Pilot Preview – FOX’s “Fringe”


Fall 2008 Pilot Preview

[As per pilot screener regulations, this is a preview and not a review. The content of the series may change between now and the show’s official airing, so all thoughts are of a preliminary nature pending said changes. For a full review, tune in for the show’s September premiere.]

When Fringe debuts in September, there are going to be a lot of comparisons made: to the past work of producer J.J. Abrams, to television’s last prominent science fiction procedural, and also to the rest of the pilots coming to the networks this fall. In all three cases, the show will play well – in its current form, Fringe is a tight series with a compelling cast, a winning premise and (most of all) the mythological underpinnings that drive any great piece of Abrams drama.

[Warning: The review will not feature any major spoilers, but there could be a few light ones as I make some comparisons to other series, so tread lightly if you’re worried about learning a single piece of the show’s plot.]

While I’ve yet to see any of FOX’s Dollhouse, which won’t debut until the fall, its early footage does seem to indicate that it shares at least a few of the constructs of Alias, another Abrams show: secret agents who take on different identities in a fun sort of role play, featuring a combination of serious spy-like missions with more light-hearted engagements. I only raise this point because, in reality, Fringe is the successor to Alias: it is the story of a young FBI agent who is about to have her life thrown into a tail spin, and who will by the end of the episode have found a greater purpose.

Anna Torv plays Olivia Dunham, an inter-agency liaison with the FBI who is called away from a tryst with co-worker Ryan Scott to investigate a mysterious plane landing at Logan International Airport. When the pilot opens aboard that plane (in a sequence featuring some great special effects work and wonderfully tense direction from Abrams), we get a glimpse into the fact that this is clearly not your typical case, owing more to X-Files than Without a Trace.

Investigating that tragedy leads the group into another, and quickly Dunham is given a very personal reason to find answers, quickly. It’s about here where you start to get Alias flashbacks, at least as someone who was a big fan of that ABC series: one of the things that made Sydney Bristow such a compelling character was that her work was such a personal struggle, and applying the same principle allows the audience to relate to Dunham’s plight (and accept a few of the show’s leaps of logic in the process).

It helps that Torv makes Abrams 4 for 4 in terms of discovering unknown female leads – with Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner and Evangeline Lilly proving their mettle over multiple seasons, it seems as if Torv will join the list. The accent (Australian) comes through a few times, but Torv always remains believable, the most important task for the lead in any show with pseudoscience at play. Like Lilly, she spends part of her pilot in her underwear, but the character had by that point charmed me enough that she couldn’t be objectified (Plus, let’s be frank: she’s extremely attractive).

It does help that she is surrounded by a lot of talent on all sides, and by a variety of different characters: just as Alias was about surrounding Sydney with a variety of different types of people (The steely father, the intimidating boss, the supportive partner, the young FBI agent, etc.), here Dunham finds herself wrapped up in a group of individuals with a lot of baggage. Lance Reddick (The Wire, and most recently Lost) plays her boss of sorts, an FBI agent with a few secrets of his own, and is a dominating presence when he needs to be despite his lack of screen time.

Most impressive is the work of John Noble and Joshua Jackson as Walter and Peter Bishop, respectively. Jackson, in particular, overcomes his past in teen drama (Dawson’s Creek, for those who don’t know) with a performance that is more in line with the fast-talking persuasion we’re more used to seeing from someone like George Clooney (Not that he’s George Clooney). He’s sort of playing a hyper-intelligent modern day version of Frank Abagnale Jr., if I had to make a direct reference, and I bought him throughout the episode: from his introduction to his chemistry with Torv and Noble, Jackson seems to simply fit well within the role.

Even more impressive is Noble as Dr. Walter Bishop, a scientist whose work plays a key role in solving the mystery of the Hamburg flight and realizing that it is only the beginning of something much bigger. Noble plays crazy well, and is even better at blending the craziness with genius (one of the character’s most definitive qualities); he’s also the source of a number of fantastic one-liners that I’ll leave you all to discover on your own. Noble’s work is strong across the board, portraying a man who is damaged and dependent, and yet whose mind refuses to contain itself within our preconceived perceptions of what is logical.

For the most part, though, the pilot succeeds based on its mythology. Like Alias, we are discovering the broader implications of this event through a character who previously was blissfully unaware of it. That show led us into Rambaldi quite gradually, but here we’re thrown into “The Pattern” (That’s all the details you get from me) and the potential implications of technology company Massive Dynamics quite quickly. As these elements start seeping into the pilot’s second hour, what feels a bit pedestrian becomes more complicated, and everything clicks at just the right time: the twist in the plot rears its head, our characters are coming into their own, and we see a series spontaneously emerge in the process.

It’s not all positive, though – I won’t expand too far, but there are a couple of logic leaps that could easily have been eliminated with the elimination of a definitive timeline, and I left feeling like I was simultaneously missing both setup and follow-through from some of the series’s parts. Neither, however, is a dealbreaker: by the time you get into the final parts of the episode, you’re compelled enough that tuning out seems nigh impossible.

While FOX doesn’t have a great record for treating science fiction in the post-X-Files era (Firefly being the prime example of an abject failure), this one has everything going for it: a heavily-promoted two-hour premiere, a House lead-in in the Fall, and then the coveted American Idol lead-in in the Spring. With that type of push, along with its pedigree, I think it’s about time that FOX’s procedural lineup (Already strong with House and Bones) returns to its paranormal roots.

Cultural Observations

  • Whatever FOX spent on the pilot was worth it – the production values on a few effects in particular are fantastic, creepy or powerful when they need to be.
  • I’m looking forward to hearing what Michael Giacchino does with the series, presuming Abrams uses him as he always does, but for now only a temporary soundtrack is in place.
  • In the same tradition as Alias, the pilot features a unique way of indicating location that, as far as I can tell, is an extension of the idea seen in the credits of David Fincher’s Panic Room.


Filed under Fringe

2 responses to “Pilot Preview – FOX’s “Fringe”

  1. The credits are like the ones for “Panic Room,” not “Zodiac.” They’re pretty nifty, I must say.

  2. Pingback: What’s Cultural Learnings Watching?: The New Shows of Fall 2008 « Cultural Learnings

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