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Pilot Inspektor: FOX's "Vanished"

There seem to be a number of trends with this season's batch of new series, whether they be numeric titles (20 Good Years, 30 Rock, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Six Degrees, and The Nine all join fellow digit-obsessed series 24, Two and a Half Men, One Tree Hill, 20/20, and the blatantly-named NUMB3RS on the schedule), series revolving around strangers brought together by fate (The Nine, Six Degrees, and Heroes), or a genre that seems to have captivated the national imagination in the wake of Lost, 24, and The Da Vinci Code: conspiracy dramas.

This season's pilots seem to have an inordinate fixation on vast reaching conspiracies and Kidnapped, Traveler, Runaway, and Vanished all deal with conspiracies involving missing persons (Kidnapped and Vanished) or wrongfully accused fugitives (Traveler and Runaway). While I'll get to those shows later--you can catch my review of Kidnapped from a few weeks ago here--let's take a look right now at FOX's pilot Vanished.

At first glance, Vanished bears more than a passing resemblance to NBC's missing-persons-serial Kidnapped, but upon closer scrutiny, the similarities between the two series end once you look past the subject matter. However, it is impossible not to compare the two shows--at least their respective pilots--which start out on the same path but quickly converge into two paths, with Vanished taking the road less traveled.

Vanished follows the story of three people: tarnished senior FBI agent Graham Kelton (Gale Harold), newly returned to work after a disastrous rescue mission ended in the kidnap victim--a child named Nathan--being blown to smithereens; tawdry broadcast news correspondent Judy Nash (Rebecca Gayheart) who thinks that this story could make her even more famous than than the victim; and Sara Collins (Joanne Kelly), the beautiful schoolteacher wife of an up-and-coming senator... who might not be all she appears to be or even WHO she seems to be.

Sara is set to give the opening remarks at a charity event at the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia when she's kidnapped from the hotel lobby and vanishes without a trace. Her husband, Senator Jeffrey Collins (John Allen Nelson), is distraught but immediately calls in the FBI. While he definitely has some political enemies--there's the matter of his not agreeing to vote along party lines--he can't help but remember that Sara had wanted to tell him something important earlier that evening. Sara was so concerned about something--it might have to do with that rather odd phone call she cut short before Jeffrey walked into the room--that she also left a rather curious voicemail message for her parents in Orlando.

Graham wants to know if Sara or Jeffrey were having an affair and Jeffrey immediately says that they were in love. Did Sara have any enemies? No, Jeffrey says, she was a schoolteacher. Does Jeffrey have any enemies? He is a politician, after all. What about his ex-wife, the mother of his children? She's in Europe. But they ended things amicably and she and Jeffrey talk every now and then, but their contact is limited. So then who would want to kidnap the senator's wife? And why hasn't there been any contact from the kidnapper for a ransom?

The clues start mounting up quickly. The senator's bratty daughter Marcy (Margarita Levieva) is initially also thought to be missing, but she winds up in the arms of her shady boyfriend Ben (Christopher Egan)... who might just be involved in Sara's disappearance. At first Marcy doesn't seem concerned at all by her step-mother's kidnapping but soon realizes that the man she plans on marrying (they were about to head off and elope when Graham and a SWAT team show up) is involving in something dangerous when she discovers a bloody shirt from the night Sara disappeared and a bag filled with cash. Could Ben have had something to do with Sara?

There's the matter of the home pregnancy test that Graham and his associate FBI Agent Lin Mei (Ming-Na) discover at the family's home, a test which initially makes Graham believe that Sara was pregnant, a fact that surprises Jeffrey. But since Sara's parents later confirm to Graham that Sara had endometriosis and couldn't conceive, that pregnancy test... which means that the test belongs to someone else. Someone like Marcy?

Graham and Lin Mei use the hotel's CC footage (and a rather ingenious use of glue pellets) to identify the man who was last seen with Sara, a man who identified himself as a hotel concierge and walked Sara to the house phones. They eventually find the man they're looking for and he's dead, stuffed in the trunk of his car, shot in the head, executioner-style. But what's eerie about the corpse is the fact that the palm of his hand has a weird tattoo--it sort of looks like an angular 9--and that tattoo was inked AFTER he was dead. Creepy...

The FBI come up with a timeline for all of Sara's movements the day of her disappearance and find a discrepancy: Sara claims that she had a dentist appointment but the dental office has no record of her coming in. But Graham and Co. are able to download Sara's true whereabouts from the GAPS signal trail in her BMW. It appears that she was in a small town, outside Atlanta. Graham and Lin Mei head out and get a waitress to positively identify Sara. She was there that day with another woman and every time she headed over to the table, they immediately got very quiet. Graham spies an ATM directly across the street from the cafe and the FBI is eventually able to use the footage from the ATM camera to get the woman's face. And--surprise, surprise--the woman Sara secretly met was none other than Jeffrey's ex-wife. The same ex-wife that's supposed to be in Europe...

Graham uses Jeffrey's ex-wife's cell phone number to triangulate her location and--wouldn't you know it--she's at the Biltmore Hotel, the very same place from which Sara was taken. The FBI raids her hotel room, but the ex-wife is gone. But someone must have tipped her off, because her room service coffee is still warm... Canvassing the room, the team discovers a program from Sara's charity event, ripped in half and some brown hair--possibly matching Sara's--that had been torn out at the root. Just what is Sara hiding? And what was going on between her and Jeffrey's ex-wife? But Jeffrey's son Max (John Patrick Amedori) has a few secrets of his own, most notably that he knows that his mother is in town and that he emails her that Jeffrey knows that she's in town and asks if he and his mom are still planning on meeting up with her the following day...

