This has been a fall of superlatives, as the networks have been cranking out well-made pilots with a vengeance. But by Thanksgiving, only a few of the quality shows -- ``Friday Night Lights," ``Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," ``Heroes," ``Ugly Betty," ``Smith," and now ``The Nine" -- will have found the path from critical praise to ratings glory, such as ``Lost" and ``Grey's Anatomy" before them.
And one of the lucky few will surely be ``The Nine," which premieres tonight after ``Lost" at 10 on Channel 5. This is a stock story -- an LA bank heist with hostages -- that has been ripped up, shuffled, and taped back together in a provocative new way. Two brothers hold nine hostages for 52 hours inside the bank. We don't know what transpired in the standoff, but the survivors -- ``the nine" -- have emerged forever altered and forever linked. In each coming episode, we'll find out more about those mysterious 52 hours. And based on the pilot, that mystery promises to be surprising, psychological, and addictive.
``The Nine" has a grim tone, as it focuses on the melodramatic fallout of the botched robbery rather than the genre suspense during it. There's no comic relief here, no Hurley from ``Lost." It is a group portrait of post-traumatic stress that, like so many ensemble TV dramas right now, has a root or two in the tragedy of 9/11. The people in the bank, including Tim Daly's cop, Scott Wolf's doctor, and Kim Raver's assistant DA, were thrown together randomly, and when the crisis ends, their lives are changed. As the nine wander out of the bank into the unblinking eye of news cameras and a SWAT team, the inside of the building is as wrecked as a bomb target.
The show, created by the brother-sister team of Hank Steinberg (of ``Without a Trace") and K.J. Steinberg, gives a few familiar TV actors an opportunity to stretch. None of the performances are knockout, and yet all together they form a strong ensemble. Wolf from ``Party of Five" is an interesting choice to play Jeremy, a surgeon who comes out of the crisis at odds with his girlfriend, Lizzie (Jessica Collins).
He has the all-American looks of Tom Cruise, but then Jeremy has clearly committed some kind of betrayal to Lizzie in the bank and revealed a weakness of character.
And Daly, known for ``Wings" and appearances on ``The Sopranos," is a welcome choice as Nick, a flawed man whose detective career has been ruined by his gambling addiction. All we know is that his self-destructive tendencies didn't take over during the crisis, and that he did something noble in the bank that saved at least one person. He has a new bond, complete with romantic chemistry, with Kathryn, played by Raver with the effective bottled-up tension she has brought to ``24." ``Everything would have gone down a lot worse if you hadn't been there," she tells him.
``The Nine" promises to be a reconsideration of heroism, something ``Lost" flirted with -- although never quite followed through on -- during its first two seasons. Before the hostage situation, the doctor might've been the traditional hero, while the nebbishy Egan Foote (John Billingsley) would have been the least brave. When Foote first entered the bank, he was carrying a gun with which he planned to kill himself, tired of the relentless criticism by his wife. And yet after the crisis, Foote is a public hero, while Jeremy is in a shame spiral of unclear origin. ``It was a moment," Jeremy begs Lizzie. ``Does it have to mean everything?"
Billingsley makes Foote the dearest character on the show, and he'll surely be one of the ``breakout" actors. The robbery has been a triumph for Foote, saving his life and restoring his ego. If there is a subtle relief from the heaviness of ``The Nine," it is in the notion that the hostage situation may have scarred all these people, but it has opened their eyes, stripped them of their denial, and, perhaps in the long run, made them stronger. Foote is the heart of ``The Nine," with Chi McBride's solid bank manager a close second.
There's no guaranteeing that the Steinbergs can keep ``The Nine" absorbing, as well as bathos-free, for a full season. As the networks rush forward into serial dramas, they seem to be underestimating the format's profound challenges. It is rare that a show with a single plot can stay taut across 22 episodes. Even the best serial dramas, including ``24" and ``Lost," have rudderless periods when viewers could easily lose faith in the vision of the show's creators. If ``The Nine" wants to hold on to an audience, it will need to unfold carefully, and with a game plan that follows through on the promise of its premiere.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.