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television: Reality (and Reality TV)

ABC bucks the reality trend with a night full of fictional drama.

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Which makes what ABC-TV is doing on Monday nights all the more interesting. The network that had the most to gain this season — some would be less kind and say ABC had nowhere to go but up — is defying the conventional reality-show wisdom by running a straight night of fictional, narrative, episodic television. ABC has moved one of its better shows, "The Practice," from Sunday nights (to make room for the new "Dragnet") and bookended it with two spanking new dramatic series. Imagine that. Now you can escape from reality (and "reality") and watch three continuous hours of drama from 8 to 11 p.m. on Mondays without ever bothering to paw around for the remote.

Surprising? Perhaps. But when you consider the sports-oriented competition on the other networks, it's no shock that all three of ABC's Monday-night shows have a strong appeal to female viewers. "Veritas: The Quest," which kicks off the night at 8, stars the young and appealingly handsome Ryan Merriman as Nikko Zond. "The Practice," airing at 9, has Dylan McDermott as the conflicted Bobby Donnell. And "Miracles" at 10 has Paul Callen played by Skeet Ulrich, who is hunky in a cerebral way not often found on TV.

"Veritas" is the weakest of the three shows and depends heavily on Merriman for its appeal. Nikko is a hyper-intelligent but contumacious teenager who is still mourning the death of his mother. Like his workaholic father, she was an archaeologist. She disappeared before Nikko's eyes in a mysterious ancient tomb. Now, Nikko and his father are teamed up as part of the Veritas Foundation in a quest to learn the truth behind the mysteries of history. Think of it as a lightweight version of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

ABC's new 10 o'clock drama is far more contemplative. Ulrich plays a debunker, an investigator of life's quirks, a firm believer that "we're down here alone." Then things begin to happen that change his perspective. Ulrich, a far more experienced and subtle actor than young Merriman, manages to keep the premise from slipping into the abyss of inanity, while at the same time provoking the audience to question whether it does — or does not — believe life is full of miracles.

It's a gutsy Monday lineup for ABC. So far, none of the three series has broken into the coveted Top 10. But at least ABC is offering an alternative that defies conventional wisdowm. And that's a relief. S

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