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Government and alien infiltrations

Times Staff Writer

After Hurricane Katrina, ABC pulled promos for its new sci-fi series “Invasion,” which debuts tonight and opens with a storm ripping apart a coastal Florida town.

While “Invasion uses a hurricane only as its opening number, over at NBC they have an entire series, “E-Ring,” set inside the Pentagon, which in its first installment makes only the most obscure gestures toward the war in Iraq.

I know the Pentagon is busy with threats the world over, but that gap is one of the reasons that “E-Ring” comes off right now as impossibly glib, whereas “Invasion,” from writer-producer Shaun Cassidy (“American Gothic,” “The Agency”) is merely digging itself out from an accident of timing.

You might guffaw during tonight’s episode when a local TV reporter tells a hurricane victim, “If FEMA isn’t out here by tomorrow, call me,” but “Invasion” isn’t about a hurricane. It’s an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-like serial with two competing themes going -- the alien nature of aliens and the alienating nature of broken families. The first one involves more mystery but fewer awkward negotiations of visitation rights and parental responsibility.

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The “Invasion” premiere follows the highly anticipated return of “Lost.” Can you get mystery overload? Unlike “Lost,” which ended its first season twisted around itself with mystery and mythology, “Invasion” doesn’t seem poised to madden you that way. Its ambition is smaller and more self-contained; weirdness will visit a town and change relationships among an extended, and messy, family.

Our hero is a divorced father of two, park ranger Russell Varon (Eddie Cibrian). He’s got an ex-wife, Dr. Mariel Underlay (Kari Matchett), a new wife who is pregnant, TV reporter Larkin Groves (Lisa Sheridan) and two kids from his marriage to Mariel, who has since married Sheriff Tom Underlay (William Fichtner).

As the hurricane approaches, family tension simmers. Mariel is portrayed as nettlesome and smothering in her distrust of Russell; she comes by the house as the storm picks up to check on son Jesse (Evan Peters) and daughter Rose (Ariel Gade), and when Rose can’t be found, she and Russell have a row. If her concern for her children’s welfare comes off as reasonable, the show doesn’t seem to agree; the night of the hurricane she too disappears and is discovered the next morning, naked in a swamp, alive but different.

“How do you spend all night in a hurricane and not have a mark on you?” Russell understandably wonders. Soon, Rose is noticing that her mother “smells different,” creepy Sheriff Underlay is telling her the “first days are the toughest,” and Dave (Tyler Labine), Russell’s brother-in-law, discovers a skeleton in a swamp.

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Russell’s perplexed, but what seems to give him greatest pause, what tips him off that something’s truly amiss, is that his ex-wife is no longer on his case.

Dennis Hopper is not an alien, although we like him to play strange or eccentric or hubristic people; it’s what makes him lovable. On “E-Ring,” which, lands like a bad spinoff of “The West Wing,” he plays Col. McNulty. McNulty works for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expert in clandestine missions; he has a German shepherd named Otto and likes classic rock.

It’s Hopper, all right. The show gives him lines like, “Sunday mornings at the Pentagon, can’t you just feel the love?” and “We are America; we can do anything we want. It’s should we?” and “It’s a group of tribes, 25,000 strong, all competing against each other for the sec-def’s love, i.e. money. And the love often dictates the mission.”

That line’s pretty good. He’s talking about the Pentagon, by the way. McNulty has the whiff of Donald H. Rumsfeld, I suppose, but in the end I’d rather watch the real guy give a briefing; it’s more believable. “E-Ring,” which refers to the outermost ring of the five rings of the Pentagon, the one where approval for military action must come, is about infighting and turf wars.

It’s a veritable office of homeland insecurity. We’re placed squarely on the side of McNulty and his new charge, hotshot Maj. Jim Tisnewski (Benjamin Bratt), who’s just returned from a 14-month mission in Afghanistan.

Quickly, Bratt and Hopper emerge as can-do renegades, but these characters are really working for executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer. In the pilot, which was directed by Taylor Hackford, McNulty and Tisnewski are going over heads and beyond protocol to try to save an endangered spy in China. Cue the dissenting bureaucrats and stern generals. As the mission’s race against time ticks down, “E-Ring” thinks it’s got you by the throat, and that’s true, because you feel like you’re being led around on a leash.

*

‘Invasion’

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Where: ABC

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Ratings: TV-14-SV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for sex and violence)

William Fichtner...Sheriff Tom Underlay

Eddie Cibrian...Russell Varon

Lisa Sheridan...Larkin Groves

Kari Matchett...Dr. Mariel Underlay

Tyler Labine...Dave Groves

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Evan Peters...Jesse Varon

Ariel Gade...Rose Varon

Alexis Dziena...Kira Underlay

Aisha Hinds...Mona Gomez

Executive producers Shaun Cassidy, Thomas Schlamme. Director Thomas Schlamme. Writer Shaun Cassidy.

*

‘E-Ring’

Where: NBC

When: 9 to 10 p.m. tonight

Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

Benjamin Bratt...Jim “J.T.” Tisnewski

Dennis Hopper...Col. McNulty

Aunjanue Ellis...Jocelyn Pierce

Kelly Rutherford...Samantha

“Sonny” Liston

Executive producers Jerry Bruckheimer, David McKenna, Jonathan Littman, Ken Biller. Co-creators Ken Robinson, David McKenna. Director (pilot) Taylor Hackford. Writer Ken Robinson.


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