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Threshold of Pain

Let's stop for a moment and go over the very promising components of Threshold, CBS' obligatory something-is-out-to-get-us offering for fall. It's executive produced by Brannon Braga, veteran of at least two good Star Trek series (and, uh, two fairly godawful ones, but we'll blame Rick Berman for those...), and David S. Goyer, who just did a bang-up job writing Batman Begins. And it has, hands down, the best damn cast of any new show this fall: Carla Gugino, one of the rare actresses who can earn your respect no matter how little clothing she's wearing; Brent Spiner in his first major non-Data-related role; Charles S. Dutton, who is basically excellent in everything; and Peter Dinklage, star of The Station Agent, with all the soulfulness and star power of Russell Crowe condensed into a four-foot frame. Not to mention guest star William "Don't Mention I'm Tom Cruise's Cousin" Mapother, who sent chills up many a spine as the menacing Ethan Rom on Lost.

Furthermore, Threshold has a truly creepy premise. A fourth-dimensional alien ship, portrayed in beautiful and startling CGI as a sort of kaleidoscoping silver snowflake, appears to the crew of a Navy freighter one stormy night and broadcasts a mysterious signal that begins to alter their DNA. The surviving crew members mutate into alien-controlled superfreaks who disperse into the general population, hatching plans to spread the insidious and infectious signal as far as possible, by any means necessary. Their calling card: a spooky fractal pattern that appears like a scar on any nearby electromagnetic equipment, and in the behavior patterns of affected animals.

Gugino's a contingency expert, mistress of worst-case scenarios, tapped by the government to assemble a team of surly geniuses to stop the threat in its tracks. Her experts, save for a wooden-but-somehow-endearing military tough guy (Brian Van Holt), have all been more or less kidnapped from their normal lives; they're alarmed to find themselves virtual prisoners of the government, and disturbed at the privacy-invading power they now wield to stop the alien threat. More disturbingly, Gugino, Van Holt, and the nerdy astrophysicist played by Felicity and Alias vet Robert Patrick Benedict were exposed to a secondhand copy of the alien signal through a crew member's video recording. It doesn't seem to be mutating them -- yet -- but it's done something weird to their brain waves that seems to let them tap in to the alien frequency. Will this help them stop the invaders -- or make them a danger to their own mission?

It sounds cool. Sometimes, it almost is. The cast certainly gives it their all, and Dinklage's underwear-stealing, sarcastic, hard-drinking mathematician can be a real hoot. But for the most part, Threshold wastes everything it's been given. The episodes thus far have felt mostly plodding, conventional, and -- aside from a few mildly eerie dream sequences -- dull as dishwater. (The second episode, written by Goyer and Braga, came closest to being entertaining, but it's been bookended by real letdowns.) Why do you take such a terrific cast and give them such mediocre, jargon-heavy dialogue, as if they were on one of CBS's other interminable string of Xeroxed procedurals? How exactly can you remove all but the faintest shreds of tension from the notion of an infectious, mutating alien presence? And what genius decided that since folks loved Mapother as an enigmatic, super-strong menace on Lost, they'd basically have him reprise the exact same role here (down to the costuming)? It's a crying shame, and whoever's making Dutton in particular read off all that Shadowy Government Official boilerplate deserves to be arrested.

I wish Goyer and Braga had been involved with the show from the get-go, instead of jumping aboard a series created by Bragi Schut, whose most notable previous credit was producing NBC's Average Joe. I want to like Threshold so much. I'm a huge fan of these actors. I'm keen on the premise. And I enjoy the rare moments when Threshold indulges in smart, subtle characterization or witty dialogue. (Spiner's pleasantly snarky biologist, in the graffiti-covered storeroom of a fast-food joint where an alien infectee's head has just exploded, notes that the blood spatter extends from "about two feet below the mirror to ... where we learn that 'Toto Bites It.'") But for the most part, Threshold manages to squander some terrific ideas, and a magnificent cast, with its sluggish and unimaginative execution. Sorry, guys. Better luck next time.


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