Drive, starring Nathan Fillion and Kristin Lehman, debuts tonight.


POWER DRIVE: When you write about pop culture, you develop a funny relationship with publicists, a sort of co-dependent thing where the writer marginally has the upper hand, inasmuch as you can never write about everything every publicist entreats you to notice every day. It’s the closest most of us will get to knowing what the quarterback on the high school football team felt like – the ability to pick and choose, and ignore everyone else, with the certainty that there probably won’t be any repercussions, especially around prom night.


You get a sixth sense, however, for when something demands your attention from amidst the din of e-mails, voice messages, press releases and couriered packages. The buzz around Drive, a new Fox series debuting tonight, started building in the U.S. papers, with a growing number of items and features about the show popping up as stateside publicists got through to editors and writers south of the border. So it was hard not to note a sense of urgency in the tone of the CTV publicists working to get some buzz around their own simulcast of the show here. And so, I put the screener in my player ...

Tim Minear, creator and writer of Drive, was behind shows like Firefly, Wonderfalls and Angel, shows with sturdy cult followings, helped no doubt by the connection to Joss Whedon, kingpin of all TV cult leaders. With Drive, he’s come up a concept so elegantly simple that it probably needed to be explained two or three times during pitch meetings – a mysterious road race with a big prize waiting at the end, that mixes willing participants with individuals coerced by the secret, sinister organization behind the race.

Basically, you have a few dozen cars, their drivers and passengers, tearing down the freeways and interstates of the U.S., in pursuit of money, their lives, or the life of a loved one, being toyed with by the sinister race masters who provide them with cryptic clues and pit them against each other. The pilot episode pauses just long enough to sketch out slivers of character and backstory before jumping back onto the road, where the camera swings and lunges in and around each vehicle thanks to a breakthrough in digital green screen technology that had much of the race actually shot on a soundstage.

The cast is full of familiar faces, like Nathan Fillion (Lost, Firefly) and Kristin Lehman (Prison Break), and character actors like Dylan Baker as a middle class dad who’s been forced to take his Lindsay Lohan-lookalike teenage daughter along for the ride, and Charles Martin Smith as the nerdy ringmaster. Melanie Lynskey has a great role as the mom of a newborn who gets the call to join the race just as she leaves the maternity ward. Minear has taken the slow unraveling of some inscrutable secret that made a show like Lost so initially appealing and married it to a setting that, thankfully, won’t have to test our credulity with every successive episode. And yes, I’m predicting that this will be the late season smash hit that Fox magically produces every damn year.