife (Joanne Kelly) has disappeared is already surrounded and outnumbered by an ex-wife (Penelope Ann Miller) conspiring with his disaffected children, a TV reporter (Rebecca Gayheart) who makes Geraldo Rivera look wholesome, and an FBI agent (Gale Harold) who insists on wearing a short-sleeved shirt, as if he were a circus geek about to bite off the head of a chicken. Nor have I even mentioned the surprise pregnancy, tunnel explosion, or X-Files conspiracy, into which Vanished seems to have dissipated rather than suspended all credulity.

The Nine also asks us to come back week after week to hear more than I want to about what happened during the 52 hours that Tim Daly, Chi McBride, Kim Raver, Scott Wolf, Jessica Collins, John Billingsley, etc., spent as hostages in a bank heist gone murderously wrong. It’s Dog Day Afternoon meets Rashomon (Kurosawa rides again!), with a nod to Final Destination, since the captives feel a bond with one another and are alienated from everybody else. Jericho could use such fellow feeling, since it seems from radio silence after a mushroom cloud that this small Kansas town could be all that’s left of America. Apocalypse seems like a steep price to pay for Skeet Ulrich’s rapprochement with his crusty father, Gerald McRaney. But the pilot has a Twilight Zone feel, Pamela Reed is always a dividend, and at least Jericho, as if we’d landed on Mars, can scoot off plausibly in any direction.

More often, the complications necessary to keep a serial going are so finger-in-the-eye baroque that if we miss a week, we are confused, and if we miss two, we are so embarrassed we may give up. And don’t tell me about TiVo. I watch more television than you do. If, because I was out trying to have a half-life, I missed something the first time around, when am I likely to catch up? The portal heads among us, with their DVDs, TiVos, and video streams, need reminding that most people work for a living and, when we come home, actually turn on and tune in to whatever, hoping between dinner and bed for an hour of coherent, disposable narrative, like apple pie at the Automat.

Kidnapped
NBC. Wednesdays, 10 p.m. Premieres September 20.

Vanished
Fox. Mondays, 9 p.m.

The Nine
ABC. Wednesdays, 10 p.m. Premieres October 4.

Jericho
CBS. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Premieres September 20.


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