Fox's 'Drive': It Can't Get There From Here

Kristin Lehman and Nathan Fillion partner up for tomorrow night's start of a mysterious car race.
Kristin Lehman and Nathan Fillion partner up for tomorrow night's start of a mysterious car race. (By Carin Baer -- Fox)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 14, 2007

Tomorrow night's premiere episode of the new Fox series "Drive" is called "The Starting Line." Trust me, fellow citizens of Television Land: The finish line can't come soon enough.

Muddled and befuddled from the outset, "Drive" represents a new kind of automotive hybrid -- a scripted treasure hunt designed to look like a reality show, well-stocked with the worst elements of both. It's basically "The Un-Amazing Race."

Series creators Tim Minear and Ben Queen are aiming for edginess, and for an alternative to traditional linear narrative -- you know, those old-fashioned shows that made sense. The two-hour pilot for the hour-long show begins with confusing experiments in time-shifting; screen captions tell us it's "one week ago," and then that it's "five days ago," and then, presumably, that it's right now or perhaps a week from Tuesday.

Abandoned, too, is any trace of humor. This is a laughless variation on "Cannonball Run," and the contestants in a cross-country car race have been told that first prize is $32 million -- but haven't been told how or why they came to be picked as participants. To be summoned to the starting line, your life apparently has to be undergoing some kind of tormented upheaval, the kind that might have you on the run even if there were no race to race in.

Alex Tully (Nathan Fillion), for one, has just discovered that his wife is missing, the house is a mess, and the cops consider him the prime suspect. Meanwhile, little Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey) heads for the starting point in Key West, Fla., in the hope of not only winning the dough but also escaping her violently abusive husband. (She also has a plastic doll disguised as a newborn baby strapped into a car seat.)

Winston Salazar (Kevin Alejandro), 25, the jailbird son of a powerful millionaire who has disowned him, forms an alliance with the 18-year-old brother he barely knows (J.D. Pardo as Sean), and off they go in Winston's hokey hot rod. And the race is presided over by Charles Martin Smith as Mr. Bright, fatuous flunky of yet another eccentric rich guy. Either coincidentally or as some kind of joke, Smith looks like Jeff Zucker, the bald but boyish boss at NBC Universal.

When it comes to filling us in on various characters' back stories, the exposition can be painfully clunky. One embittered son snaps to Daddy on the phone, "Well, it wasn't 'convenient' for me and my mom when you walked out on us when I was 7, either." Couldn't a little more info have been jammed into that remark? Maybe the time, date and weather on the day of the walkout?

Fillion appears to get the most screen time as the somber, sulking Tully, stalking through the story with one grim scowl carved into his stern and stony face. Lynskey pours on the cutes, and Kristin Lehman gets to run through her repertoire of woman-of-mystery stuff as Corinna Wiles -- whose shrewd expression suggests that she knows more about the race, and its hidden meanings, than the other contestants do.

"How do you cheat at a game that has no rules?" someone asks Tully. He responds: "I don't know. I missed the orientation" -- certainly a lame way for the writers to keep us in the dark. Later it's observed of the race, "Getting there first isn't going to be enough; you have to get there smartest." Oh, phooey, what the heck is that supposed to mean?

The metaphorical possibilities are obvious: Life is a race, a drive toward an unknown destination, and one is bound to encounter arbitrary obstacles and complications along the way. But arbitrariness is not gripping; in a serialized drama such as this, piling on puzzles and riddles can be merely annoying (which is largely what happened to the fans of "Lost" who eventually became impatient with all the blarney and dropped out somewhere along the way).

"Drive's" credibility problems include the fact that the drivers -- strangers who've barely met -- somehow recognize each other, whether out on a freeway choked with cars or, as in a scene tomorrow night, on a lonely back road at night with only the Doors' "Break on Through" as company.

The pithiest line comes fairly early, as the premise is being laid out: "It does seem a little far-fetched," someone says.

That's not just pithy -- that's the understatement of the week.

Drive (one hour) premieres tomorrow night at 8 with a two-hour episode on Channel 5 and moves to its regular time slot Monday at 8.

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