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Monster is just scratching the ‘Surface’

Mysterious baby creature is the heart of NBC’s underwater drama
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

He’s got a TV deal, rabid fans, and a recent near-death scene that other actors would kill for. He’s also developed a reputation around Hollywood as a little cold-blooded. Which is to be expected, because he’s a lizard.

And a fake lizard, at that. Nimrod, the computer-generated baby amphibian-slash-reptile on NBC’s “Surface,” has emerged as the show’s breakout character, prompting People magazine to name him one of its “Three Faves from the New Season.” The monster shared kudos with political aide Jayne Murray (Natasha Henstridge) of ABC’s “Commander in Chief” and mobster John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare) from Fox’s “Prison Break.”

(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

While some folks might say the glow from People’s national spotlight would ensure a character’s long-term survival, that’s not always the case. Abruzzi finished the first part of "Prison Break" with a gaping wound where his throat used to be. Now Nimrod’s facing a similar fate. During the last episode before the holiday break, a security guard shot the little guy point blank, and the beast seemed all kinds of dead. As the show faded to black, an autopsy was about to begin, a scalpel precariously perched over Nimrod’s scaly skin.

NBC wouldn’t slice and dice the show’s biggest star, would it?

Underwater mystery
Smart money says that even though Nimrod took a bullet, he’ll pull through. Regardless of whether he lives or dies, it’s clear that a CGI gremlin can’t carry a show, even a gremlin with such overtly Spielbergian overtones (“Nimrod, phone home.”).

SURFACE -- NBC Series -- "Episode 103" -- Pictured: Carter Jenkins as Miles Bennett -- NBC Universal Photo: Michael Tackett FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY -- DO NOT RE-SELL/DO NOT ARCHIVENbc

Laura Daughtery (Lake Bell), a sometimes skimpily dressed oceanographer on the run with her fisherman pal, Richard, is trying to unravel the mystery of an unexplained new species of huge sea creatures. Nimrod is just a teeny-tiny version of what lurks beneath the sea. What are they? Where did they come from? Why is the government trying so hard to keep the monsters’ existence a secret?

The creatures aren’t exactly benign. Their undersea spawning is heating the oceans to critical levels, killing fish and creating deadly whirlpools that suck all the water from nearby lakes. And now the baby beasties are trolling the shallows for food, taking sharp little nibbles at human legs and electrocuting folks like a pack of thousand-volt piranhas.

Recently, Daughtery and Richard got to the bottom of the mystery — literally — as the cable tethering the homemade submersible they A-Teamed together snapped, dropping them to the ocean floor. It wasn’t an entirely terrible trip — they managed to shoot video of the creatures through the porthole. Now they’re back topside, with all the proof they’ll need on a tiny tape.

Pass the Reese's Pieces
What makes “Surface” different from some of the other monster-of-the-week stories that have haunted the airwaves is its singular focus. It’s about the mythology, period. Unlike the recently cancelled “Threshold,” Lake Bell isn’t taking detours to little towns to investigate strange stuff only marginally connected to the monsters. She’s trying to figure out what the rejects from Loch Ness are all about, and that’s it.

And then there’s Nimrod. All the scientific mumbo jumbo and on-the-run-from-the-authorities action is tempered by the slower-paced boy-meets-monster storyline. Early episodes set up the relationship: Young Miles finds a monster egg, nurtures the green thing that hatches from it, and names it Nimrod. Miles chases Nim through a Piggly Wiggly and struggles to keep it hidden from his parents, a la “E.T.” Except unlike the Reese’s-Pieces-chomping alien, this little carnivore has developed a taste for poodle. And like his larger cousins, he’s also got super-electro powers.

With Miles now doing community service at the aquarium, there’s plenty of opportunity for him to keep tabs on his ocean-bound pal. Does Nimrod think Miles is his mother? Will the kid’s early relationship with the soon-to-be-much-bigger reptile play a role in saving Miles’ life? None of those questions are going to be resolved if Nimrod ends up in a jar filled with formaldehyde.

In October, the show was rewarded with a full-year pickup by NBC, and now has plenty of time to dig up some answers. Along the way, we’ll likely see plenty more opportunities for Bell to strip down to her skivvies in the name of science, more underwater action, and, no doubt, more Nimrod. Assuming he pulls through, the overgrown salamander had better ask for a raise.

Brian Bellmont is a writer in Minneapolis.