IN HIS NEW series Fringe, which premiered last night on Fox, J.J. Abrams delivers what he’s gotten his fans to expect; namely surprises, conspiracies, relationships and questions. And so many questions.
Ahh, pilot season. That brief rite of passage every September (and in recent years, January) when one gets a chance to evaluate the new crop of shows, and determine whether any will earn their spot as appointment television. Whether that opening comes from beloved shows that have been cancelled, or just shows that are no longer guaranteed to be worth the time (Heroes, I’m looking in your direction) there are only so many slots available, and a short time to make an impression.
Despite the inherent difficulty of cracking my exclusive T.V. lineup, Fringe was one pilot that had a lot going for it, even before I’d seen a frame of it on screen. As creator or producer of some of my all-time favorite shows, (Felicity, Alias and the permanently-on-my-watch-listed Lost) J.J. Abrams’ involvement on Fringe meant I’d at least give it a shot, and the odds were better than even that I’d end up digging what I saw. Then again, that’s what I thought about both Six Degrees and What About Brian.
Fringe began in true Lost fashion, with a gripping and confusing intrigue aboard a passenger plane, which horrifically plays out like the end of an Indiana Jones movie, somehow made infinitely more sinister by all the German being spoken.
The investigation into this disaster introduces us to the series’ primary lead, F.B.I. Liaison Olivia Dunham (a rank used as a runner that the show abandons just as it begins to truly annoy) played with a good, Alias-like balance of toughness and vulnerability by Anna Torv (who you’d never guess is Australian). She’s excellent as the show’s emotional center, making her concerns our own and looks great doing it, sort of a low-budget BrundelFly combination of Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett.
The bizarre bio-warfare nature of the plane disaster (and an equally tumultuous subsequent attempt to capture one of the suspects) requires help from an expert on the titular Fringes of science, which is how we meet the long-institutionalized Walter Bishop (played in hazy Denethor-style madness by John Noble, of Return of the King fame).
The show does a lot of little things well, and quickly establishes tons and interesting visual direction. Details like the title shots that establish a new location have a distinctive feel, as these giant letters seem to embed themselves directly within the scene. Even the commercial breaks make you feel you’re watching something important, as a no-nonsense voiceover tells us the precise amount of seconds until Fringe returns (usually sixty).
While I enjoyed the preceding twists and action, the show really takes off when Bishop enters the story. His super-seriousness anchors the more implausible story elements, and his nuthouse non-sequiturs undercut that same gravity. This means Fringe never veers too far into its’ own world, beyond the viewer’s understanding. Noble is given some of the best lines in the show, and his wavering basso readings make the very most of them. He manages to give a lot of fairly technical exposition glibly enough that we accept it and can follow along, but will then switch it up by describing the mental institution’s pudding in total solemnity—all with a voice that sounds like the mad scientist version of Mike Judge’s Milton character.
Dawson’s Creek alum Joshua Jackson also comes along for the ride, playing Bishop’s estranged son. While not given much screen time, the father/son tension and tenderness between them is believable, and once again sets this show apart as a genuine J.J. Abrams creation. Where lesser shows simply try to create interest with explosions and McGuffins (though there are plenty of those as well), interpersonal emotion is the true center of this episode. Jackson is decent in his part; good even, though at times he seems a bit like he’s still auditioning. Though having most of his scenes opposite the excellent Noble, I can forgive his effort to stand out.
Many of this episode’s specific plot points are satisfied in surprising fashion, but there are still plenty of questions and lots of weirdness to be explored in later episodes. We’re given hints of a big, scary, and almost certainly evil Microsoft-like Corporation, “Massive Dynamics,” founded by Bishop’s former lab partner, and speculative fiction chestnuts like teleportation and astral-projection get tantalizing mention. We’re also introduced to some compelling and, yes, mysterious supporting characters like Dunham’s boss who seems to know more than he lets on (the imposing Lance Reddick, in a role I hope doesn’t preclude him from continuing to freak us out on Lost) and the aptly named Ms. Sharp, a robot-armed (yeah) spokeswoman for Massive Dynamics who definitely knows more than we do, and lets us know it. Did I mention she has a robot arm?
As a pilot, Fringe certainly succeeds at its’ two objectives—establishing the premise and introducing us to it’s leads. Fringe shows great promise on both scores, and I especially look forward to the actors being able to nuance their performances a tad, having convinced us they are who their character bibles tell us they are.
As I watched the preview for upcoming episodes I couldn’t help but wonder if this show wasn’t something of a high-budget scrap heap of plotlines rejected from Lost and Alias for their implausibility. Strangely, the more I thought that, the more I wanted it to be true. More than that, though, I hope that this show would follow in the footsteps of those two before it, and strive for the bigger concepts those shows did. While Alias was a pretty compelling spy yarn, the heart of the show was always Sydney, and the relationships with her father and Vaughn, which anchored her—and the story—as she uncovered whatever Da Vinci-esque relic the plot required. And while Lost may not always fully attain the lofty notions it strives for, it’s certainly headier and more interesting ground than, say, the millionth variation on a Crime Scene Unit.
Fringe has great potential to tackle similarly thought-provoking ideas. If the pilot is any indication, the show has plenty to address, like the moral limits of science, the potential for abuse of the Patriot Act, and the implications of corporate influence on government. To say nothing of the mind-opening potential of LSD.
If it were not too cute of me, I would hope this show plants itself on the Fringes of defined genres, straddling that line between an adult workplace drama and straight-up sci-fi. As Michael Chabon puts it, some of the best work is by “writers who can dwell between worlds.” Perhaps J.J. and his team can establish themselves as just this sort of borderland writer. They’re off to a pretty good start.
Don Sparrow is a freelance writer and illustrator in Saskatchewan.
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