Pittsburgh is the lead location in Sci Fi Channel's "The Lost Room" (9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday), and although the six-hour miniseries wasn't shot here, it was dreamed up and written by a team with local ties.
Co-executive producers Christopher Leone, Laura Harkcom and Paul Workman are all Carnegie Mellon University graduates and Harkcom grew up in Cranberry. Together they plotted the "Twilight Zone"-ish story of Pittsburgh cop Joe Miller (Peter Krause, "Six Feet Under"), who gains possession of a key that unlocks a motel room in another dimension. He can step into the room by putting the key in any door's pin-tumbler lock, and he can emerge from the room in any location just by thinking of where he wants to be.
Sounds like an easy way to save on airfare, but Joe's sweet deal takes a bad turn when his daughter (Elle Fanning, Dakota's sister) gets lost in the room. This leads him on a quest to retrieve her and reveals to him more about the motel room, its contents and several factions fighting for control of the room.
The room's contents -- a clock, a comb, a bus ticket, etc. -- each endow the bearer with some unique ability. The bus ticket, for instance, allows the bearer a quick escape from any situation, always depositing him or her on a road in New Mexico.
Jennifer Bloom (Julianna Margulies, "ER") is in a group that feels the objects are dangerous and can cause harm. Karl Kreutzfeld (Kevin Pollak) collects the objects in an effort to use them to save his dying son. Pittsburgh medical examiner Martin Ruber (Dennis Christopher) becomes obsessed with the objects and falls in with a group of religious fanatics who believe the objects were created by God.
"The Lost Room" is certainly a more creative exercise than past Sci Fi miniseries (including "The Triangle"), but it sometimes feels rushed. One minute Joe and Jennifer are at odds, the next, they're sleeping together.
The cabals and their battles get short shrift in this miniseries, which is a shame since that aspect of the story is more intriguing than yet another father-saving-his-daughter yarn. But Harkcom said the cabal stories might yet be told.
"When we sold it to Sci Fi, we had envisioned it as a weekly series and had a whole season just dealing with the cabal wars," Harkcom said this week. "That's something we would absolutely explore ... in an ongoing series."
That also explains the coda at the end of the miniseries' third night that, literally, leaves the door open to continuing adventures in The Lost Room.
Harkcom, a 1989 graduate of Seneca Valley High School and a 1993 grad of the CMU creative writing program (with a minor in drama), began her Hollywood career as a movie development executive. Her stint at Warner Bros. included work on the critically-acclaimed animated film "The Iron Giant."
She left the studio in 1998 to write full-time with Leone. He was the common factor among the "Lost Room" trio, having known Workman at CMU. Over Thanksgiving several years ago, the three started batting around ideas.
"Paul had always had this idea about what's the greatest super power he could have that would be the least conspicuous," Workman recalled. "The idea was there was a motel room that he could live in where he didn't have to pay rent, he had room service and could go anywhere in the world just by thinking about it. He thought that would be the greatest super power. We combined that with an idea Chris had where there's a world like ours with magical objects with supernatural powers. That was the genesis."
Initially they envisioned "The Lost Room" as a film, but quickly realized the story was too expansive. Sci Fi bought their pitch for a two-hour pilot and six additional one-hour episodes in 2003. Eventually it mutated into a six-hour miniseries produced by Lionsgate, the company that will shoot Spike TV's "The Kill Pit" in Pittsburgh next year.
Lionsgate considered filming "Lost Room" here but settled on Albuquerque.
"The [tax] incentive program wasn't here, and we couldn't figure out how to afford to bring the product here," said Gary Goodman, Lionsgate executive vice president of television production.
Harkcom said Pittsburgh was selected as the setting because it was a place all three writers knew, and they got no resistance from the network or studio about that creative choice. "They really liked the idea of it not being Los Angeles or New York. It's a town that more audience members could identify with."
Viewers will hear references to Pittsburgh sites (a pawn shop in Braddock Hills, Bloomfield, the corner of Smithfield Street and Liberty Avenue), but not as many as Harkcom would have liked.
"There were a lot more that didn't clear legal," she said. "We wanted to use Giant Eagle, we wanted to use Ritter's Diner. ... I tried to get as many things into the dialogue as I possibly could."
In addition to "The Lost Room," Harkcom and Leone are in development on a big screen movie called "Jack vs. Future Jack," a comedy about a man who's future self returns to the present to warn himself that he'll be miserable if he breaks up with his girlfriend as planned.
Comcast giveth and taketh away
Comcast will add Fox Reality as Channel 118 on the digital classic tier. Now we can all watch Amber Brkich Mariano and Rob Mariano when their next reality show debuts in 2007. Hooray! (Please note: That's a sarcastic "Hooray!")
On a sadder note, Comcast will drop American Life TV (Channel 124), home of "Homefront" reruns, and arts network Ovation (176). Changes occur Tuesday.
This week's Q&A responds to questions about "Gilmore Girls" and local news coverage of deer hunting season. Read it online.
TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582.