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'Threshold' teeters from spooky to silly

Turns out alien beings may dig Spirographs, those toys that enable kids to create cool geometric forms. We don't glimpse the colonizing ETs in tonight's premiere of CBS's ''Threshold," but we do get to see their signature marking, a twisting fractal pattern that resembles those plastic inserts on vinyl 45s. After the invaders pay a violent visit, they leave everything that's alive -- roaches, fish, human blood -- turning in a sort of widening gyre.

And those spiral helixes, like the crop circles in the movie ''Signs," add visual chills to the new series, which begins with a two-hour episode at 9 on Channel 4. Along with the darkly lit sets and the haunting presence of actor William Mapother, Claire's kidnapper from ''Lost," the evil patterns create a resonant B-grade horror mood. When the show's investigators watch a video of an alien spacecraft and bleed from their facial orifices, yeah, it's eerie enough.

But on the human side of the story, ''Threshold" falls woefully short. When the show isn't creeping us out with its grim atmosphere and effects, it's undermining its own potential with a self-consciously cutesy gang of heroes, ill-advised humor, and illogical situations. When it's not trying to scare us, it's just plain silly.

The lead characters, led by Carla Gugino's fearless Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey, play too much like a version of the Scooby gang. Despite the massive danger the aliens present to Earth, the crisis has fallen into the hands of a small team dripping with too-obvious quirkiness. There's the paranoid microbiologist (Brent Spiner), the neurotic engineer (Rob Benedict), and the womanizing mathematician (Peter Dinklage), who tries to cop a pair of his boss's underwear after she's been attacked in her home. These guys aren't exactly funny, like the Lone Gunmen on ''The X-Files," but then they're often played as comic relief.

Meanwhile, Gugino's Caffrey is a tired TV stereotype, the workaholic who eats lonely dinners of prepackaged food with her dog. Naturally, since ''Threshold" is clearly a post-''X-Files" series, she comes equipped with a back story involving the mysterious disappearance of her father, and as the series unfolds, she'll probably connect him to her alien investigation. But so far, she's a stock character who doesn't bring enough charisma to the show. Gugino was more darkly compelling on the failed series ''Karen Sisco."

It's as though the makers of ''Threshold" came up with enough horror material to fill a single movie, but now they must stretch it out to serial TV length with so much interpersonal baloney and filler dialogue. From ''We're in dark waters" to ''We've got to stare into the face of the unknown and make damn sure we don't blink," the script is padded out with boilerplate Saturday afternoon horror shtick. There are a number of new supernatural dramas this season, all hoping to mimic the success of ''Lost" and ''Medium." ''Threshold" isn't the worst of them; that distinction belongs to Jennifer Love Hewitt's hokey ''The Ghost Whisperer." But it's a second-rate thriller that doesn't have the kind of inner life of a ''Lost" or an ''X-Files" to offer long-term appeal.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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