Peter Krause and Julianna Margulies, <EM>The Lost Room</EM> Peter Krause and Julianna Margulies, The Lost Room

America loves it when an average Joe suddenly exhibits superpowers — witness the success of the Spider-Man movies and NBC's white-hot Heroes. Now Sci Fi Channel is taking that premise one crazy step further. In The Lost Room, a sprawling $20 million, six-hour miniseries (premiering tonight at 9 pm/ET), it's not the people who have amazing abilities, it's the simple, ordinary objects. There's a comb that stops time, a nail file that induces sleep, a pen that can microwave a body and — the big-ticket item — a key to a 1960s motel room that will open a portal to any destination in the world. Crime lords covet these objects, as do millionaires and religious crackpots, because to possess one is to possess its power.

But all Peter Krause wants to possess right now is some bug repellent. The actor, in his first TV role since Six Feet Under, is shooting The Lost Room in the desert outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It's been a long, tough, scorcher of a day and the mosquitoes are biting like hell, but Krause — once he begs a crew member for a can of Off! — is in his glory.

"After seven years in niche TV — two on Sports Night and five on Six Feet Under — I was looking for something big, commercial and really entertaining. This is it," Krause says. "The Lost Room grabbed me because it blends the best parts of The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone and Lord of the Rings." He glances over at his leading lady, Julianna Margulies, who's hiding from the sun a few yards away, and adds with a sly grin, "There's also a little bit of Body Heat."

Krause plays Joe Miller, a Pittsburgh homicide detective and single dad who stumbles upon the mysterious motel key and quickly becomes the target of a shadowy goon squad. When Joe's daughter, Anna (Elle Fanning, Dakota's baby sister), vanishes in the motel room, he embarks on a frantic journey to find her. Along the way he encounters a gallery of oddballs played by familiar TV faces: John Beasley (Everwood), Roger Bart (Desperate Housewives), Dennis Christopher (Deadwood), Peter Jacobson (Law & Order) and actor/comics Kevin Pollak and Margaret Cho. Margulies, an Emmy winner for ER, plays Jennifer Bloom, a steamy, seemingly shifty babe who first tries to con Joe, then becomes his ally and lover.

"I'd never heard of the Sci Fi Channel when I was offered this role," Margulies admits. "But Peter Krause was on board, so I said, 'It must be good. Send me that script!'" She was taken by its depth. "This is the rare thriller that makes you search your soul. Everyone is lying and cheating, even killing, to obtain the objects. I like the question it raises: Who do you become when greed gets in the way?"

Cho sees The Lost Room as a metaphor for home-shopping insanity. "It's as if shopping all night on was a life-or-death matter, which for some people it is," says Cho, who plays a tattooed chain-smoker who tracks the objects on the Web and then sells their locations for a hefty price.

Sci Fi Channel has big hopes for the mini (there's already talk of a weekly series). "We want to get away from space operas and move more toward magical realism, material that is earthbound and contemporary," says Sci Fi exec Nora O'Brien. "The Lost Room fits that need perfectly."

Adds Krause: "Like the best science fiction, it's both fantastical and very real. People have been obsessed with taking each others' stuff for millennia — what could be more relevant?"

Check listings for the complete schedule of Lost Room episodes.

Sci-fi fans, pick up the Dec. 11 issue of TV Guide for the latest on the new Battlestar Galactica comic-book series.

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