With "24" not returning until January, FOX faced the daunting task of finding a new fall-season show that could match the high-octane excitement of its other hit serial, "Prison Break," the lead-in for "24" from January to May 2006.
Already knowing that back-to-back serials can work, FOX is tossing those dice again with "Vanished," which premieres Monday, Aug. 21, right before the second-season opener of "Prison Break."
Created by Josh Berman ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"), who executive produces with director Mimi Leder ("John Doe," "Pay It Forward") and Paul Redford ("The Unit," "The West Wing"), "Vanished" follows troubled senior FBI agent Graham Kelton (Gale Harold, "Queer as Folk") and his partner, agent Lin Mei (Ming-Na), on the trail of Sara Collins (Joanne Kelly), the missing wife of Georgia Sen. Jeffrey Collins (John Allen Nelson, "24").
While it's driven by the same ticking clock as "24" and "Prison Break," "Vanished" also wants viewers to think about such feature films as "National Treasure" and "The Da Vinci Code." The series tosses in elements of mystery and history as the search for Sara reveals hidden facts about her life that unravel a conspiracy involving signs, symbols, secret societies and the odd Biblical citation.
Also starring are Rebecca Gayheart as ambitious reporter Judy Nash, Esai Morales as FBI supervisor Kyle Tyner, John Patrick Amedori and Margarita Levieva as Sen. Collins' children, and Penelope Ann Miller as the senator's ex-wife.
"It is dark and it is twisted," Berman says, "but it is historical. Somebody joked that it's part History Channel, this show. When we ultimately reveal the conspiracy, everything that we are going to talk about is real. You can look this stuff up. We're not making things up as we go along.
"What makes conspiracies more compelling is when they're rooted in some form of history. There's actually a clue in the pilot episode that if you went to the Internet and type it in, something comes up."
Serials like "Lost" and "24" rely on their own elaborate mythologies and parallel versions of reality. Berman soon discovered that he didn't have to stray too far from actual reality to whip up a convincing conspiracy.
"We have a couple of story points that no one will believe are real," he says. "Something comes out in episode six or seven that, when we were researching our conspiracy theory, the results came back in a way we just couldn't believe. It's so scary. I don't want to tell you what it is, but you're going to love it.
"A lot of this storytelling is about how much you choose to believe is coincidence and how much is a pattern. In this day and age, there has to be a little conspiracy theorist in all of us. It can't always just happen randomly. I think there are puppet masters out there controlling things."
Also central to the plot is an event from Kelton's past that's shown in the pilot. He attempts to rescue a kidnapped boy named Nathan, and things don't go as planned. Kelton blames himself for the outcome, and that's put a wedge between himself and his Roman Catholic faith just as his daughter approaches her Holy Communion.
There are lingering questions about what really happened, and the appearance of yet another missing person appears to connect Nathan's case with Sara Collins' disappearance.
"Anything that doesn't make sense," Harold says, "that seems to be counterintuitive and nonsensical, that's like life. Investigators deal with stuff that doesn't make sense all the time. They can very quickly cut through it and start to track it and make sense of it.
"But there are random events that happen that can screw up an investigation -- or if someone starts planting random information or stitching something together for you or manipulating you. I'm not talking psychotic, but you can become paranoid and start second-guessing everything you see.
"That's where Kelton's going to go. That's what's interesting about him as a character. He's isolated from everyone else in the show."
While providing Kelton a chance for professional vindication, the Collins case also challenges his assumptions about many things. According to Harold, Kelton is put on the case because he respects authority and the chain of command, but strange turns in the case put that loyalty in question.
"One of the concerns in this show," Harold says, "is going to be, how can you be a maverick in your approach and still be the guy that believes in the Stars and Stripes and absolutely believes that the United States is doing the right thing and believes in God and believes in Roman Catholic tradition, all those things, wholeheartedly, but still will stick it to a senator and get right in his face?
"It's a test to see if they're going to keep him or let him go. For him, it feels like a big test. 'They're bringing me back, they're giving me this job, I shouldn't be handed this, but I am, so I've got to prove myself.' But it rapidly becomes some other thing.
"It's the push-pull thing, 'You put me here, but you won't let me do my job.' You rapidly get the sense that this is all a charade. What's really happening?"
"Vanished" is only one of a handful of new serialized shows this fall, and time will tell whether it has packed in enough plot twists and turns, and enough character development, to make viewers carve out yet another hour of appointment television per week.
"The challenge of the series," Berman says, "is striking the right balance between revealing the cool, historical conspiracy while also telling the very emotional story of a missing woman."
'Vanished' Reveals Season-Long Mystery
Gale Harold on 'Vanished'
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