December 13, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Forget the predictable crime procedurals. Serialized, slow-burning mysteries are back. Those Desperate Housewives are digging for clues to their neighbor’s supposed suicide. Veronica Mars is using her sleuthing skills to track down her best friend’s killer. And Lost has as many unanswered questions as it does castaways (what’s with the monster? Why can the paraplegic walk? Was there really a polar bear on a tropical island?).

Not to be a downer — really, it’s great to stretch beyond the one-episode whodunits of CSI and Law & Order! — but these new critical faves call to mind a little show called Twin Peaks. The 1990- 91 ABC murder mystery started strong with a catchy tagline, ”Who killed Laura Palmer?,” and deafening buzz — but ended up a TV-industry cautionary tale. ”By episode 12 or 13, you realized the emperor had no clothes,” says Lost exec producer Damon Lindelof. ”They were trying to put off the question of who killed Laura Palmer, and once they answered that, it was like, Why is this detective still hanging around?”

Peaks or no, in the case of Housewives, at least, the show’s central mystery — why did seemingly normal Mary Alice commit suicide? — may have actually helped sell the script. Creator Marc Cherry glossed over the death in his original draft, pitching Housewives as a black comedy and getting rejections all around. But once he incorporated the puzzle behind Mary Alice’s suicide, which he says ”provided a nice framing device,” the show sold to the next network he took it to, ABC. With the series now a huge success, he’s counting on his characters to help him through. ”Most of it is just: What is a desperate thing a woman would do that she really shouldn’t?”

As for UPN’s noirish teen drama Veronica Mars, producers promise that the murder that drives each week’s plot — and the bungling of the case by Veronica’s sheriff dad — will be resolved by the season finale. Which leaves them with a dilemma next year, should the ratings-challenged show survive. ”We’ll just have to come up with a whole new mystery for season 2,” says creator Rob Thomas, who remarks that, despite his initial fears that the show’s mystery was ”too twisted,” audience testing has proved ”That’s what keeps people coming back.”

Monsters and miracle cures notwithstanding, Lost may avoid the Twin Peaks curse thanks to its stretched-out timeline — episodes cover just one or two days — and old-fashioned character development. ”The bread and butter is the people experiencing these things,” says Lindelof. He’s also keeping an eye on the big picture. ”There is a plan in place,” says Francie Calfo, ABC’s exec VP of prime-time development. ”The possibilities are endless.”

Or are they? ”The show is based on putting some crazy s— out there,” says Lindelof. ”What’s great is then you can do whatever you need to do to sustain it — barring them getting picked up by aliens and going planet to planet.” On second thought: ”We won’t go there until season 8.”

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