Oh, please, no. Don't call Fox's exciting new fall drama Fringe that scary word. You know -- the word that sends so many otherwise open-minded viewers racing for the remote.
The G word. The SF word. The F word. (No, not that F word.)
Yes -- as J.J. Abrams (Lost) and other Fringe producers admitted Monday in headlining the Fox portion of this summer's Television Critics Association press tour -- their new show is about speculative science getting out of control thanks to wanton corporate experimentation. Dead people talk, and lovers' brainwaves merge, and all sorts of other not-quite-reality is laid out amid shadowy conspiracies and kick-ass action.
But Lost became a mainstream hit because all sorts of viewers gave it a chance after the ABC series somehow escaped being labeled as "genre," "sci-fi" or "fantasy." With apologies to George Carlin, those might as well be more words you can't say in television. They conjure pictures of Klingon-tressed Trekkies and spaceship tech geeks. And thus lots of folks never even try tuning in to discover the joy of being so wrong about shows so deliciously entertaining and, very often, incisive about our own lives. (Too bad the resonant adult drama Battlestar Galactica wasn't titled something like Found and sold to a channel not named Sci Fi.)
Fringe is definitely in the Lost mold, which isn't surprising, since J.J. Abrams co-created them both. Critics got to see the (just) finished pilot Sunday night, many of us in a group setting at a Fox reception well-supplied with food and booze, so we all got to be blown away together. (If you've seen the Fringe pilot circulating online via BitTorrent, Abrams & Co. warn that it's a rough cut missing key scenes and uses a temporary music score.) Like Lost, this is a richly self-assured premiere, setting up its could-go-anywhere premise with, of all things, a plane disaster -- this one a particularly yucky "safe" landing, rather than a crash, except that everyone on board has bloodily died of some weird skin-dissolving event.
As in his career-making hit Alias, Abrams -- with co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who wrote the Transformers movie and Abrams' upcoming Star Trek flick) -- centers this saga on a tough-minded young woman, a sharp young federal agent played by plainly gorgeous Australian blonde Anna Torv. She's a get-to-the- bottom-of-things tornado, initially racing the clock to save her fellow-agent boyfriend (Mark Valley, Boston Legal and the late, lamented Keen Eddie), who in investigating the airline oozefest becomes the latest victim of medical/science experiment shenanigans. Torv's agent guilefully acquires the help of a slacker science genius (Joshua Jackson of Dawson's Creek, now a firm-jawed adult stud) and his estranged certified-insane science genius father (John Noble, last-season 24's Anatoly Markov). And their Harvard basement mad-scientist lab. And a genetically helpful cow.
If you think that sounds like a lot to fathom first-time-out, be assured that Fringe fairly instantly gets way more detailed than that. But again like Lost, characters and storylines are revealed efficiently, involvingly, dramatically and clearly, not to mention breathlessly. Even the on-screen graphics are supercool 3D location labels that the camera zooms around and through; and the commercial-break bumpers are flash-frame "glyph" symbols for the clue- hungry among us (though Abrams stressed they're not necessary to follow, just fun to).
The actors are equally superb fits, neatly puzzle-pieced together by Lost casting maven April Webster. Their ranks include Lance Reddick (The Wire, Lost) as Torv's stern and wily boss, for instance, and Blair Brown as a coolly controlled corporation bigwig who may or may not be evil incarnate. (Her robotic arm makes one wonder.) Brown has trod this territory before, in Ken Russell's 1980 feature Altered States, which Abrams & Co. cited as one Fringe influence, along with Michael Crichton's Westworld, David Cronenberg's warped world, and David Lynch's 1990 tube trip Twin Peaks.
And The X-Files, to which many critics here were comparing Fringe, though the pilot has way more warmth to it. There's also action -- killer foot chase one segment, killer car chase in another -- and although conspiracy theory is a running thread, it's not the primary color, thank goodness.
Humanity is. How we lose it, where we find it, what it means, why it's important. And what happens when we try to engineer it. "As amazing as the plots are," said Jeff Pinkner, another executive producer on Monday's panel of five EPs (the fifth is fellow Lost/Alias veteran Bryan Burk), "the story of the show is the way these characters are experiencing the world we put them into. In many ways, it's a family thrown together to deal with these problems."
