LOS ANGELES - It's not just a case of whodunit this TV season. It's also a matter of who is it, is it alien and does it want to destroy us? Who's behind the frame-up? Who married Ted?
In a blatant effort to hook viewers with the kind of juicy mysteries that made "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" hits for ABC, the networks are airing new series filled with more puzzles than a shelf of Agatha Christie novels.
"Invasion," "Threshold" and "Surface" are among the shows with sci-fi secrets at their center. "Reunion" has a murder, "Prison Break" a legal morass and "How I Met Your Mother" matrimony as their big teases.
The question on "The West Wing" was grandfathered in: Starting last year, it set up Jimmy Smits or Alan Alda as the successor to Martin Sheen's President Bartlet, with the election to be decided this season.
ABC's leaders of the pack aren't ceding ground in this competition.
On "Lost," Kate, Dr. Jack and Locke dropped through the hatch and into a Pandora's box, an underground bunker equipped with electricity, a computer and 1970s tunes and home to a gun-toting mystery man named Desmond.
Jack and Desmond had met pre-island, when the pessimistic doctor was about to operate on a paralyzed accident victim (his future wife). Have faith, Desmond advised him. Who is this guy, who's the Mr. Big he's waiting for and why did Quinn think it might be him?
In the season opener for "Desperate Housewives," we saw Wisteria Lane newcomer Betty and her armed son Matthew taking food to someone imprisoned in their basement and Matthew apparently lie to a neighbor about his father being dead.
"I just thought that could help our cover story," he said. "You know - win 'em over."
"In the future," mom advises, "leave the cleverness to me."
Whether the networks are being too clever by serving up so many intricate plot lines is the biggest question mark of all. Will viewers devote the weekly time and attention such stories demand or will they get bored playing detective?
Among the mysteries already afoot in this young season:
- "Threshold," 9 p.m. EDT Friday, CBS. A destructive force is unleashed on a U.S. Naval cargo ship by what may be an alien force, cleverly designed as a giant Christmas ornament with kung-fu moves. Can Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey's defensive plan stop the menace? Or have she and members of her team already been taken over by the aliens? Of equal importance, will the hot Caffrey and equally hot covert operative Cavennaugh find time to hook up?
- "Invasion," 10 p.m. Wednesday, ABC. Sheriff Underlay may be a dedicated lawman trying to quarantine his hurricane-battered Florida town out of concern for its residents - or is he an alien? Or is he part of a government conspiracy to hide the truth that we've been invaded? Is his wife among the body-snatched? And what the heck is up with those matching bite marks on park ranger Varon's brother and a mysterious Air Force officer?
- "Surface," 8 p.m. EDT Monday, NBC. In this fish tale, strange underwater beings are at best unfathomable and at worst may be causing global warming. A big sea creature played Frisbee with a submersible carrying an oceanographer and a small one became a boy's oddball pet. Then there's the guy who supposedly died in a diving accident, leaving behind a very suspicious brother. Is another government conspiracy at work?
- "Prison Break," 9 p.m. EDT Monday, Fox. Will Michael beat the clock and get his wrongly convicted brother, Lincoln, out of the penitentiary before Lincoln's execution? Or will the law discover that Lincoln was framed in the murder of the vice president's brother? And who killed the priest poised to intervene in his case? It looks like the U.S. Secret Service is meddling big time, suggesting, yes, another government conspiracy. Do all these conspiracies explain why so little gets accomplished in Washington?
- "Reunion," 9 p.m. EDT Thursday, Fox. This drama tracking a group of high school friends over two decades is riddled with riddles. Which one was murdered and did one of the gang kill them? They're dragging out the mystery, with the police detective on the case referring only to "the victim" or "they" to avoid tipping even the dead person's gender, let alone name. All will be known in due time - about 22 episodes.
- "How I Met Your Mother," 8:30 p.m. Monday EDT, CBS. They fooled us in the first episode, when we thought Ted was telling his kids the story of his marriage to Robin and then we found out he didn't marry Robin. Learning the future Mrs. Ted's identity would undercut the show's premise, so the point obviously is to enjoy the flashback ride - and hope the series lasts long enough for the blockbuster finale, when Ted finally ties the knot with ...