The final clue is even more baffling. The gun used to execute the fake hotel concierge was an extremely rare Luger pistol and there's only one gun of that make registered to anybody in the area. Graham and his team set out to raid the farmhouse where the gun's owner is said to live... but there's no one there and the place is deserted, save for quite a lot of flies. Slowly walking up the stairs, Graham and Lin Mei discover a rather shocking sight: the corpse of a missing governor's wife who had vanished ten years earlier. Her body has been immaculately preserved and she looks exactly the way she was the day she disappeared; she's been frozen up until now. But why? And then Graham finds a clue specifically meant for him: it's a prayer card--St. Nathan to be precise (the very same name of the kidnapped boy he couldn't save)--with a few numbers written on the back, including a familiar-looking number 9...

Meanwhile, broadcast journalist Judy and her boyfriend/cameraman Adam (Robert Hoffman) are trying to get to the bottom of the case their own way and they discover a nifty piece of information that Graham and his team don't have yet: this isn't the first time that Sara was kidnapped. But all news reports about her disappearance seem to have, well, disappeared. (Shades of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine's classic kidnapping novel "Gallowglass" here.) And in Boston, a stranger catches a glimpse of Judy's news report on Sara's kidnapping and recognizes Sara's photo but he knew her by a different name. She was his girlfriend and, when she agreed to marry him, she suddenly vanished.

I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed Vanished, especially since it wasn't really on my radar when I was looking for new shows I'd watch this fall. While I think that Kidnapped's Jeremy Sisto brings a lot more charisma and menace to his role as K&R expert Knapp, I hope that Vanished's Gale Harold kicks it up a little bit in subsequent episodes. His portrayal of Graham came across as a little flat and I found it harder to connect with him than Sisto's hero. While producers have given him a traumatic incident, a young daughter, and a semi-religious bend, Graham is pretty much a cipher; there's not much for Harold to work with there so far and his Graham is no Jack Bauer.

The rest of the cast is extremely good. Standouts include John Allen Nelson and Joanne Kelly, who portray Jeffrey and Sara Collins, respectively; both come across as extremely likeable and engaging, a difficult feat considering how little screen time they shared together. It was wonderful to see Gayheart in a tough, ambitious role playing someone who isn't all that sympathetic for once. I wish that Ming-Na had more to do as FBI Agent Lin Mei; so far Lin seems to stand in Graham's shadow a lot and run interference for him. Hopefully, they can become something more akin to partners in subsequent episodes and producers can deepen her role.

Created by Josh Berman (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and directed by Mimi Leder (John Doe, Deep Impact), the pilot is beautifully shot and gripping. While I had initially thought that Sara's disappearance would turn into a 24-style political/espionage thriller, the Da Vinci Code-esque religious clues scattered throughout take this series into an entirely surprising and unexpected direction. Something bigger is going on here than mere political vendettas and I wonder if Vanished will wrap it up in one season (a la the aforementioned 24) or if the Berman and Co. have plotted the series beyond Year One.

Will viewers take to Vanished's pseudo-religious plot and dense plotting? Only time will tell, but meanwhile I know that there's room in my heart (and on my TiVo's hard drive) for two kidnapping conspiracy shows this fall and it doesn't take a crack sleuth to figure out that Vanished will be one of them.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Last Comic Standing (NBC); Gilmore Girls (WB); According to Jim/Rodney (ABC); House (FOX); America's Next Top Model (UPN)

9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Last Comic Standing (NBC); Pepper Dennis (WB); According to Jim/Less Than Perfect (ABC); House (FOX); Veronica Mars (UPN)

10 pm: 48 Hours Mystery (CBS); Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC); Boston Legal (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: The Thick of It on BBC America (11 pm EST).

If you missed the fourth episode of this scathingly funny British political satire, here's your chance tonight to catch up before a new episode airs on Friday. Poor Ollie becomes the butt of everyone's jokes when he sleeps with an opposition reseacher. That is, until Malcolm focces Ollie to use his new girlfriend to obtain information. Oh, Malcolm, you crazy Scotsman, when will you ever learn?


Anonymous said…
I will soooo be watching this and I hope it crushes Heroes. What a great lead in to get me pumped for 24 in January. Jace, now you have to catch up on Prison Break so you can just stay on Fox the whole night.
Anonymous said…
I've been planning on watching Vanished since I first heard about it strictly because I am a big fan of both Gale Harold and Ming-Na but the more information I get on the show the more I want to watch it. You know that every single one of Gale's Queer as Folk fans are going to be watching the first episode, though most of them won't watch the second.
Anonymous said…
I plan on watching it but it on at the same time as the bachlor is on so i tape the bachlor
Anonymous said…
As a QAF fan I'll have to watch the first episode, but after that I may just wait and buy the series. I adore Gale Harold, but invariably I find that his non-QAF work leaves me wondering (at least in a corner of my mind) why on earth he has all those clothes on. Also not loving the longer hair, but I really hope Vanished goes well for him so more people can enjoy his genius and beauty.

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