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Subtle creepiness propels 'Invasion'

There's an awful lot of thunder cracking in the prime-time skies this season. Because as the networks try to creep us out with new supernatural dramas, a few drum-like peels always help things along. Lightning's good, too, especially if it's nighttime and something wicked -- and wicked cool -- this way comes.

We don't know the true nature of the intruders on ABC's ''Invasion," except that they arrive during a brutal hurricane. But tonight's premiere, at 10 on Channel 5, certainly made me want to learn more about them. Of all the new mystery thrillers milking the success of ''Lost," including CBS's ''Threshold" and NBC's ''Surface," this one is the most seductive. Rather than going over the top with creature-feature hysteria, it aims for more insidious, human-scale fright. We don't see digitized space ships or Loch Ness tentacles, just strange lights falling to Earth and then people with a strange light behind their eyes.

Tonight's episode, smoothly directed by Thomas Schlamme (''The West Wing"), arrives with extra baggage, of course, now that Hurricane Katrina has left permanent scars on the Gulf Coast. The bulk of the hour is set amid gale-force winds, flipping cars, and broken trees in a southern Florida town, and viewers who've watched Katrina coverage may find these images hard to enjoy. It's not exploitative TV -- the pilot was filmed long before Katrina -- but, at moments, the similarities to recent tragedy make it hard to get lost in the fictional adventure. Next week, presumably, the distraction of real-life parallels will fade.

''Invasion," which was created by Shaun Cassidy, revolves around a particular blended family affected by the storm. Russell (Eddie Cibrian) and Mariel (Kari Matchett) are divorced, but they continue to bicker over the custody of their two children, Rose (Ariel Gade) and Jesse (Evan Peters). Their interactions are stormy -- yes, ''Invasion" has a metaphorical, Spielbergian layer to it -- despite the fact that each of them has a new partner. Mariel is now married to the local sheriff, Tom (William Fichtner), a menacing presence who has no tolerance for his wife's ex. And Russell is married to Larkin (Lisa Sheridan), a sweet newscaster. Basically, Russell and Larkin are good guys, while Mariel and Tom probably aren't, especially after the hurricane.

The plot has parallels to the ''Invasion of the Body Snatchers," since certain townspeople appear to be possessed. They don't look different, and yet they emit a kind of self-satisfied glow that lets us know they've been co-opted. But ''Invasion" is evasive regarding the invaders, and that helps to distinguish and enrich it. Whatever is getting into these Floridians could be a ''Manchurian Candidate"-like government conspiracy as easily as it could be alien life. Like ''Lost," which airs right before it, the mystery is provocatively open-ended and, assuming the writing continues to be good, absorbing.

Russell's brother-in-law Dave (Tyler Labine) is a critical character, in that he is a conspiracy theorist who won't settle for media or government spin. A beer-loving slacker, he drives the narrative by pushing Russell to investigate the strange light situation. And as Dave, Labine and his Jack Black-like appeal brings a much-needed comic flourish that compliments Cibrian's more conventional, dimple-cheeked hero.

Fichtner and Matchett perfectly project closet malignancy. They're clearly a suspicious pair, and yet they look normal as ever. Like the best aspect of this show, they don't overplay their toxicity. There are no ''Boo" moments before every commercial, just little Rose being held by Mariel after the storm and saying, ''Mommy, you smell different."

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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