The Nine (ABC, Wednesdays)
There was a girl in my MFA program whose novel-in-progress was constructed around a mystery, which went like this: Two teenage girls are living with their grandma. Their mom's dead. Out back of the house there's a yard, and buried in the yard is a box, and what's in the box is very, very important. But the grandma can't just show the girls what's in the box, or tell them what it is, because, she says, they're not ready to know yet. In order to get them to the point where they're ready to learn the mysterious secret of the box, the grandma has to tell them the story of their mother's tragic life.

I thought of this never-to-be-completed novel when I learned that ABC was cancelling The Nine. The Nine is one of the current crop of TV shows that, in an attempt to duplicate the success of Lost, tell a single story over the course of one or more seasons. Like my classmate's novel, both Lost and The Nine are structured around a mystery. But Lost is huge, and The Nine is axed, and The Novel About the Mysterious Box helps explain why.

The big problem with the what's-in-the-box framing device is this: Why doesn't grandma just tell the kids what's in the fucking box already? I don't just mean that the psychology ("they're not ready to know") is contrived. I mean that, if the reader is waiting to learn the solution to the mystery but the storytelling character already knows, the reader is going to get frustrated and impatient with the character for not just coming out with it already.

Which, multiplied by nine, was the problem with The Nine. The show followed the lives of nine people who had been caught in a bank heist gone horribly wrong. (I watched the show because the bank-heist-gone-horribly-wrong is perhaps my favorite genre of all time.) At the start of the pilot, the robbery got underway. One of the thieves said, "This'll all be over in five minutes." And then the caption "52 hours later" appeared, and people were taken away in ambulances. We don't know What Happened In There, but the nine people's lives are Not The Same. For instance: the young couple who went to the bank together on their lunch break, who are engaged and happy and in love. After the robbery she can't look him in the eye, and he says "It was a moment. Does it have to mean everything?" Apparently he did something very cowardly inside the bank, and we keep watching in order to find out what it was.

The problem is, the characters -- all nine of them -- know what happened. (Well, eight of them do, More on this later.) They make oblique references to it. But they won't just come out and tell us what's in the fucking box already. This forces us into an antagonistic relationship with all nine of the protagonists, wihch is not what ABC is hoping for.

In Lost, by contrast, the characters are for the most part as much in the dark as we are. Like them, we're in a mysterious landscape with all kinds of unexplained features that we have to learn about as we go along. As in a detective story, we find the clues along with the characters, and so we're naturally led into a sympathetic relationship with them.

Oddly, The Nine had a perfect vehicle to inspire some Lost-style identification. The youngest of the nine -- Felicia, the teenage daughter of the bank manager -- had post-traumatic amnesia: she couldn't remember what had happened in the bank either. If Felicia had been the show's protagonist -- if the story had revolved around her quest to find out What Happened In There, with the audience finding out at the same time she did -- The Nine might have worked. But The Nine was conceived as an ensemble drama, and Felicia was one of the less interesting characters. When she started investigating What Happened In There, the other eight all sat around a restaurant table and began to tell her ... at which point the camera pulled back and the closing theme came in to drown out the dialogue. That's not a mystery, that's a cheat.