UPN Offers Suspense and Pokes Fun at Trash News

Photojournalist Thomas Veil is dining with his wife in a restaurant they frequently patronize. He excuses himself to visit the bathroom. When he returns, his wife has vanished, another couple occupies their table and no one in the restaurant recalls them.

He tries calling home, but the phone number is now different. When he arrives at his house by cab, his key doesn’t fit the lock. When he knocks, his wife comes to the door but insists she doesn’t know him. The hunk who joins her claims to be her husband and angrily points a gun at Veil and orders him to leave.

Veil’s key also no longer corresponds to the lock on his photo gallery. The ailing, bed-ridden woman whom Veil calls his mother fiercely maintains he’s not her son. Thus, no one who should recognize him does recognize him.

The man Veil thinks he is appears not to exist. Why, even his ATM card is rejected and gets sucked up by the machine.

Is he mad, a tortured prisoner of his own paranoid delusions? Or is he the victim of an intricate conspiracy? And if so, why, and who is behind it?



The 90-minute debut of UPN’s “Nowhere Man” seductively keeps you guessing. Its message is not that using a urinal in a restaurant can land a guy in a psychiatric institution--which is what happens to Veil--but that “Nowhere Man” can be a dandy little series if it sustains the mystery, twists of dark intrigue, psychological edge and production quality that it delivers tonight.

In fact, UPN unfurls an arresting pair of premieres this week as it toddles into its first full season as a quasi-network for independent stations seeking to counter-program ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Tuesday night UPN brings in “Live Shot,” a zippy drama series about a Los Angeles television station where questionable agendas dominate, preening anchors vamp for the camera and technology-driven news commandos race for stories about scum and slam into crime scenes without regard for journalistic ethics.

In other words, it’s authentic.

Well, at least somewhat.

“Nowhere Man,” on the other hand, is brainy escapism, an hour that UPN is shrewdly deploying behind the compatible “Star Trek: Voyager,” its only series that has made much of an impact since UPN’s debut last January.

There’s something other-worldly, too, about “Nowhere Man.” It’s not only suspenseful and mystifying but also challenging and tantalizing, initially offering viewers a single, obtuse clue to the ordeal that is frustrating Veil, who is ably played by Bruce Greenwood. The clue: Inexplicably missing from Veil’s gallery, where his best, most provocative work is on exhibit, is a grim photograph titled “Hidden Agenda,” showing a mass hanging in a war-ravaged third-world country.

Will Veil ultimately have to return there to unscramble his life? We do know he’ll be a traveling man, for this hybrid series intersects “Twilight Zone” with “The Fugitive.” Veil appears destined to spend the duration of “Nowhere Man” searching everywhere for answers and his own version of the one-armed man, while eluding an unseen, devilishly tricky foe seeking to undermine him. Whether appealing Megan Gallagher resurfaces as Veil’s wife, Alyson, remains to be seen.

The trick for creator/executive producer Lawrence Hertzog will be to keep pumping freshness into this latest variation of a highly familiar TV genre that’s constantly being cloned.

He’s off to a good start. Dr. Richard Kimble never lost an ATM card.

Nor does “Live Shot” lose time getting to the nitty-gritty in Tuesday’s two back-to-back opening episodes, as almost immediately we see KXZX-TV’s “Re-Action News” van zooming through residential neighborhoods at 3 a.m. en route to the home of a murdered socialite whose nude body is upstairs on a bed being examined by police.

The nice thing about “Live Shot” is that, for the most part, it doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is: a trashy drama with a sense of humor. When it does turn serious, that becomes problematic.

The wit doesn’t always work, but the best of it comes in Episode 2 at the expense of bickering co-anchors Harry Chandler Moore (David Birney)--a caricaturist peacock known as the “Beacon of Truth"--and Sherry Beck (Rebecca Staab), who’s smarter than he but just as vain and narcissistic.

They share an especially memorable moment when he appeals to her professionalism after he can’t find some of his makeup prior to their taping of an interview with President Clinton in the White House. Harry: “Be a professional journalist and let me use your blush.”

Although “Live Shot” often loudly bongs out ugly realities about local news--including having anchors read their glib “ad libs” from a TelePrompTer and depicting a vacuous regular interview segment titled “Takin’ It to the Street"--series creators Dan Guntzelman and Steve Marshall also playfully err on the side of excess in giving KXZX other familiar components that some of us love to deride. Among them are a weather-caster known as Dr. Bob, an arrogant boob of a commentator (Sam Anderson), a self-centered Latino reporter (Eddie Velez) who pronounces his name with a pretentious thick ethnic flourish and, of course, the two main anchors. Part truth, part exaggeration.

Positioning himself as the station’s resident idealist and ethical conscience is freshly arrived news director Alex Rydell (Jeff Yagher). To a lesser extent, producer Nancy Lockridge (Cheryl Pollak) does the same thing. It’s Rydell who wonders aloud about the propriety of “Re-Action News” letting the White House pick who it wants to interview the President. Of course, it’s improper. And it’s Rydell who, risking being fired, boldly resists the station manager’s attempt to soften a story. How often would that happen?

Unfortunately, other ethical lapses are not even identified as such by “Live Shot,” as if it were as willing to endorse some instances of unsavory journalism as it is to lampoon others. One of the former has a news crewman wearing a hidden mike that transmits to a news van while receiving confidential, off-the-record information from a policeman. Another finds our hero Rydell and his newsroom applauding a simply horrific live “ambush” interview replete with unproved, shouted-out charges of child molestation.

Is “Live Shot” itself applauding this behavior by journalists or merely noting, without comment, that such ethical crashes do occur? If the latter is the case, why have Rydell, of all people, sanction it?

TV news is obviously a complex business. Pass the blush.

* “Nowhere Man” premieres at 9 tonight, following the season premiere at 8 p.m. of “Star Trek: Voyager” on KCOP-TV Channel 13. “Live Shot” arrives at 8 p.m. Tuesday, also on Channel 13.