Let me make a confession: before Lost premiered on September 22, 2004, I had never heard of J.J. Abrams. Oh, I’d heard of Felicity, of course, but otherwise, J.J. Abrams could’ve been just about anyone. Lost served as a big ol’ wake up call. Even though he only worked on the series for the first season — a fact a lot of fans have yet to grasp, much to showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s chagrin — he got my attention. So when I heard that he was creating a new show for FOX called Fringe, I looked forward to the premiere with the sort of geekish glee that only a fangirl can manage. And, despite a few minor quibbles, it didn’t disappoint.
Starring Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson (Dawson’s Creek), and John Noble (The Lord of the Rings), Fringe is a science fiction series that follows the exploits of an FBI Fringe Division team based in Boston. As can be expected from Abrams, the show features an overarching mythology, in this case known as “the Pattern”, a series of unexplained and increasingly disturbing “scientific” occurrences happening all over the world. Fans of Alias might find this similar to the Rambaldi storyline, but the show has largely drawn comparisons to The X-Files and The Twilight Zone in terms of overall content. Co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Alias, Star Trek) have specifically cited Altered States as inspiration, making the casting of Blair Brown as Nina Sharp something of a coup.
But as was the case for Alias and Lost alike, it’s the characters that make Fringe compelling television, more so than any “tie-ins, prequels, games and codes the audience buys.” Sure, figuring out all the concealed clues devised by the creative team is time well wasted, but it’s the people we come back for, not what may or may not be hidden in the pictures flashed before commercial breaks. Without giving away spoilers, each of the leads have something personal at stake in discovering the true nature of “the Pattern”, elevating the series from the countless other procedural dramas currently cluttering the airways.
Well, that and the fact that a cow is one of the recurring characters.
Cows aside, it’s Noble’s performance as Walter Bishop that’s the real standout, and likely a large part of the reason why Fringe has been successful. In a lesser actor’s hands, Walter — an archetypal mad scientist who spent 17 years locked up in a mental institution — could be nothing but a caricature. In Noble’s hands, he’s a nuanced and complex character, injected with surprising pathos and humour. His relationship with Jackson’s Peter Bishop — Walter’s estranged son — is one of the driving forces of the entire series, rooting the show in humanity rather than whatever pseudoscience the creative team’s concocted for the week, fun as it is.
Someone once described J.J. Abrams as the more successful Joss Whedon, and as a fan of both men’s body of work, I have to agree. Both create intricate mythologies driven by fully realized characters, but for whatever reason, Abrams’ shows are easier to market. One need only look at the ratings for Fringe versus those for Dollhouse for empirical evidence, not to mention their time slots. Still, with Fringe moving from Tuesdays to Thursdays, it’ll need all the help it can get to survive against CBS powerhouse CSI. I know where I’ll be tuning in, here’s just hoping others follow suit.
The second season of Fringe starts tomorrow on FOX at 9:00 ET/PT. Want to catch up? The first season is currently available on DVD.