Of course, Alias had a core of literal family, but it gradually branched out through spy/conspiracy conniptions in ways that became increasingly convoluted and even incomprehensible. Abrams promises that won't happen with Fringe, which is "an experiment for us," launching from the get-go with "an overall story and an end-game." He also promised "you don't have to watch episodes one, two, three to tune into episode four." Abrams told critics that during the run of Alias he once sat down at cast member Greg Grunberg's house to watch an episode as it aired on TV, and even he couldn't follow the serialized action. "I watched a few minutes, and I was so confused. I was like, I know I should understand this," he sheepishly admitted.
"We're trying very diligently to do a show that doesn't require that kind of insane, absolute dedication." (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Abrams was oozing sheer joy at having another chance to produce another series he hopes will magnetize viewers the way Lost does. Never mind that he has expanded into directing such big-screen biggies as Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. When critics wondered why he keeps coming back to TV, Abrams wondered why anyone should be surprised. "That's a funny question to me, 'cause I love it. I feel so lucky to get to do it. I'd be crazy not to. It's such an amazing medium and such an interesting process" to develop a story and characters over weeks, months, years. "It's this organic, ongoing thing. To me, it's a thrill," he enthused, confessing "I feel jealous that I didn't get to do [meaning: direct] the pilot" of Fringe. (That damn Star Trek movie got in the way.)
That kind of affection for the tube can be felt all over the face of Fox these days. Programming chief Kevin Reilly -- who built his reputation at FX with gems like The Shield and Nip/Tuck before a brief and unhappy foray back at NBC where his career started years ago -- is a guy of unrestrained enthusiasm for the medium. His network's shows are suffused with that same sense of fun, even in "serious" dramas like House and the returning/relaunching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. (Terminator producers in their Monday L.A. Q&A session promised less "heavy mythology," more character study when the series returns with new episodes Sept. 8 at 9 PM ET.) Fox' new hotel-workplace sitcom Do Not Disturb (Wednesdays at 9:30, starting Sept. 10), starring Niecy Nash and Jerry O'Connell, may be a dopey, derivative, loud-live-audience time-waster, but even it gets delivered with a sense of glee. Actioners like 24 (back in January, Mondays at 9), Fringe (Tuesdays at 9 PM, starting Sept. 9) and midseason's Joss Whedon wiped-personality spy-chick hour Dollhouse all strut their stuff with a brawny, ballsy, buoyant self-assurance that's not only entertaining to watch but also disbelief-suspending, despite the far-fetched permutations.
Speaking of which, Reilly promised critics in his press tour Q&A session that "24 is gonna come back rocking and rolling" in a two-hour fall prequel movie (airing Nov. 23). Its South Africa-shot tale chronicles the chaos of an African country coup, complete with child soldiers and, of course, the unstoppable Jack Bauer. The graphic action takes place in real-time on its own separate day, during the inauguration of a new female U.S. president, yet sets up January's kickoff of the first full 24 season in two years. "It's gonna be a really cool piece of business," Reilly promised. He's even confident/gonzo enough to have signed The Osbournes to host an upcoming "throwback to the old talent-driven variety shows of the past." It's not quite a rebuke to this past strike season's reality glut, but "I think it's completely zigging where the other guys zag."
Reilly wouldn't even apologize for The Moment of Truth -- the Fox lie detector humili-fest that recently topped (or bottomed) all the critics' worst-of-season lists. "I'll just say this about it," he told questioners nudging him to 'fess up to its seemliness. "This is Fox," Reilly said, "We never give up our DNA." Apparently a network that has run the likes of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire is, in his words, "free to do those kinds of things."
Which at least means Fox is free to cut loose with distinctive formats, as evidenced by its longtime support for the Sunday night animation block, home of The Simpsons, now at 20 seasons and counting. That night gets refreshed in 2009 with the Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show and the strike-delayed Sit Down, Shut Up, about bizarre high school workers, created by Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz.
How much does Fox get how we can't scarf up enough cool TV? They're letting both Fringe and Dollhouse run 50 minutes per hour (before commercials), instead of the standard 43. Fewer ads, less clutter, more TV enjoyment, even if it's only subliminal. We may not know why it's more satisfying, but we'll know where it was more satisfying.
So what if Fox isn't adding lots of shows to the lineup this season? They're adding more show to the business. From American Idol to House to much anticipated newbies like Fringe, they clearly understand that other F word -- fun.
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