Fox's 'Vanished,' Painting by Numbers With Invisible Ink

In the Fox series, Rebecca Gayheart is an ambitious and pushy TV reporter on the case when the wife of a prominent senator seems to have disappeared.
In the Fox series, Rebecca Gayheart is an ambitious and pushy TV reporter on the case when the wife of a prominent senator seems to have disappeared. (By Peter Iovino -- Associated Press)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

If you're a fan of Fox TV's "24" -- or even if you're not -- then you know what to expect when the network trots out another one of its serialized dramas: Iconoclastic hero with lantern-jawed stoicism; squirrelly side characters with questionable motives; sinister conspiracy with global implications; and enough twisty-turny plot shenanigans to keep you hitting the TiVo rewind button again and again.

Which is to say that, judging from tonight's pilot episode, you're not going to see a lot of innovative television with Fox's latest offering, "Vanished," about the mysterious disappearance of Sara Collins, the beautiful young wife of an older, and previously married Georgia senator. You've seen the paranoid machinations and murky mood lighting in "24" and "Prison Break," watched the FBI trying to find a missing person before the clock runs out in CBS's "Without a Trace." (Adding to the sense of familiarity: Sen. Jeffrey Collins is played by John Allen Nelson, a regular on "24.") For all its cribbing from plots gone by, "Vanished" still makes for good, escapist fun.

The action speeds along quickly: We see Sara (Joanne Kelly), an earnest second-grade teacher, grading papers in her Atlanta mansion when the phone rings. She answers it, one eye trained on a surveillance TV as she pleads, "Please never call here again." She hangs up just in time, as her husband walks in the door. As they embrace, Sara declares that she's got something important to tell him . . . later. Except that later never happens, because they've got to dash to a benefit dinner at a swanky hotel, where Sara is to be feted for her charity work, and then a bearded man taps her on the shoulder and tells her that she's got an urgent phone call, so would she please come with him. So she does. And poof, she's gone. Almost without a trace. (The cute macaroni necklace a young fan gave her is found outside, smashed to the ground.) The man later shows up in the trunk of a car with a bullet hole in his head.

Enter FBI agent Graham Kelton (Gale Harold, "Queer as Folk"), the aforementioned lantern-jawed, stoic hero. He's tortured by a troubled past. (We know this because we see flashbacks of a botched rescue of a kidnapped kid.) And he's a good guy. (We know this, because, we see him sitting in a Catholic church watching his daughter's first Communion.) Kelton's assisted by Agent Lin Mei (Ming-Na, "ER") who's always cautioning him to question the FBI-wary senator with "nuance." And he's hampered by Judy Nash (Rebecca Gayheart, "Nip/Tuck"), an overly ambitious and stereotypically pushy TV reporter.

Within minutes of Sara's disappearance, Kelton is off and running, in search of both Sara and the Truth, using all the technological toys at his disposal and questioning the senator with anything but nuance: "Who really hates you, Senator?"

Um, that would be the ex-wife, who's supposed be in Europe but isn't. Then again, no one is where he or she is supposed to be, and no one, it seems, is who he or she claims to be. Adding to the confusion, bodies adorned with the number "9" keep popping up. And what are we to make of the St. Nathan's card found on the body of another politician's wife? Not to mention the fact that the kid in the botched rescue was named Nathan, too? Hmmmmm.

Harold, as Kelton, acquits himself just fine here, as do the other actors. But the performance isn't the point, really. Performances just service the increasingly convoluted plot, with creator Josh Berman ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") tossing in enough tantalizing clues and red herrings to maintain a pleasingly perplexing pace.

Speaking of perplexing, here's a "Vanished" mystery that we're particularly confounded by: The action is set in Atlanta, but where, oh where is the Atlanta-ness of Atlanta, save for a few street signs? No one populating Fox's version of this Southern city possesses any semblance of a drawl.

Vanished (one hour) debuts at 9 tonight on Fox.

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