Series Premiere: Fringe – “Pilot”

“Pilot”

September 9th, 2008

One of the fascinating things about Fringe is that, at its core, it is many things we normally associate with lesser television series. It’s blindly derivative of The X-Files, is a procedural in an era where the term is a dirty word, and J.J. Abrams’ creative influence feels like a simplified version of Alias. Combine with a rather outrageous sense of psuedoscience that takes some time to get into, and there’s plenty of reasons why Fringe could have been a disappointment.

But it’s not: from the opening scene, Fringe raises a central question that begs an answer, a scientific mystery that is caught up in something very large and, most importantly, something very real. I don’t mean real in the sense that this exists within our own universe, but that it is not some conspiracy trapped within pure shadows: yes, there is definite mystery, but the actual structure of the series represents a clear and, at least generally speaking, easy to follow setup in which these questions can be answered.

While this does mean that the show will not be quite the action-based and serialized rollercoaster that Lost or Alias were on occasion, it more importantly allows the show to focus on other things. In particular, there is some very strong character work throughout the episode, with strong performances and good scripting creating both interpersonal relationships and personal motivations that drive the action forward. While the result is a pilot that lacks the same punch as Abrams’ previous projects, it might actually be a better pilot at foregoing a few twists and turns (not that the ones in the episode are poor) in favour of building a sustainable foundation for the future.

Plus: that dude’s jaw totally just melted off.

First and foremost, that opening scene. It’s Abrams’ second pilot to center on a terrifying plane ride gone wrong, but there was something very powerful about this one. I love that they actually burn the plane in the end: it isn’t evidence to be captured, a mystery to solve, but a dangerous signal that something is going on. This isn’t a show about solving just why that plane, with its nameless passengers, was the target of this attack, but rather what madness created the science that allowed it to happen. Yes, this seems like a broad scope, the usual procedural model under which a very simple idea is stretched over too many episodes, but I think that’s a misguided reading.

Instead, let’s imagine a scenario where a fascinating Abrams-like plot not unlike Rambaldi, an unexplainable scientific phenomenon, is not the obsession but the interest of a group of characters. Anyone who watched Alias will know that Rambaldi, which started as a fascinating purpose behind SD-6’s missions, eventually fell off the rails and was too big for the show to handle. The comparative simplicity of this setup may seem like a disappointment, but it has potential to create a more sustainable series. What really worked for The X-Files was that the mystery was caught up in Mulder’s life, his family, his identity, and his relationship with his partner – when it moved too far away from that, the show faltered.

Here, what works is that the process of bringing together this group of people is one that is intensely interpersonal, whether it’s the pre-existing tension between father and son, the underlying romantic tension between newfound colleagues, or even the yet unseen tension between former lab partners who took very divergent paths into the twenty-first century. In other words, unlike most procedurals, it feels like what mysteries we’ll be solving have some reason to be solved, that their involvement is driven not by a paycheque or some sort of moral high ground of needing to save people, but by an actual interest, fascination, or (perhaps) a healthy obsession.

And a lot of this is because of Dr. Walter Bishop, portrayed wondrously by John Noble (best known, likely, for playing Denethor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy). The man was institutionalized for a reason, and there is no question that he is truly unhinged. However, from the second he is introduced Noble so effortlessly balances the unquestionable genius that exists within his mind with an almost infantile yearning for normalcy. He seems to delight in eating a sandwich, seems nonplussed when he pees himself in the car, and I don’t think I’ve had more fun with a single scene this year than I did with Bishop and a cow watching Spongebob Squarepants. “How profound…a narrative about sponge” may be my favourite line in a long time, without question.

His performance is what drives the pilot, but the rest of the cast is up to the same level – Anna Torv is Abrams’ fourth female discovery (Russell, Garner, Lilly), and while she is perhaps the most understated of the four she holds her own against some very strong supporting players (her showdown with Lance Reddick late in the episode is particularly strong). She’s a very solemn character, and while there is an emotional connection to the mystery in this episode I think that the real test will be when the connection isn’t as personal, when Torv gets used to acting in the cast, gets used to the American accent, and brings everything she has to the table.

