When I first heard about J.J. Abrams’ “Fringe,” a show on Fox about federal agents investigating paranormal shit and fringe science, I naturally thought of “The X-Files.” I wasn’t alone, so much so that Abrams and company have been going out of their way to say it really isn’t much like “The X-Files.” Which may be true because, until it got mired under the weight of its own mythology, I suspect that “The X-Files” was better. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like what I’ve seen of “Fringe” or that I won’t be coming back. I’m just suggesting that expectations should remain tempered for the moment (and, to be fair, the pilot I watched isn’t what will air tonight, as they’ve since made edits, so I’ll even be tuning in tonight to again watch the first episode).
For those not playing along at home, “Fringe” follows an FBI agent, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who winds up teaming up with crazy scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his smart but pain-in-the-ass son Peter (Joshua Jackson, R.I.P.). Dr. Bishop isn’t just crazy in the “mad scientist” way — he’s actually been locked up in a loony bin for 17 years. And that’s how his son gets roped into things, because Dunham needs Dr. Bishop’s help for a bizarre case she’s been put on, and only
PaceyPeter can get the good doctor released. I won’t give too much plot away, but suffice it to say that Dr. Bishop used to work in the realm of “fringe science” (hey … I wonder if that’s where the title comes from), studying all sorts of crazy shit. By the end of the first episode, unsurprisingly, the trio are set up as a sort of team to start looking into a variety of other paranormal cases. But they’re not X-Files. Nosireee. These are cases dealing with “the Pattern.”
With that background out of the way, there are two things this show is going to need to pull off to succeed. First, the actors and characters are going to have to be compelling, so the viewers have something to get behind. It’s a bit early to call this one way or the other just yet, but the show at least seems to be heading in the right direction on this point. While the secondary characters who show up in the pilot are all pretty solid (particularly Lance Reddick — “The Wire’s” Lt. Daniels — who plays Dunham’s boss and is always solid), the key here is whether the lead trio can carry the show. The Australian Torv, an unknown in the states, seems to warm up to the role as the pilot progresses, and I could easily see her getting comfortable in it very quickly (and hopefully her American accent settles down a little). As the viewer’s tour guide into the rabbit hole that is the global conspiracy behind the Pattern, her reaction as she swallows the red pill is well played, jumping from skepticism and relative disinterest to an eventual compulsion to fight the good fight. More importantly, she plays relatively well off Joshua Jackson’s Peter, although I’m already worried about them eventually heading down a romantic, something I’d rather they avoid.
As for Jackson, I’ve actually never been a big naysayer. I don’t think he’s great, mind you, but in the right role, I find him entirely watchable — when I actually *looks around to make sure nobody is reading this* watched “Dawson’s Creek” for its first year or two, he was by far my favorite part of the show. And his character here actually feels very similar to that role, insofar as he’s kind of a smart-ass fast talker. In fact, the main difference between Pacey and Peter is that this character is significantly smarter, and this is the one area of doubt for me, as I’m not sure how well Jackson can play smart. The one scene in the premiere where he really gets into some smart talk was a bit distracting, and I’m not sure if it was his performance or just the way the scene itself was set and played. That bit of dialgoue also involved his father, Noble’s Dr. Bishop. Noble has the hardest job of the three, as he’s asked to walk right on the campy line of a truly crazy yet brilliant scientist. It’s an interesting character and Noble seems up to the task (although I do think there was one time I rolled my eyes a little) and I think the more interesting character relationship in this show could well be that between the father and son. So all told, the potential chemistry for these three to carry the show is there.
Which takes us to the other thing the show will need to do well, which is to successfully blend the stand-alone plotlines with the greater underlying mythology. This is because Abrams and company have said that this won’t simply a mythology-based show, but will be more akin to the early seasons of “Alias,” where each episode had its own bottled story which fit into the greater arc. As to this aspect of the show, the pilot felt a bit thin. Of course, it didn’t exactly have a “stand-alone” plot line to it, since it was setting up the series as a whole. But when it did go into that direction, it all felt a bit stale to me. This is particularly true in the second half, where we were given both a car chase and foot chase which felt, if you’ll pardon the pun, a bit pedestrian. And as for the greater mythology of the show, it would seem that we’ve got this global mega-corporation that may be up to no good, and some paranormal shenanigans to go with that — again, nothing that new or fresh. Which isn’t to say that something must be new to be good, it just means that the show is going to have to work to earn our respect, and in the meantime, we’ll have to wait and see how things go.
The one thing that did stand out to me was the show’s style. They seem to be going for a “cool” thing, playing around with some of the way they shoot and frame scenes, and it largely works. An early scene involving a character waking up from a likely concussion was very well executed and one of my favorites, although a later quasi-dream sequence felt like it was trying a bit too hard. But I applaud the effort to try to get visually and stylistically creative, particularly with the use of a Panic Room-esque method of identifying scene locations (in fact, my favorite single shot of the whole episode comes from where they’re setting up a scene in Baghdad).
Of course, my biggest worry about this show is that it’s on Fox, as many of us could rant eternal about the network’s mistreatment of shows. As of now, the network is strongly behind this show, and they’ve been promoting the fuck out of it (although their recent promos about how mind-blowing the final two words of the episode are is a bit over the top, particularly since the impact of that line was hinted at earlier in the episode). But if it doesn’t pull big ratings, one worries that the Fox winds could quickly change. The optimist in me hopes that they’ll give the show a chance to find its legs, particularly since I can’t imagine they want to get on Abrams’ bad side by mistreating the show. And that same optimist in me hopes that the show builds on the good elements of this first episode and becomes something worth sticking around for, as the Tuesday night TV landscape is pretty bleak. I guess you could say I want to believe.
(“Fringe” premieres tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. with an extended episode, before moving to its regular Tuesday slot, at 9 p.m., next week.)
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. Something he does believe in is DeSean Jackson.
TV | September 9, 2008 | Comments ()