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Killer Serials

There's a rule of thumb for writers that goes, if you introduce a gun into your story, it had better go off. In the first episode of ABC's "The Nine," the gun appears before the first commercial--and is never seen again. It belongs to a nerdy guy named Egan Foote (John Billingsley), who arrives at a bank in Los Angeles to ask for a loan. When he's turned down, he heads to the bank's bathroom, apparently to commit suicide. But someone knocks on the door, and Egan, loser that he is, drops his weapon in the toilet. Then things really go downhill. Within minutes, two thugs rob the bank and take Egan and eight other people hostage. By the time they're freed 52 hours later, one hostage is dead, the bad guys are in cuffs and the survivors are calling Egan a hero. How'd that happen? Did he use his gun? Who killed the woman? For answers to these and other questions, tune in next week.

And the week after that. "The Nine" takes its sweet time sharing its secrets. In fact, the drama will spend the entire season unraveling those 52 hours in the bank, bit by nail-biting bit. Shows that spill over from week to week are called serials, of course, and this season they're spilling all over the networks. NBC has "Kidnapped," which will devote the entire season to the disappearance of a single wealthy teen-ager. CBS's "Jericho" concerns a town in Kansas that appears to be the only place left untouched by a nuclear war. ABC has the moody soaps "Six Degrees" and "Brothers and Sisters." They're hardly the only serials--it was the success of "24," "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" that kicked the door open. But until now, serials have been the exceptions to the rule written by "CSI" and "Law & Order," whose episodes are self-contained and therefore easier to syndicate. "The Nine" and the others are, like Egan's unfired gun, changing the rules of TV drama.

That's not to say "The Nine" is revolutionary. It borrows the tick-tock exposition from "24" and the flashbacks from "Lost," not to mention the bank-heist scenario from "Dog Day Afternoon." But its one-hour premiere on Wednesday packs more emotional firepower--tension, joy, sadness, hope--than most shows manage in a season. Which is all the more impressive since the pilot skips the show's dramatic linchpin: the hostage situation. We spend most of our time meeting the characters as they enter the bank, then flashing forward to the days just after they've been freed. We learn that, on the day of the heist, the social worker (Jessica Collins) had planned to tell her doctor-boyfriend (Scott Wolf) that she was pregnant, but has since begun to waver. We discover that hapless hero Egan becomes more manly, and the teller Franny (Camille Guaty) far more trampy. And, when the group assembles for a reunion in a diner, we're jolted to see that everyone shows up except the teen-ager (Dana Davis)--who slips away to visit, well, someone you wouldn't expect.

But "The Nine" isn't about a bank robbery any more than "Lost" is about a plane crash. It's really about watching the hostages react and evolve. There's some September 11 subtext here--how does surviving a trauma together connect people?--that makes "The Nine" feel very real. But what's most appealing about this show, or any good serial, is that it's about characters, not crime-solving. The creators plan to reveal the entire hostage situation during the first season and, if "The Nine" gets renewed, never step into the bank again. "This isn't a mystery show," says the show's creator, Hank Steinberg. "It's about falling in love with these people and watching them have their second chance at life. It's a show about recovery, which I think we can all relate to in this day and age."

Good as it is, the odds of "The Nine" making it past its rookie year aren't great. The reason networks have avoided most serialized dramas is that audiences have become reluctant to get hooked on a show that requires weekly viewing. "How many 22-hour blocks does a person have in their television viewing year?" asks "Kidnapped" creator Jason Smilovic. "Even a good review of a serialized show comes with the qualification, if you have the time to invest ." What's changed? Audience tastes, for one thing--that's one reason that "Grey's Anatomy" is neck and neck with "CSI" (and why "CSI" added a soapy backstory about two CSIs having an affair). Technology has changed, too. If you miss an episode, you can always catch up via iTunes, a DVR, the network's Web site or reruns on one of its cable cousins. If you have the time to invest.

Typically, the networks are chasing the serial craze like paparazzi hunting down Lindsay Lohan. After "The Nine," the most promising of the bunch is NBC's "Heroes," which follows a group of young folks discovering they have superpowers, kind of like a "Justice League" with real people. It's scored strong ratings so far, but it's early. "When you're serializing a show, you'd better have an event--a kidnapping, a terrorist attack, breaking out of a prison--to hook people in," says Fox Entertainment president Peter Liguori. "In some ways, it's easier to get people to the premiere and harder to maintain." That shouldn't be a problem for "The Nine," at least. It's one show that knows how to hold people hostage.

Killer Serials | News