Lost is ABC's answer to those who say the networks never take chances.

Executive producer J.J. Abrams dares in this new series about the aftermath of a plane crash on a mysterious Pacific island to try to reinvent the disaster movies of the 1970s as a weekly TV drama. Furthermore, he goes about it by improbably crossing genres - bringing in a major jolt of unseen horror to heighten the tension.

Surprisingly, based on tonight's one-hour pilot, it looks as if Abrams might just pull it off - giving ABC its first live-wire drama since he reimagined the spy thriller with Alias in 2001. There's no one in Lost who makes the screen throb quite the way Jennifer Garner did in the Alias pilot, but Matthew Fox (Party of Five) does just fine as a young, brave medical doctor who survives the crash and assumes leadership of the group. Evangeline Lilly does all right, too, as a woman who bears watching in more ways than being a beauty.

Abrams brilliantly exploits several genres simultaneously - including reality TV with all that viewers have come to learn (or think they have come to learn) about group dynamics by watching CBS' Survivor the past four years. What's most impressive is the way that Abrams - through the skillful construction of character via credible dialogue and camera work that makes one feel almost situated within the group - makes Lost feel as if it is the real thing.

The greatest risk taken by Abrams and ABC tonight comes in the first five minutes when Lost uses harsh sounds and jangled camera movement to create the surreal, nightmarish atmosphere on the ground after the crash of a jet. One can almost smell the burning fuel. The keening cry of a severed turbo engine stabs like a migraine.

The danger for ABC is that some viewers sitting down for a night of escape will simply start surfing for something more pleasant on another channel.

Don't make that mistake. Stay tuned, and Abrams will deliver one of the more exciting TV rides of the fall - along with a reminder that while it isn't HBO, network TV can still do drama.

Lost premieres tonight at 8 on WMAR, Channel 2.

'Veronica Mars'

She has a chip on her shoulder about social class and the way the town trashed her dad. She has a sweet tooth for the dark side, and a very short fuse with anyone who gets in her face. She carries a switchblade knife and works nights as a private detective.

And, oh yeah, she just started her senior year at Neptune High. Meet Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), girl detective, one of the most off-beat and likable characters of the new season.

The new UPN drama that bears her name is part Joan of Arcadia and part Rockford Files. Like Joan (Amber Tamblyn) in the CBS drama about an alienated teen who finds herself in conversation with God and isn't all that happy about what she hears, Veronica has issues. If she isn't clinically depressed, she's on the outpatient waiting list. But instead of being a downer, there's an energy and honesty in her anger that are bracing. Though she is much younger, her smart-aleck sense of humor and contempt for authority are reminiscent of Jim Rockford (James Garner).

"This is my school. If you go here, your parents are either millionaires, or they work for millionaires," Veronica says in voiceover on tonight's pilot episode. "If you're in the second group, you get a job - fast food, movie theaters, mini-marts. Or, you could be me. My after-school job involves trailing philandering spouses and investigating false insurance claims."

As improbable as the premise might sound, Bell's hard-edged performance makes it work. There's a mystery at the core of the series involving the death of Veronica's friend and the firing of her father (Enrico Colantoni) as town sheriff for botching the case. Veronica now works for her dad's investigation agency. While dad's the boss, Veronica's the only one in the office who seems to have the brains to solve her friend's death.

Veronica Mars looks to be one of the few new characters this fall worth getting to know. Just don't make the mistake of sitting down at her lunch table in the Neptune High cafeteria without first being invited.

Veronica Mars airs tonight at 9 on WUTB, Channel 24.

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