'Nine': At Least Its Viewers Can Escape

Scott Wolf in ABC's
Scott Wolf in ABC's "The Nine," which unravels what transpired during a long hostage ordeal, jumping around in time. The problem is, nothing happens. (By Patrick Ecclesine -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Ads for the DVD release of the latest "X-Men" movie declare that "the mutant revolution is upon us." Who could doubt it? As just one tiny example, ABC has a mutated drama series premiering tonight: "The Nine," the story of a two-bit bank robbery and its effect on half-witted people.

Okay, they're not all half-witted, but a nerdy fussbudget named Egan Foote, played by John Billingsley, is so aggressively abrasive and gabby that he becomes more prominent in the story than he ought to be -- annoying to such a degree that I wrote "Foote, Foote, Foote, Foote!" in my notes, and I don't think I was quoting dialogue.

I also see, underlined and in red, one large word: "Agonizing." It looks as though I was only halfway through the pilot at that point.

To some extent, "The Nine" is meant to be agonizing -- agonizingly suspenseful, or something. Not for nothing has ABC slotted it right after "Lost" (which has its season premiere tonight) because, like that show, "Nine" assembles a collection of disparate and largely random individuals who form a de facto family when trapped together by circumstances beyond their control. That's the thing about circumstances; so many are beyond control, especially for characters in a TV drama series.

The central circumstance here is the robbery, which goes thoroughly awry. That results in the characters being held hostage in a branch of the Fidelity Republic Bank for 52 hours, though it feels like 52 days. In TV's new tradition of edginess and artsiness, "Nine" doesn't tell a straightforward story in a linear way. The siege of the bank is already over as the series begins, and we learn fairly quickly that most, though not all, of the hostages survived, if in varying states of damage and distress.

Thus the series, week after week, will reveal what transpired during, before and after the ordeal that, ABC solemnly promises, will change these folks' lives "forever." During a kind of preface tonight, we meet the characters -- among them Scott Wolf, still dimply boyish, as Dr. Jeremy Kates, a knight in shining scrubs. His girlfriend, Jessica Collins as Lizzie Miller, is among the hostages. Tim Daly, another familiar and reliable face, plays Nick Cavanaugh, a cop whose addiction to gambling cost him a promotion.

A lovely actress with a lovely name, Lourdes Benedicto, plays a bank teller who also happens to be Nick's sweetie, a sign that many of the characters are separated by fewer than six degrees, contrary to the title and theme of that other new ABC series about strangers being tossed into a blender and shaken up. Chi McBride is the alarmed but clear-thinking branch manager; Lucas Dalton plays the brains, such as they are, behind the robbery, and so on.

To judge from the premiere, "The Nine" is basically an overwrought episode of "The Twilight Zone" stretched into series length -- just as some dramas, new and returning, come across as movie ideas configured into continuing weekly serials. Now it's a good thing that producers and networks are breaking away from traditional story-telling structures, but it simply doesn't always work, and "Nine" looks like one of those times.

It's not so much a narrative as a collection of character studies, and the characters aren't particularly fascinating. The show hopscotches about in time and among the key figures, resulting in a busy array of flashbacks and snippets too short to qualify as flashbacks; they're more like flashbytes.

Unless you have a great deal of patience, you may grow restless waiting for an actual scene to break out: Please, please, just one scene with a beginning and a middle; it doesn't even have to have an end. We'll settle for anything that reveals something worth knowing about the proverbial who, what, when, where or why.

When the caption "One Week Later" appears on the screen late in tonight's premiere, a viewer may well feel compelled to ask, "One week later than what?" It is imaginative in its way, and, again, it deserves points for some borderline innovative (for a TV series) techniques. As drama, it doesn't hold a candle to NBC's "Friday Night Lights," which just premiered, but it's vastly superior to NBC's more heavily ballyhooed "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the third episode of which aired Monday night. As feared, that show has deteriorated, not improved, since its premiere and can now be seen more clearly for what it is: fake drama about a bunch of phonies.

At least "The Nine" has bursts of verisimilitude, if not enough to justify frittering away an hour of time. Not even frittering, really; it's plain old squandering.

The Nine (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7.

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