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Adding finesse to dramatic intrigue

The TV age revels in quick and easy solutions, from too-good-to-be-true diets and wonder drugs to the pain-free rhetoric of politicians. How fascinating, then, that the story of this season has become the serialized drama, where answers come fleetingly, when they come at all.

What’s most remarkable about ABC’s new series “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” is how artfully they inch the ball forward without ever crossing the goal line. In the process they provide an enjoyable experience without necessarily bringing viewers any closer to deciphering their respective big riddles.

As storytelling challenges go, there’s really no other form that requires more finesse than this one, which invariably entails rectifying fewer problems each week than the promos imply.

This has been true of “Lost” in particular, whose premise appeared to paint the show into such a corner that in my initial review, admiration for the pilot was tempered by skepticism regarding where the series could possibly go. Even this far in, it’s still unclear how the producers can sustain the juggling act once they’ve exhausted flashbacks exploring the central characters, which hasn’t made the show any less intriguing.

The environs are somewhat less confining on “Housewives,” though there remains that little matter of why departed narrator Mary Alice chose to kill herself. Shortly after the series premiered a friend called to ask if I knew the answer, saying she was curious but reluctant to commit to the series. That, I explained, is why they won’t tell you.

Indeed, what’s gratifying about the popularity of these programs and others, such as Fox’s “24,” is that it runs counter to so many assumptions regarding our fast-food society. Younger viewers presumably being programmed by “reality” TV to absorb mini-soap operas in eight-episode arcs are suddenly embracing an open-ended journey that consists of one tantalizing baby step at a time.

From that perspective, there’s something of a cheat involved watching these series on a time-crunched basis, which has become a popular way of consuming “24.” Several people have told me about how they consciously skip the program on Fox, then immerse themselves in a season’s worth of episodes during weekend-long DVD viewing marathons.

While that sounds fun (and a little sick, maybe), it somehow eliminates the joy of anticipation — the ticking clock at each episode’s close signaling a 167-hour wait before the leads can be extricated from the latest harrowing situation. Moreover, such compressed viewing exposes little narrative glitches that are inevitable in such a format but harder to track when spread out.

Of course, “24” disappears from Fox’s lineup after each season’s original flight — unlike “CSI” or “Law & Order,” which are so neatly self-contained that the episodes do dazzlingly well in reruns, making them even more commercially viable. That’s just one of the hurdles serialized programs face, along with retaining and reclaiming viewers who might drift away due to the vagaries of scheduling or a creative rough patch.

Still, the giddiness surrounding serialization has so captivated me I decided to experiment by seeing if it could be duplicated within this space — thus luring everyone back in breathless wonder, without escaping the cobwebbed island of my mind. And guess what? Even as an exercise, making a story seem as if it’s progressing when it really isn’t is significantly harder than it looks:

Chapter I: By and large this has been a rough fall season, leading to finger-pointing regarding who deserves blame for various decisions. That said, if pressed to pick the TV exec most likely to be voted off the island next, it would likely be …

Chapter II: … truly irrelevant. It’s not really fair for the onus to land squarely on programming execs, given the vertically integrated structure of these companies. Even so, my inside sources say to expect a major shakeup at …

Chapter III: … some time in the near future. OK, that’s hardly a bold prediction. As it stands, disappointing numbers have already rendered “Father of the Pride” and “Dr. Vegas” early casualties, and scheduling revisions will almost certainly spur wholesale midseason changes, beginning with… Hey, this is actually kind of fun.

To be continued …

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