'The Grid' a less-than-thrilling post-9-11 thriller

Monday, July 19, 2004

Every decade or so, some writer or genius stands up and tells us that fiction is dead and that writers just can't make stuff up as weird, chilling and compelling as real life. Novelist Philip Roth wrote something to this effect in the 1970s, and Tom Wolfe said pretty much the same thing late in the 1980s.

It took TV viewers about 10 years to catch up with Wolfe's prognostication, but sometime around 1999 audiences began to prefer the "real" drama of watching someone sweat on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" to the intrigues of scripted television.

After the murderous events of Sept. 11, 2001, many critics felt that viewers would never return to cynical fare like "Survivor" and "Temptation Island." We were wrong. An increasingly dangerous world only seemed to make reality escapism more appealing. The endless terror threat also spawned a new genre of TV thriller. But for all of their talk of homeland security and al-Qaida, a parade of 9-11-inspired dramas -- from "Threat Matrix" to "The Agency" -- failed to find audiences. I don't suspect that the six-episode series "The Grid" (8 p.m., TNT) will, either.

This joint TNT-BBC production is probably best appreciated as the drama that unites Dylan McDermott of "The Practice" with "ER's" Julianna Margulies. They are joined in the two-hour opening episode by a sprawling cast of lesser American agents, British spy chiefs and Arab terrorists, and their witting and unwitting flunkies.

Tonight's other highlights

Late night

Denzel Washington and Jim Rome appear on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno hosts Benjamin Bratt, Sen. John McCain and John Mayer on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).