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Like the Toyota Prius, “Drive,” the FOX network’s latest offering is a hybrid. The show is essentially about a group of Americans who are participating in a secret, illegal cross-country road race. It’s one-third conventional car chase show (think “Starsky & Hutch,” and “ChiPs”) and two-thirds thriller with mysterious characters show (think “Lost“). Throw in a dash of “Death Race 2000” and a pinch of “The Running Man” to illustrate the plight of those characters coerced into competing, and you’ve got yourself a new Monday night regular.

Co-executive produced by Tim Minear, who also worked on “Angel,” “Wonderfalls,” and “Firefly,” the show is a ramped up “Amazing Race,” pitting couples–related or complete strangers–against each other in cell phone-delivered, clue-driven legs to win $32 million dollars, tax free.

The race, the introductory voiceover tells us, has been around since the dawn of the automobile. We learn that no one is randomly in the race, that each racer is chosen or allowed to participate for a reason. And there are hints given that each racer has a patron. To finish one of the legs last is a bad thing since you will be forced to partake in an elimination. But therein lies the rub, it’s not your own elimination. And yes, it’s as ominous as it sounds.

Sunday’s pilot started a bit slowly, but really revved up by the end. While the people behind the race are portrayed at turns as heartlessly callous, fiendishly evil, and dryly funny corporate types, it dawned on me that “the people” behind the race may be felonious Dr. Phils looking to empower the racers: For instance, abused wife Wendy Patrakas’ (played with absolute brilliance by “Heavenly Creature’s” Melanie Lynskey) son Sam is held hostage so she’ll compete in the race. But at the same time, they are allowing Wendy to defy her abusive husband–something she never would have thought of doing pre-race. The patrons protect her at times, and they help her discover just how far she would go for her son.

Certainly, an argument can be made that the show is in a way all about moral relativism. Here’s poor Wendy, whose baby has been kidnapped, forced to drive in this race. She comes in last on the first leg and is given a gun and told to eliminate another contestant. While seated in a diner scouting her target, the waitress–one of several omnipresent bit players who cajole and advise our protagonists–tells Wendy that shooting someone isn’t necessarily wrong: “Would anyone blame a lioness for protecting her cub?”

But, it’s the “Thelma and Louise”-like empowerment that is powering Wendy’s storyline. In fact, at several points the affable, accountant-looking race host/guide points out her ingenuity and her strength.

The same goes for Alex Tully, a landscaper from Hastings, Nebraska (played by the fantastic Nathan Fillion) who is dragged from his car by a fake state trooper only to be accused of a crime he says he didn’t commit. Unlike “Lost” we don’t get flashbacks of characters’ pasts, just allusions. Realizing he is losing valuable drive time, Tully tells the trooper that he isn’t the man he’s looking for and that he has to go since he’s participating in a secret road race to win back his kidnapped wife. He gets off, and gets a new car to boot. And more secrets are revealed.

Each participant has their own story to tell: The woman who witnessed her parents die in the race when she was a young girl; the dying father with sa assy teen daughter; the just-married soldier just back from Iraq; the local heroes who helped carry hospital patients to safety during Katrina; the rich boy and long-lost hoodlum half-brother. And like “Heroes,” we are eager to learn more about each character and are rewarded with interesting plot twists. Suffice to say, “Drive” is intriguing and fun ride.

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