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TELEVISION REVIEW

Artful 'Six Degrees' deserves a winning fate

Ever wondered if you and a friend, or you and your spouse, once rode in the same subway car long before you met? Or if 10 years ago you stood beside each other as complete strangers at a concert?

``Six Degrees" is just such a musing about fate and chance, set in New York City, the world capital of randomly intersecting lives. It's a dramatic series whose characters bump shoulders on the street, and keep on walking. Later, they may connect; but they may not.

The ABC show, which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 5, is one of the pleasures of the new season, although it may strike some viewers as too conceptually loose to love. The series has a half-dozen plots that interlock only peripherally, and whether they will finally add up to one single vision is anyone's guess. Since ``Six Degrees" is executive produced by J.J. Abrams of ``Lost" and ``Alias," we can only expect it to go somewhere unexpected. But viewers who prefer direct and linear storytelling will likely be put off.

The best way to describe ``Six Degrees" is to compare it to the Oscar-winning ``Crash," ``Traffic," or any other narratively inventive movies by directors such as Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson. There are six characters, each in search of something. Hope Davis's recent widow is looking for an escape from grief; Campbell Scott's photographer is hoping for artistic renewal after rehab; Jay Hernandez's lonely public defender is on the trail of love. These and other fragments come together and form a shape, but that shape is not symmetrical or neat.

In the premiere, Hernandez's Carlos links up with two characters, for instance. He helps to get Erika Christensen's Mae out of jail, then meets Dorian Missick's limo driver in his efforts to find Mae and ask her out. Meanwhile, Mae has found a job as a nanny for Davis's Laura, and Laura has become buddies with Bridget Moynahan's Whitney, an ad executive who is trying to hire Scott's Steve to photograph a campaign. It's like touch tag, and it may sound complicated, but the show moves forward elegantly, without a hint of muddle.

Taken apart, each of the plots is only moderately interesting. Whitney's boyfriend may be cheating on her, Mae is on the run from her past, and she owns a wooden box filled with mysterious contents. But wound together and turning, they have a music-of-the-spheres effect, a unique harmony.

And more important , each story is beautifully acted, so that what could be a soap opera times six feels more like a group character study. Davis and Scott are as good as you might expect from their film work (they've teamed a few times before onscreen, including in ``The Secret Lives of Dentists"), and Moynahan and Hernandez are instantly likable and sympathetic.

``Six Degrees" makes great use of the city -- the local New York of independent movies and not the sleek urban monster of ``CSI: NY." But it is not a cozy or romantic show, and it's a lot less humorous and frenetic than its lead-in, ``Grey's Anatomy." That leap from sweet to bittersweet may throw a few potential viewers. If the artful and intriguing ``Six Degrees" is lucky enough to catch on, however, it could raise the network bar just a little higher.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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