Greetings to the New Show: “Fringe”

There’s a tendency among viewers to see the name “J.J. Abrams” and instantly consider it to be a mark of quality television. This is called “The ‘Lost’ Effect,” so named because Abrams is so intrinsically linked to “Lost” that those of us who are fans of the series – and, yes, I consider myself to be one – will tend to shrug off his failures because, hey, the guy was still responsible for “Lost,” so we’ve gotta at least give his stuff a shot, right? Now, in the interest of fairness, we should acknowledge that there are other individuals who subscribe to “The ‘Alias’ Effect” and “The ‘Felicity’ Effect”…though, oddly, you don’t hear much about “The ‘What About Brian’ Effect.” But I digress. My point here, really, is this: when it comes to the latest series to have Abrams’ name listed a producer, Fox’s “Fringe,” let’s all just try to keep things in perspective, view the show on its own merits, and try not to love it or hate it solely because he’s a part of it.

As it happens, “Fringe” has the advantage of featuring a couple of other names which give it added credibility, particularly amongst sci-fi fans: Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Fox has really been pushing the fact that the duo wrote the script for “Transformers,” but for some reason, they don’t mention that they were called upon by Zack Snyder to assist with the script for “Watchmen.” Funny, that. Probably more important than either of those credits, however, is their longstanding working relationship with Abrams, having done time with him on “Alias” as both writers and executive producers and writing the screenplays for both “Mission: Impossible III” and the new “Star Trek” film. The collaboration has worked out well in the past, so there’s every reason to be hopeful that…

Dammit! See what I mean? I almost fell into being optimistic about “Fringe” just because Abrams is involved. Granted, he was only a third of that particular equation, but even so, I don’t want to do that. Not again. I did it with “Six Degrees,” and 13 episodes later, I was left a bitter shell of a TV critic. I can’t handle that kind of heartbreak a second time…particularly not when “Fringe” reminds me so much of still another show that was canceled too soon: “Threshold.”

There was a lot of talk around the TCA Press Tour about how it’s almost disappointing to find that “Fringe” is, for all its inherent weirdness, a surprisingly penetrable show. At the time I was hearing such comments, however, I had yet to see the pilot. Now that I have, I understand what they were saying – the framework about government agents who explore the fringe sciences was easy enough to digest for “The X-Files” to become a hit (the 2008 film not withstanding) – but I can also imagine mainstream viewers dismissing the show because it’s so “out there.”

The stage-setting for “Fringe” begins with the entire crew and passenger manifest of an airliner dying under grisly circumstances while in mid-air, an event which, as you would expect, leads to a governmental investigation. FBI Special Agents Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and John Scott (Mark Valley) are called in to participate in the inter-agency task force, where Dunham immediately butts heads with Department of Homeland Security Agent Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick). In the midst of their investigation, Dunham and Scott are caught in an explosion while pursuing a suspect, and although Dunham survives mostly intact, Scott seems to have been infected by something not so far removed from whatever it is that took down the plane. Unfortunately, the only scientist who may possess the knowledge to save his life – Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) – has been institutionalized for many years; similarly, the only person who can authorize visitors for Dr. Bishop is his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), whose experiences with his father over the years have been so awful that he has no immediate interest in ever seeing him again.

But you know how these things work: Dunham blackmails Peter, Peter begrudgingly agrees to go, and father and son are reunited. As you might expect, it’s far from a happy reunion. Dr. Bishop is, not to put a fine point on it, off his nut (his first words to Peter: “I thought you’d be fatter”), and Peter’s suffered through enough of his dad’s craziness over the years that even the blackmail is barely enough to keep him involved in the situation. But he stays, Dr. Bishop begins to investigate a possible method of saving Scott’s life, and so it goes from there.

“Fringe” is full of countless mysteries. Some are based in reality, courtesy of the wonderful world of governmental bureaucracy, but most spring forth from the events aboard that plane, including the introduction of a creepy corporate executive named Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), who’s like the older sister of Shirley Manson’s character over on “The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” The character of Dr. Walter Bishop is unquestionably the most intriguing character on the show, however, described by Orci as “Frankenstein mixed with Albert Einstein” because of his unique scientific beliefs. Basically, he’s one of those guys who’s constantly walking the line between genius and insanity, and the only way to confirm that he’s talking the former rather than the latter is to take a step of faith and hope for the best. On the surface, science wouldn’t appear to be a great blend with faith, which may be why the show’s initial mythology seems so intriguing.

I don’t want to spoil too much of what goes on the middle of “Fringe,” but having offered the initial set-up, I’ll also clarify how it evolves into a series. Basically, Dunham survives the events of the events and, as a result, is invited by DHS Agent Broyles to join with him and begin investigating cases involving the fringe sciences, stuff that’s above top-secret. There are still 15 minutes left of the episode at this point, so we expect that she’s going to refuse (she does), and we know with 100% certainty that something’s going to happen to change her mind (it does). In the end, she does indeed agree to join with Broyles…and now that Dr. Bishop is acting comparatively normal, he’s being drafted to assist as well. Peter is royally freaked out by the events he’s witnessed, of course, and all of his instincts tell him to bail out, but when Dunham asks him to stay on to help stabilize his father’s moods, he agrees, anyway.

Welcome to “Fringe.”

I’m intrigued enough to give it a try, even if I think they might want to tone down Jackson’s highly Pacey-esque quips, which he spews constantly throughout the pilot. We get it: the guy’s got decent comedic delivery. Just don’t overdo it, okay? I don’t know if non-sci-fi fans will be as easily swayed into its camp, but the ensemble is strong (Kirk Escovedo plays one of Dunham’s fellow FBI agents, and I’ve yet to see him deliver anything less than a solid performance), the mysteries are intriguing, and if the episodes aren’t so mythology-driven that it becomes completely impenetrable to casual viewers, I think it’s got a shot.

But, then again, this is Fox, so it might be off the air next week.

  

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