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The plot: Hook the viewers early

Times Staff Writer

A full week before Labor Day and a month ahead of the competition, Fox tonight rolls out the first new show of the fall season: “Vanished,” a series about -- well, it’s a little early to say exactly what it’s about, but the title refers, or seems to refer, to the missing wife of a U.S. senator from Georgia.

By the end of the first hour, the mysteries are multiplying, the better to hook you, and well they should, because just finding the missing wife of a U.S. senator from Georgia is not really enough to build a season on. You will not be surprised, then, that Nothing Here Is As It Seems.

Like Fox’s early-returning “Prison Break,” which “Vanished” follows in the schedule and with which it shares a certain lockjawed intensity, it is a serial, in a season of serials, the latest reinvention of a wheel most recently spun back into life by the success of “24,” also on Fox, and secured by “Lost,” both of which have exerted some specific influence on “Vanished.”

Its preemptive premiere makes strategic sense, given that the various whodunits, will-they-do-its, why’d-they-do-its, what-really-happened-in-theres coming your way this season will compete not only with their time-slot neighbors but also for limited space in your brain. By jumping the gun, “Vanished” calls first dibs on your attention. It has also been calibrated to last just until the return of “24" in January, which is not only polite but also smart, increasing the likelihood of getting from first episode to last.

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Most TV series have at least a little of the serial about them. Changes are permanent: If a character loses an eye, say, it does not grow back by the next episode. (Unless he’s an android or a demon or something.) But as a way to force viewers to keep returning for 13 or 22 or 32 weeks or even for several seasons to get what they used to get in an hour -- resolution -- the purposeful long arc has a special edge and obvious appeal. As soon as any puzzle is sprung, some kind of awful human desire to know how things will turn out takes over, even when we (often correctly) suspect that the answer will not be worth the investment of our time.

Just as “Lost” is headed toward what will surely be one of the great narrative letdowns of our time, “Vanished” is guaranteed to be more fun the longer it keeps its business obscure. (The pilot offers a defrosted 10-year-old corpse, a posthumous tattoo and an impossible pregnancy for your consideration.) Still, it’s clear by the end of Hour 1 that there is some quasi-religious conspiracy at work here -- the sort that likes to leave hints and calling cards and properly belongs to the world of fiction rather than to unscripted life, which runs not on thousand-year calculations but on immediate dumb luck.

As the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, Gale Harold is all pressed lips and knitted brows. That he has just had a little boy blow up all over him while trying to resolve another kidnapping -- not his fault, but still -- apparently gives him special leave not to shave regularly (although he dresses well) and be as rude as he likes to whomever he likes. Fortunately, he is partnered with the more reasonable Ming-Na (from “ER”), the best advertisement for the feds since Gillian Anderson. Indeed the show gets more “X-Files” as it goes along, and if characters start to spontaneously combust, I will not be shocked.

On the case from another angle is former Noxzema Girl Rebecca Gayheart as an ambitious reporter from that special place where TV news coverage is driven by the whims of ambitious reporters. Like Harold, she is up in everybody’s business. John Allen Nelson is the senator, Joanne Kelly his vanished wife, Margarita Levieva and John Patrick Amedori his (but not her) children. The daughter is in a relationship with an apparently dangerous dude, and the son is sending e-mails to his mother, who, when we get to see her, will be Penelope Ann Miller.

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Josh Berman is the brain behind this thing, and the years he has devoted to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” should not necessarily be held against him. Mimi Leder, who has directed some superior pulp in her time, including the George Clooney-Nicole Kidman film “The Peacemaker,” is an executive producer and directed the pilot, which does its business a tad aggressively and with a surprising amount of visual cliche, for the most part effectively. I, the Jury, am still out on this one; it could go either way from here.

*

‘Vanished’

Where: Fox

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When: 9 to 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14 DSV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, sex and violence)


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