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NBC's new series "Mysterious Ways" is sap over substance.

No Miracle

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Good plotting is the essence of good drama. And good plotting doesn't mean just setting up an interesting dilemma. It also means providing a credible ending.

The Greeks and Romans, who could usually get the first part right, weren't always so successful with the last part. That's why they'd occasionally resort to having one of their gods lowered from above by stage machinery to extricate the actors from a difficult situation. That kind of tawdry solution became known as the deus ex machina ending. Literally, it means "god from a machine," and it's become shorthand for an improbability introduced at the last minute to untangle a plot.

So now, NBC-TV's new "Mysterious Ways" brings us a new twist on deus ex machina. I suppose you'd have to call it crux in arca.

Stick with me here. I don't want to give the whole thing away, so we'll delay the translation a bit.

"Mysterious Ways," which debuted for a six-week run last week, stars Adrian Pasdar ("Top Gun") as Declan Dunn, a professor of anthropology at an unnamed university somewhere in the northern U.S. (we know that because there's snow on the ground). His special interest, however, is investigating "miraculous" phenomena in an attempt to "discover the difference between a mystery and a miracle." Dunn's fascination with the unknowable followed his own near-death experience in an avalanche.

Helping him in his quest is Peggy Fowler (Rae Dawn Chong), a psychiatrist at the local hospital.

In episode one, Dunn sought to find out how a child who fell through the ice into a pond while sledding managed to escape dying. Nobody saw the boy fall into the pond, and nobody saw the rescue, either. His mother discovered him lying on top of the ice, soaking wet and apparently lifeless. When he awoke in a hospital bed, he described seeing a bright light and sparkles while he was under water and then a figure, wearing a cross on a necklace, who lifted him to safety.

Was it a mystery, or was it a miracle? Here comes the crux in arca part.

Just when you think Dunn and Fowler have found a perfectly logical explanation for everything - one involving the angle of the sun, a bag of stolen quarters, a grease stain and a homeless woman - the boy's grandfather appears on the scene to tell the child about his missing father. It seems the father was a bum who abandoned the boy and his mother, then straightened up his life, joined the Navy, saved eight of his buddies during the Gulf War and received the Navy Cross before he died. The grandfather produces a box (arca). Inside is the father's medal, which looks just like the cross (crux) the boy saw around the neck of the figure who saved him.

"Mysterious Ways" is too much for me. If all of the endings are going to be as sappy as this one, maybe I'll just take a Latin class

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