Tip of the Quill: A Journal
Fringe benefits.

FRINGELast night I settled into the couch and watched the two-hour series premiere of JJ Abrams‘ new series Fringe. As a follower of Abrams’ work (I’m a latecomer fan to LOST, I caught Cloverfield in its original theatrical release and his TED talk is one of my favorites) I’d been looking forward to this for months, and I’m happy to report that the final product did not disappoint.
Most critics share the same list of talking points when discussing Fringe: the premiere’s US$10M budget (again, that’s just for the premiere), how the show feels like an updated take on The X-Files, what the results of this mind-meld between Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci might suggest for their upcoming Star Trek reboot. Kurtman and Orci are best known these days for having written 2007’s blockbuster Transformers, although they were also responsible for Mission: Impossible III, The Legend of Zorro, and a whole mess of episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Alias, which is where they presumably first worked with Abrams.
The results are a little different from what one might expect: for starters, the first ten minutes of Fringe are much gorier than anything we’ve seen on LOST so far, including one particularly ‘jaw-dropping’ effect (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about). It’s obvious where they spent that film-sized budget – there are so many extremely convincing, high-definition close-up shots of a translucent “visible man” that it’s easy to think of this episode as more of a feature film than a television pilot.
The writing only sort of measures up to the quality of the spectacle – the dialogue definitely exhibits notable improvement over Transformers (there’s no giant robot saying “My bad”, for example) with a few hysterically funny moments of character interaction. The inclusion of a cow into the lab is explained away as a source of near-human tissue samples for experiments, but Bessie’s very presence adds a degree of absurd character to the set reminiscent of Mulder’s I WANT TO BELIEVE poster. However, some of the general story structure is still fairly weak. The main character, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), is very obviously a cipher for the audience and is, at least so far, much less interesting as an actual character than either Mulder or Scully. The show opens with a fairly gratuitous sex scene between Dunham and her secret lover, fellow FBI agent John Scott (Mark Valley) that both gives the teenage-boy demographic a cheap thrill and very clearly telegraphs to rest of the viewing audience a sense of cheap doom. All the doe-eyed lovey-dovey treacle that bounces between the two of them is fairly unconvincing, culminating in an absolutely groanworthy “I haven’t been very good at this… until you” gush from Dunham (approximately; I don’t currently have the clip at hand) and only serves to sketch out Dunham’s personal motivation for the rest of the episode after – surprise, surprise – Scott gets infected with the same mysterious flesh-destroying virus that caused all the ooey-gooeyness in the show’s opener. Anyone who’s seen any dramatic TV shows knows that this relationship is doomed, because a female lead in a serious, all-too-perfect monogamous relationship almost never flies – especially one that is so blatantly trying to replicate the success of The X-Files, where Mulder and Scully’s will-they-or-won’t-they served as a major dynamic for most of the show’s lifespan.
The rest of the pilot follows Dunham’s panicked race to save her lover, which opens the door to the show’s most farfetched key gimmick – rescuing “this generation’s Einstein,” Dr. Walter Bishop (The Lord of the Rings’ John Noble) from a mental asylum with the unwilling assistance of Bishop’s estranged son Peter (Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua “Pacey” Jackson). It’s Bishop’s mad scientist vibe that really makes the show work, leading to the aforementioned brilliantly funny inter-character exhanges between Bishop the Elder and Bishop the Younger, Bishop the Elder and the desperate Dunham, Desperate Dunham and Bishop the Younger and so on. Cows are involved, and Harvard (although I found myself wondering repeatedly why they weren’t here at MIT instead), and mental institutions, and LSD. One can imagine the hijinks that ensue.
Added into this mix is the Department of Homeland Security’s Agent Phillip Broyles, who will (of course) eventually offer this motley crew a regular gig saving the world. It’s worth noting that Broyles is played by Lance Reddick, who has appeared in everything from LOST to The Wire to CSI Miami to Numb3rs to Law and Order, but who bears enough of a passing similarity to Heroes’ Jimmy “The Haitian” Jean-Louis to give me a chill of forboding the first time he appears on-screen, and I’m sure that was no accident. Fringe has enough conspiracy theories installed in its supernarrative to tick off that requisite X-Filean checkbox with aplomb: there’s a secret connection between the virus and the FBI! There may be a vast conspiracy of this fringe science experimentation being done on an unsuspecting public! The government may be involved, as well as Microsoft a massive techno-corporation! Surprise, surprise – the only real surprise is that the creator of such an astonishingly original show as LOST is mining such conventional genre tropes here.
Still, given Abrams’ past history I’m more than willing to give him some time to pitch us some inevitable curveballs – I’ll admit that I’m a huge sucker for shows like this, and this summer’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe made me want to believe that it was time for a comeback for Chris Carter and his agents. While it looks like Mulder and Scully have ridden off into the sunset for good, it’s possible that Dunham and the Bishops will pick up where they left off. If they keep building up the supernarrative, develop Dunham into a real character instead of leaving her as the same wild-eyed spastic from the pilot, and continue to enable the Bishops to bring the funny, we could be in for a wild ride.
My final verdict? It may be an X-Files knockoff, but at least it’s a pretty good knockoff. What can I say? I want to believe.