The real surprise here is Joshua Jackson, whose transition from Dawson’s Creek is complete with his role as Peter Bishop. Yes, there is something just a bit too precocious, like an overcooked attempt at aping George Clooney, that emerges when he’s playing into the Frank Darabont Jr. type element of his character, but when played against Torv and, in particular, Noble he is doing some strong work here. It’s a likeable character, someone who can help bridge the gap between the audience’s skepticism (this science doesn’t make any real sense, let’s be honest) and his father’s genius. When the two of them start figuring out how best to save Agent Scott’s life, coming to the same conclusions at rapid speed, we learn that Peter is someone who has parts of our cynicism and, more importantly, a view into his father’s mind – the combination will do wonders in allowing the science to make sense and, more importantly, for him to complete a very strong performance triangle with Torv and Noble.

And while we’ve yet to meet William Bell, Massive Dynamic is still well represented here by the icy and wonderful Blair Brown. The $50 Billion corporation is still very shadowy, currently appearing as a technology firm whose efforts, we have to presume considering the episode’s conclusion, goes beyond the cancer fighting and limb replacing items that Nina Sharp refers to. There’s something very interesting about trying to fight a huge corporation, especially one that actually rivals our protagonists in terms of scientific know-how. While it is not yet clear whether Massive Dynamic is running in direct opposition to the FBI, as if they constitute the entirety of The Pattern, I get a sense that there’s a lot of shades of grey (if not quite as many as we’re used to with Lost).

When Lance Reddick introduced the idea of The Pattern, it was then that the episode really started to take shape – there, we start to figure out that this is part of something bigger, that this is not an isolated incident. Yes, we could have seen that coming a mile away, but the end twist (that Scott was working for someone other than the FBI all along) comes with just the right amount of complication. Not only does it give Dunham some minimal motivation, but it also raises questions about the validity of Broyles’ (the aforementioned Lance Reddick, late of The Wire and simultaneously appearing as Abbadon on Lost) leadership. So while there is no question that this is a procedural science fiction drama series, there are also plenty of twists and turns.

What makes Fringe work is that the twists are about people, and the turns lead to a setup that feels organic for these characters and what they’ve experienced. The pilot does a wonderful job of introducing us, through Dunham, to both dangerous scientific reality and the broad potential of Bishop’s research. While I don’t quite buy that Peter would be so quick to stay once he learned of the threat (his transformation from opportunist to devoted student is understandable with his new relationship with his father, but a bit quick), I personally feel like the events displayed in the pilot are enough to make me tune in to see the answers for myself.

And even if I’m not going to go around calling this the best pilot ever, if it achieved that goal who am I to really complain? Without question, amongst network shows, this is the series that feels the most eventful, that feels like a true series. From the scenes from next week’s episode, it’s hard to know just where things are heading, but with a solid second segment calling this the best new show of the fall seems like it won’t be a stretch in the least.

Cultural Observations

  • For the curious, outside of a couple of small scenes that felt somewhat different, the only major change from the original pilot screener was that Massive Dynamic used to be Massive Dynamics. I never bothered to look too closely at the lip-synch/ADR work required to make it work, but it seemed pretty good to me.
  • The episode is a bit of a strange test for the new shortened commercial format that is driving the show to 55 minute episodes, but for now it largely ends up with just really short commercial breaks as opposed to less commercial breaks. It makes for some short acts, but I definitely never got restless watching it.
  • I’m saddened at the news that the cow wasn’t able to make the trip to the series – they had to recast after the existing cow wasn’t able to pass customs (the pilot was filmed in Canada, and the show is shooting in the U.S., I presume New York or Boston). This is a sad, sad day for bovine acting, and demonstrates the tightened border restrictions. Tragedy.
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