Four autumns ago, the TV networks presciently, weirdly, scheduled three terrorism dramas just before 9/11. This fall, just after Hurricane Katrina, the lineup includes three sci-fi series about menaces from the water. Is it conspiracy? Clairvoyance? No, just TV: blame the success of ABC's Lost, in which plane-crash survivors battle eerie phenomena and seaborne attackers on an island.
The wettest of the Lost wannabes is NBC's Surface (Mondays, 8 p.m. E.T.), in which a new species of giant (mostly unseen) creatures appears in the world's seas. Idealistic oceanographer Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell) bumps into a mystery beast during a deep-sea bathysphere dive. A boy (Carter Jenkins) finds a translucent egg on the beach and puts it in his aquarium, not knowing it's sea-monster caviar. And there's a government plot to hide the truth, led by a scientist (Rade Sherbedgia) with a Dracula accent. (Because, of course, real Americans don't do cover-ups.)
The series hopscotches to so many locations (the Carolinas, the Antarctic, the ocean trenches) that you briefly forget that it gives you no reason to feel afraid or intrigued or anything else. It does aim, clumsily, at a sense of wonder, with so much faux Spielberg--a boy hiding a creature in his house, à la E.T.; an average guy who becomes obsessed with the secret, à la Close Encounters--that NBC might as well have called this Jaws: The Series. Instead it was called Fathom, then renamed the equally limp Surface. Now people can't say, "I cannot fathom how this mishmash got on the air."
Trouble also comes by sea in CBS's Threshold (Fridays, 9 p.m. E.T.), but this time it's an alien invasion. A Navy vessel is visited by a spacecraft that resembles a shape-shifting Christmas ornament; the boat's surviving crew members have their DNA reprogrammed with alien code and turn evil. So Washington calls in Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino), a worst-case-scenario consultant, and assembles a team of eccentric scientists. The cast is startlingly good--there's also Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) and Charles S. Dutton (Roc)--given that the actors have to deliver lines like "I think we're looking at a four-dimensional object--in three- dimensional space!"
Threshold is easily the goofiest of the trio yet occasionally the most entertaining. It has quirky humor but turns into CSI: The Fourth Dimension as the team chases sailors cum aliens. More disturbing is how blithely it notes that the team members are draftees, serving on pain of jail. Later, a government agent, bringing in a man suspected of being an alien, casually conks the guy's head against a car hood as he demands his rights. With friends like these, who needs aliens?
We must, because ABC offers more in Invasion (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. E.T.). A Florida town survives a hurricane relatively unscathed--until people who disappeared during the storm turn up in the water, faintly changed. (Body snatching again: abstraction of sleeper-cell fears or easy way to cut costs on prosthetics?) Drawn into the mystery is park ranger Russell Varon (Eddie Cibrian), whose ex-wife Mariel (Kari Matchett) is one of the changelings.