In just a little less than a week, J.J Abrams' "Fringe" will make its American television debut on the FOX Network. Having caught the pilot episode early, I'm here with my thoughts in advance. Spoilers will be light, but I always like to give fair warning before hand.
THE FOX CURSE
Before taking a look at the actual show, I think it's important to take a look at FOX's checkered past with shows like this. The FOX Network is notorious for screwing over shows just like Fringe. Back in 2000, they launched "James Cameron's Dark Angel", starring a then unknown actress named Jessica Alba. A big budget sci-fi series concerning a genetically engineered super soldier on the run, Dark Angel was considered a modest hit in it's first season, drawing between 6 and 8 million viewers per episode. Almost inexplicably, FOX executives scuttled the show to Friday nights in its second season, a night when its audience (males 12-24) would not be sitting in front of their TV's. The problems wouldn't end there..
Before the first episode of the second season even aired, 9/11 shook the world, leaving the series creators in a bit of a dilemma. Hollywood had suddenly grown soft on their grittier affairs, feeling that a show about a post apocalyptic wasteland (formerly Seattle) was more than audiences could handle, and so the grittier elements of the show were scrubbed out in the second season. Story lines became goofier, and focus shifted to what many fans refer to as a "monster of the week" type mentality. The overarching storyline of government corruption was all but dropped, and ratings suffered as a result. Mere weeks after the final episode of the second season aired, FOX made the announcement that they were canceling Dark Angel.
So if James Cameron couldn't work his magic with FOX, why should J.J. Abrams be able to? Cameron had just came off of "Titanic", and by any measure was the hottest filmmaker in Hollywood. Abrams, for his part, is certainly a darling of movie and TV executives at the moment. LOST is still going strong into it's last season, and horror audiences have a new found love for him after the massive success last January's "Cloverfield".
Even with all his successes, the man's name certainly does not carry the cache that Cameron's did back in 2000. So it's perhaps more fitting then to compare Abrams to someone like Joss Whedon, another geek friendly filmmaker that has been screwed over by the Network.
The same year that Dark Angel was canceled, the Buffy and Angel co-creator's series Firefly was picked up to replace Cameron's show. Whedon started battling with FOX almost immediately, mainly pertaining to getting his character driven scifi/western/dramedy to air in it's originally intended state. Unsatisfied with the lower key nature of the 2 hour pilot they had created, FOX aired episodes out of order and even forced Whedon and crew to pen a new pilot, this time more focused on action. Mismarketing, pre-emption, and apathy on the part of FOX killed Firefly the same way it had killed Dark Angel that same year. Firefly suffered a worse fate however, only having aired 11 of the 14 episodes that had been produced, and not even staying on air for a single season.
So the formula seems clear. Hire a big name to create an "out there" scifi show, pimp the hell out of it for premiere, tinker with it at every move, and eventually cancel it when it doesn't do well. As of the present, both Dark Angel and Firefly have strong internet led campaigns that are still going on in order to try and bring back both shows. A bit sad, yes, but it's also a testament to the strength of both series and their fanbases.
It's with all this in mind that we gear up for the debut of "Fringe" next week. Will Abrams be able to break the FOX curse? Perhaps it's worth noting that the one major comparison this series keeps garnering is between itself and "X-Files", the only FOX backed Scifi show to actually survive more than few seasons. With that in mind, it may be a good idea for Abrams to stop eschewing the idea that the shows are similar. Even though they ultimately may not be, it may be good for the future of the show to play that up as much as possible.
Fringe opens up with a frightening scene. A flight, traveling to the US from Hamburg, Germany, is going through rough turbulence. The passengers on board are nervous, especially a slight, shifty looking man who's furiously trying to jab himself with his insulin needle. I won't ruin what happens next, but let's just say that the series starts out with a bang, a green, gooey bang that grabs the audience from the start.
Back on the ground we're introduced to Special Agent Olivia Dunham, played by Anna Torv. A young, skinny woman who is having an affair with her FBI partner John Scott (from the "Family Man" episode of Fear Itself). The two are called to the site where the plane landed, and eventually jettisoned off to a storage warehouse to investigate a tip. While there they discover a lab, and the subsequent "accident" that occurs leaves her partner inflicted with the same thing that the people on the plane died from.
In a frantic investigation for a cure, she comes across an old doctor who has been institutionalized since the early 90's, who may be able to help her save Scott. The only way to get to see him is if she is with family, so she flies to Baghdad to find his son, Peter Bishop, played by Joshua Jackson. A long suffering genius with an IQ of 190, Peter only decides to follow her back to The States after she threatens him with blackmail. You see, he's not a huge fan of his father and in fact has not seen him since he was a child. Sufficiently threatened by her claim of incriminating information, he follows her back and they take his father out of the mental hospital for the day to try and solve the medical mystery at hand.
And that's the basic setup of "Fringe". At about 45 minutes into it, this show requires a huge leap of faith from the viewer. It's at this point that we learn that this will not be a "walk the line" kind of series like The X Files was. It will not be a "here are the facts, you decide" kind of affair. Instead, at this point that the show delves head first into pseudo-science, whether you're ready to make the leap or not.
And ultimately your enjoyment may hinge on whether or not you're ready to make that leap with Abrams and Co. The pilot is filled with suitable amounts of action, a few tension filled sequences and even a bit of a car chase towards the end. It's all capped off with a mega twist as well, which may or may not leave you groaning in it's wake.
Twist aside, my biggest issue with this show after an hour and 20 minutes is with characterization, specifically when it comes to Joshua Jackson's character. Yes, he was on Dawson's Creek, but no, that's not my problem. Plenty of actors who were on childrens/teen shows grow up to be decent actors, Jackson is no exception. The fact that the horror community is still worked up about actors from a show that's been canceled for over 5 years is frankly kind of sad. He was on a teen show, get over it.
So no, the bigger problem here is that his character has been written with the depth of a kiddie pool. When we usually see "geniuses" of this type on television, they have some sort of quirky, endearing tick, or overbearing personality that makes them interesting to watch. You would think with an IQ of 190 the man would be so bored with every day existence that he would be in a constant state of agitation. Instead, he pretty much just sits around sipping on coffee, never once giving the appearance of angst and/or apprehension. It's not really Jackson's fault, mind you, but more so the fault of the writer and director. I'm not asking for "Monk" level histrionics here, but something to make the character interesting, anything.
And unfortunately, the main character of Olivia Dunham doesn't exactly offer up much meat either. Yes it's the first episode, but there still feels like something missing in both of these leads, not the least of which is chemistry. If they don't begin to iron out these problems fast, this series is going to sink faster than Firefly did.
Luckily for Abrams (and us for that matter), the character problems are things that can be hammered out in future episodes. For now, they've created a suitably interesting mythos which essentially revolves around an increasing number of bizarre incidents catching the government's attention. They call it the "pattern", and it involves missing children popping up and having not aged a day, bizarre sightings of "strange aircrafts", and a myriad of other strange occurrences.
Based on her work figuring out the case presented in the pilot, Olivia is asked by her superior to join the team investigating this "Pattern". And that, folks, serves as the jumping off point for where this series will start. My conclusion? The base is there. Abrams knows how to create a compelling back story, he knows how to tantalize people with puzzles. Now if he can only figure out characters and chemistry, we might get somewhere. As it is however, one has to wonder if it's strong enough to withstand the FOX curse. At this point I'd give him about a 50 / 50 chance.
Fringe starts Tuesday, September 9th at 9pm (999?) on the FOX Network. For those outside of the US, episodes will also be streamed from FOX.com and HULU.com, which is a video hosting site that is a joint venture between NBC and FOX.