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In the wake of Katrina, some calmer fiction

A rule of popular culture: the more dangerous the real world becomes, the more we see sci-fi fantasies and apocalypse for fun and profit.

Hence, NBC's "Surface" and CBS' "Threshold," two nifty sci-fi fantasias for our post- 9/1 1 era that postulate creatures from Somewhere Out There coming to get us.

Neither, of course, begins to match the harrowing reality of Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast. The very idea that New Orleans -- one of the most beloved and crucial of all American cities -- could meet an apocalypse of water and be quite possibly banished to the precincts of memory is horrifying in a way that no TV series could ever approximate.

In comparison to the images of Katrina -- a city under water, clusters of starving people sleeping on a highway overpass -- "Threshold" and "Surface" are like bubble-gum cards.

In fact, that's probably what makes them so welcome as fantasy. Most of us are reasonably sure that creatures from the great beyond aren't about to swoop down and turn us all into minestrone.

How much easier, then, it is to watch an extraterrestrial conspiracy or an invasion of creatures from the depths of the sea.

One by one:

* Surface (Mondays at 8 p.m. on NBC). It comes from Josh and Jonas Pate who, in the movie world, are the Wal-Mart version of the Wachowski brothers ("The Matrix" movies) and the Coen brothers. Which means it has a kind of sweet-natured, trashy, B-movie Saturday matinee kind of feel to it, even if it leads off NBC on Monday nights (students of TV will recognize it as "The Fear Factor" time slot).

It seems there are weird, whale-like creatures on the deepest depths of the ocean. They may have giant headlights. Then again, maybe it was something else Lake Bell saw on the bottom of the ocean floor. (How delightful is it, by the way, that it stars someone named Lake Bell?)

In any case, she's there, no doubt, because sexual harassment by Denny Crain in "Boston Legal" didn't pay enough. So, on "Surface," she's a kind of camp counselor version of a marine biologist who suspects something gruesome is happening way down under.

And too, of course, there's the obligatory mischievous little boy who thinks there's nothing cooler than finding slimy and mysterious monster eggs the size of dinner plates and smuggling them into the family aquarium to hatch into God-only-knows-what.

At the end of week one, the episode seemed to tell us that they may have been found first down below but they really come from above. Then, the coming attractions suggested that somewhere down the road, they may all turn into good guys and save us -- or at the very least cure our rashes and hangnails. It's junk but fun.

* Threshold (Fridays at 9 p.m. on CBS). Not junk. And not always fun, either. It is, so far, wild with promise but, so help me, it could go downhill fast into the kind of preachy, paranoid mumbo-jumbo that bedevilled and infected "The X-Files" in its final years.

Even so, the two-hour pilot was fine. It seems that Carla Gugino has, among other apocalyptic scenarios, concocted a "Threshold" protocol for what to do in case extraterrestrials are out to get us. So the first order of business was assembling a crackerjack team of eccentrics and social outcasts (and the actors to play them, like Brent Spiner and Peter Dinklage).

Good plan, but nothing gave me as much of a kick as the identity of the actor who played the first human who seemed to be taken lock, stock and DNA by the aliens -- William Mapother, cousin of famous Scientologist and couch-jumper Tom Cruise.

With alien fire in his dead eyes and spouting mumbo-jumbo, Mapother kept showing up, taking five bullets to the thorax and vanishing, only to come back another day (on Oprah, perhaps, declaring his love for Katie Holmes and his eternal fealty to L. Ron Hubbard).

I don't know whether the "Threshold" people were having some fun at the expense of Scientology or merely putting a pretty good character actor to work, but I wouldn't put a little joke past them. If so, this could turn out to be a jolly season on "Threshold."

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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