Lost in a Sea of Imitators 

Going for the "Lost" formula with mixed results.

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ABC's "Lost" is the show other networks wish they had. The tale of an ensemble cast of fascinating characters stranded on a mysterious island is now midway through its third season, taking a breather until February 2007 while its army of fans waits with poorly concealed impatience.

Since ABC would never let its critical and commercial darling air anywhere else, rival networks have tried to find their own "Lost" this fall, with mixed results. CBS's "Jericho" has gone all-out to clone "Lost," a little too transparently. The "Lost" island has been re-created in the titular town of Jericho, Kan., possibly the only place left in America after a nuclear attack. NBC's "Heroes," for its part, borrows the "Lost"-style large ensemble cast and ongoing mysteries, with several disparate characters developing superhuman powers and slowly discovering how they can save the world.

The big difference is that while "Heroes" has successfully re-conjured that "Lost" magic in an original way, the poorly thought-out imitation "Jericho" smells like desperation — like the unpopular girl at school who suddenly shows up one Monday morning (or in this case Wednesday evening) dressed exactly like the popular girl.

"Jericho" aired in the time slot before "Lost," banking that viewers would rather see something similar on another network than watch what's left of Emmitt Smith's masculinity do the polka while waiting for "Lost" on ABC. As if to underline its dependency on the ABC show, "Jericho," like "Lost," has taken a midseason break, returning to screens in February.

The central mystery of "Jericho" — how and why an apparent holocaust happened — gets hinted at and agonizingly slowly revealed, just like the island-based mysteries on "Lost." Which would be fine, but the "Jericho" characters aren't quite interesting enough to divert our attention in the meantime. "Lost" has some truly fascinating characters and a great flashback device to get us off the island just long enough to get in the characters' heads. But even "Jericho" isn't shameless enough to steal that, relying instead on occasionally hollow action sequences to pass the time between holocaust-related revelations.

Not that it's all derivative. The inclusion of Morse code messages in each title sequence is innovative, and maybe once the show is established (the ratings are decent, and CBS didn't waste any time ordering a full season), "Jericho" can follow the example set by NBC's "The Office." That adaptation of the popular British sitcom has developed characters based on, but different from, those in the original. Hopefully "Jericho" will stop mimicking the popular girl long enough to develop its own personality.

"Heroes" already has its own personality. Instead of trying to be the popular girl, the NBC show knows it's the intelligent geek. Unashamedly littered with "Star Trek" and comic book references, and using a muted graphic-novel-style color scheme, it's not brazenly chasing the same audience as "Lost," but it has absorbed several of that show's techniques. Just as "Lost" has shown that flawed characters are more interesting because they have more issues to work through, when the "Heroes" characters aren't developing their powers, they're battling inner demons.

But the most important difference between "Jericho" and "Heroes" isn't on the television screen; it's on the Internet. "Lost" both used and expanded its mythology with innovative online content, all beginning with that intriguing fake Hanso Corporation commercial that led fans to a Web site. "Jericho," wanting the same online presence that "Lost" had, launched the "Beyond Jericho" Webisodes, which were advertised after the first installment of "Jericho." Unfortunately, "Beyond Jericho" lasted only a week. It was concept rather than content, and clearly no one at CBS had thought beyond the initial "We need online stuff" phase. "Heroes," however, boasts weekly online graphic novels that tie in with each episode, as well as a blog by the show's most likeable character, Hiro Nakamura (played by Masi Oka). Both are logical extensions of and perfect companions to the show, expanding the experience for avid fans with extra nuggets.

Just like the unpopular girl in the cool girl's clothes, "Jericho" is an example of how you shouldn't copy the style if you can't match the content, while "Heroes" proves that it's what's inside that counts, especially if you're a big comic-book geek. S

"Heroes" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Past episodes can be watched at www.nbc.com. "Lost" and "Jericho" are on hiatus until February. Episodes of "Lost" can be viewed at www.abcgo.com and "Jericho" at www.cbs.com.

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