One of the first images showcased on The Inside, a new crime drama premiering tonight at 9 on Fox, is that of a dead woman with half her face cut off. Even without the setting of an abandoned warehouse with rats scurrying around the corpse, gruesome would only start to describe the scene.
But just in case there are any viewers for whom the image is not graphic enough, the corpse is revisited a couple of scenes later at the morgue, with the coroner attempting to reattach the severed flap of face. Viewers get an even closer look this time.
Eating a large meal before sitting down to watch The Inside is not recommended.
And, yet, despite that warning, this series from Tim Minear, who wrote for The X-Files and Angel, has an almost hypnotic power to draw one into its darkness. While The Inside borrows its premise, look and feel from a number of hit dramas - Medium (NBC), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Without a Trace (CBS), The X-Files and 24 (Fox) - Minear manages to give the series its own distinctively edgy and paranoid sensibility. He is a seductive storyteller, but the tales he tells in the first two episodes of The Inside leave one feeling decidedly unsettled.
The 24 part involves three producers from that hit show heading up the creative team - Howard Gordon, David Nevins and Brian Grazer. Like 24, The Inside is set in the Los Angeles bureau of a specialized team of crime fighters working in the Justice Department.
Instead of CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) featuring Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), here it is VCU (Violent Crimes Unit) featuring Virgil "Web" Webster (Peter Coyote). VCU is described in a Fox press release as a "rogue division," much as CTU was when Bauer was in charge.
But for all of that shared geography and FBI bureaucracy, the comparisons between 24 and The Inside basically end with the premise. Webster is less Bauer than he is a cross between CSI's Gil Grissom (William Petersen) and Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia) of Without a Trace. As weird and remote as Grissom, and seemingly as troubled as Malone, Webster autocratically runs a handpicked unit of skilled agents who specialize in serial crimes (in the first two episodes, men who mutilate and kill women).
The aforementioned corpse in tonight's pilot is one of Webster's agents. Her mistake, in Webster's words, was "letting the killer get inside her head." Before her autopsy, Webster already has a replacement on-board from Washington, Special Agent Rebecca Locke (Rachel Nichols), a woman in her 20s who seems to form psychic bonds with killers and victims. This is the part of The Inside that clearly imitates NBC's midseason hit, Medium.
Agent Locke was abducted as a child, and after 18 months, managed to escape her captor. The scars of that ordeal are apparent. The fresh twist here is in the way Webster seems to ruthlessly exploit Locke's vulnerability, troubled past and psychic skills to solve cases and boost the unit's performance rating. Is she his fair-haired, star agent, or his victim?
Special Agent Paul Ryan (Jay Harrington), self-described as the "conscience" of the team, believes the latter and takes it upon himself to protect Locke. The power dynamic and psychological triangle involving Ryan, Webster and Locke are straight out of Without a Trace.
Locke suffers horrifying visions. At one point, she sees a flash image in her mind's eye of the killer, who not only severs faces but also skins the hands of his victims. He is licking one of those hands like an ice cream cone as he calls to Locke.
The hunt to catch him before he kills again makes for compelling drama, but remember the warning: The Inside is not a series for those whose stomachs are easily unsettled.