Easily the best of ABC's overly similar, large-cast ensemble dramas, "The Nine" (10 p.m. tomorrow) sets up a story of strangers brought together when they become hostages in a bank robbery. The rest of the season will slowly reveal exactly what happened inside the bank through flashbacks.Ron Tom, ABC
Jessica Collins, left, and Scott Wolf play a couple who become hostages during a bank robbery in the new ABC drama "The Nine."
Click photo for larger image.
It also asks viewers to care about the myriad characters on a weekly basis. But airing after "Lost" -- the original large-cast ensemble drama with character-establishing flashbacks -- will viewers be too exhausted to stay tuned? Some might argue that's what doomed last season's post-"Lost" serial, "Invasion," although a more logical argument would say viewers stopped watching "Invasion" because nothing happened. In the pilot, at least, that's not a problem with "The Nine."
The premiere begins with scenes of the assorted characters going about their days until the fateful moment when brothers Troy (Owain Yeoman) and Randall (Jeffrey Pierce) rob a Los Angeles bank.
After just the beginning of the robbery, "The Nine" skips over 52 hours until the hostage crisis ends, posing questions galore:
Why does assistant district attorney Kathryn Hale (Kim Raver, "24") emerge with her hair chopped off on one side of her head?
How did one of the bank tellers end up dead?
When: 10 p.m. tomorrow, ABC.
Starring: Scott Wolf.
What happened to the gun that suicidal Egan Foote (John Billingsley) deposited in a bank urinal?
What caused a fissure in the relationship between surgeon Jeremy Kates (Scott Wolf, "Everwood") and social worker Lizzie Miller (Jessica Collins)?
It's Lizzie who gets to explain the show's concept through dialogue.
"I woke up, I went to work, it was a regular day. And then I ended up in there with all of these people. Most of us didn't know each other, but after what we went through, for the rest of our lives ..." Lizzie says, her voice trailing off, but the sense she gives is that the hostages are now inextricably linked.
Each subsequent episode will open with a scene from the bank robbery, in chronological order. By the end of the season, presumably, viewers will know the whole story of what happened inside the bank, and the survivors will have had an influence on one another's lives.
Written by the brother and sister team of Hank ("Without a Trace") and K.J. Steinberg ("Judging Amy"), "The Nine" doesn't skimp on mysteries or a high-caliber cast that includes Chi McBride ("Boston Public") as the bank branch manager, Tim Daly ("Wings") as a cop and Carnegie Mellon University grad Lourdes Benedicto ("Titans") as a teller.
"The Nine" is a high-sheen production, but its long-term success will be dependent on the Steinbergs and their writing staff to create characters viewers don't just like, but that they feel like they must watch every week, even after the adrenaline rush of "Lost." That's a tall order -- one that, on a scale of one to 10, is another solid nine.
American TV doesn't know when to end a show, milking programs for years after the central concepts have long been exhausted. But the British are more savvy, devising programs to run a set number of episodes with no urgent demand to reach the 100-episode syndication jackpot.
When: 10 tonight, BBC America.
Starring: Jim Broadbent.
That explains the six-episode structure of "The Street" (10 tonight, BBC America), a drama set on a single block, chronicling the lives of the people at each address, one hour at a time. Like a connected short-story collection, the stars of one hour may be just bit players in another hour, creating a true sense of place and perspective. For instance, there's no way to know the kindly old man (Jim Broadbent) across the street in tonight's episode about a neighborhood tragedy has sunk into a deep depression after losing his job. That story will be explored next week.
In tonight's hour, the focus is on two families that become linked by betrayal and tragedy. To say more would give too much away.
Written by Jimmy McGovern ("Cracker"), it's easy to admire the ambitions and structure of "The Street," but enjoying it is another matter. Dry and depressing, "The Street" has some amusing moments of dark humor. But in its first two episodes at least, it's an incredibly gloomy address in the TV lineup.
Do you like your comedy absurd with a side of the bizarre? If so, Comedy Central's freakishly funny animated show "Freak Squad" (10:30 p.m. tomorrow) is for you.
When: 10:30 p.m. tomorrow, Comedy Central.
Starring the voices of: David Cross, Will Arnett.
Based on an idea by David Cross ("Arrested Development," "Mr. Show") and H. Jon Benjamin ("Home Movies"), "Freak Squad" follows a band of superheroes who take on missions the Justice League thinks it's too good for. Like getting a rare nut for the president. Or rolling back the odometer on the president's Trans Am when he wants to put it up for sale.
A Pentagon parking lot attendant gives the freaks their mission assignments, which they routinely fail to complete. When they're not on missions, they perform in America's last traveling independent freak show, owned by a kindly but out-of-it elderly couple who must constantly ward off the takeover overtures of greedy corporate behemoth Freak-Mart.
The freaks include Siamese twins, The World's Tallest Nebraskan, a premature baby with an Italian accent, a Log Cabin Republican and The Bearded Clam.
Alternately goofy and smartly satirical, "Freak Squad" may be the best companion to "South Park" Comedy Central has come up with yet.