Zigzagging through London, Cairo, and D.C., with a detour to a Chechen-run auto dealership in Michigan, TNT's The Grid is pleasingly convoluted. Aspiring to be a character-thick, continent-hopping drama a la Traffic, the four-part series -- starring Dylan McDermott and Julianna Margulies as U.S. agents chasing a terrorist cell -- kicks off with a no-snack-break two-hour pilot. Fifteen primary characters crowd into the first 30 minutes alone. And the audience is trusted to keep apace with the quick cuts and even quicker explanations of the terrorists' disparate motivations and ultimate goal: an attack on American and British oil interests in Nigeria, followed by attacks on the countries themselves.
But the whirligig setup is undermined by ''The Grid'''s plodding dedication to the much-explored FBI-CIA turf wars (I'll pay at least $3 to ensure that I never again have to see a quietly menacing, silver-haired man -- in this case, Tom Skerritt -- get ''territorial''), as well as myriad shootings and explosions, filmed with the stolid earnestness of people who think they're pushing our orange-alert buttons. Further hampering the show's credibility is the oft-mystifying dialogue: ''When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp,'' murmurs Margulies' crisp NSC Maren Jackson, who until this moment has shown no predilection for bayou adages.
The swollen script is never really surmounted by Margulies and McDermott, two likable but limited actors with similar whisper-bark-smolder styles. McDermott, as an FBI agent with a superhero name (Max Canary!), is particularly ill-suited to play a roughed-up guy with the obligatory 9/11 connection. (His best friend died in the attacks; he's now dating the man's wife.) McDermott, whose innate elegance was perfect for ''The Practice,'' can't pull off smirky retorts like ''No tea for me, unless it's from Long Island...and has ice in it.''
Engaging then humdrum, smart then wildly vapid, ''The Grid'' is a wannabe-highbrow product of middlebrow TNT, a network that has to remind viewers ''We Know Drama.'' Ultimately, the pilot is intriguing enough to make part 2 worth a look. The deciding factor: Jemma Redgrave, a British actress -- and niece of Vanessa and Lynn -- who galvanizes (and gulps whole) her every scene. As a pissy, brilliant MI-6 agent with a gift for insults so smartly tucked they have hospital corners, Redgrave gifts ''The Grid'' with gritty grace, and proves that she, at least, knows drama. B-