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Networks aren't calming our fears with tonight's anxiety-inducing debuts


Viewers looking for a little prime-time escapism would best be advised to avoid the new network dramas arriving tonight -- ABC's Invasion and NBC's E-Ring. Both speak to the nation's post-9/11 jitters, with America under attack by Mother Nature, aliens from outer space and international terrorists. Take your pick -- and the anti-anxiety medication of your choice.

E-Ring, a military thriller from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, is the more compelling of the two, with Benjamin Bratt as a Green Beret going to work in the Pentagon as part of an elite team headed by a mercurial -- and brilliant -- Army colonel played by the always engaging Dennis Hopper.

But talk about TV drama imitating life: Invasion's pilot opens with Florida being hit by a killer hurricane, even as the Gulf Coast struggles in the wake of Katrina and another storm, Rita, approaches that region. (ABC had taken advertisements for Invasion off the air after Katrina, but resumed them last week. As of late yesterday, the network still planned to air the pilot tonight.)

Both dramas are designed to offer reassuring messages of Americans coming together to battle invaders and enemies of the state -- think of the feature film Independence Day -- but there is not much of that upbeat message on Invasion tonight. The pilot, written by series creator Shaun Cassidy, is wall-to-wall darkness, paranoia, fear and a storm that all but levels the community of Homestead, Fla. And that's just the warm-up for the alien invaders waiting in the wings.

Viewers meet the main characters as they are scrambling to batten down the hatches amid predictions of the storm. The "good" people of Homestead are led by Russell Varon (Eddie Cibrian), a hard-working park ranger and divorced father of two who is expecting a third child with his new wife, Larkin Groves (Lisa Sheridan), a local TV reporter.

Living with the couple at the time of the storm is Dave Groves, Larkin's shiftless brother, who spends most of his time drinking beer and waiting for aliens to make contact with planet Earth. Boy, does he ever get his wish.

Varon's ex-wife, Dr. Mariel Underlay (Kari Matchett), is half of the other couple at the heart of this ensemble drama. She is involved in a relationship with the local sheriff, Tom Underlay (William Fichtner), whom no one except her seems to like. She goes missing during the storm, and is found the morning after, naked and unconscious in a swamp.

She can remember nothing of the storm, but all indications point to alien abduction (at least for those viewers familiar with The X-Files). Any doubts are erased when Dr. Underlay hugs her daughter, Rose (Ariel Gade), and the little girl says, "You smell different, mommy."

Such borderline over-the-top moments threaten the sense of verisimilitude usually expected in prime-time drama. But, maybe, such an approach to TV storytelling is exactly what's called for in these over-the-top times of invasion and fear. E-Ring is a more credible drama thanks to the sure-handed direction of Taylor Hackford and the highly focused performance of Bratt as U.S. Army Maj. Jim "J.T." Tisnewski.

Hackford, an Oscar-nominated feature film director who also serves as producer, creates a tick-tick-tick pace almost as intense as that of 24. And, while Bratt doesn't range into any of the darker moods visited by Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer in the Fox drama, he does have the potential as an actor to get there.

The pilot features Tisnewski joining the Pentagon team of Col. Bob McNulty (Hopper) just as it is faced with trying to extricate an American spy whose cover has been blown from China. It's The West Wing meets Alias, with Tisnewski as a high-tech -- but always moral -- warrior keeping the nation safe in these troubled times. The series will live or die on how believable Bratt can make that TV fantasy week in and out.

E-Ring premieres at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11). Invasion is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. on WMAR (Channel 2).

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