Thursday, September 11, 2008



I watched the 95-minute premiere of Fringe, the new sci-fi/crime procedural show from J.J. Abrams, and my opinion on it is landing somewhere in the middle ground. There were some interesting ideas and visuals, but there were a number of things that irritated me as well.

The set-up is basically X-Files meets... well, nothing, I guess. It's government agents investigating weird crap and conspiracies. Anna Torv is an FBI agent dropped into the middle of a case involving a chemical/biological weapon, John Noble is the crazy-but-brilliant scientist who can help her, Joshua Jackson is the estranged son who is needed to liberate his scientist father from the asylum, and Lance Reddick is the mysteriously menacing government agent who may be helping Torv, or may be placing her in harm's way.

Mark Valley also appears as Torv's love interest. I always like seeing Valley; I've been a fan since Keen Eddie. And I like that the show listed him among the regular cast, rather than as a guest star. Nice bit of misdirection there, but I still could tell, the minute he appeared, that he was doomed. Just too damn happy and cuddly for a gloomy show like this. I have to say, I didn't expect him to be a bad guy until about halfway through the show, when it was obvious someone on the government's side would have to be a bad guy, but it was still very clear that he wouldn't be making it out of the episode alive.

Not that that prevented his being useful. Nice bit at the end, with Blair Brown, as the representative of the evil corporation, Massive Dynamic, receiving Valley's body into a high tech lab. "How long has he been dead?" "Five hours," says a minion. "Question him," she replies. Spooky! We now know the evil corporation has appropriated crazy scientist's experiments, used earlier to connect Torv to the comatose Valley, that allow a person to retrieve information from another person's brain up to six hours after death. And who knows what other shenanigans they're up to?

That was one of the things I liked about the show: that a giant corporation is being set up as the main villain, that a stonewalling bureaucrat like Brown (wielding a bionic arm, no less!) has more power and a higher clearance level than an FBI agent investigating a terrorist attack. Kind of like what you'd imagine happens behind the scenes at Halliburton.

I also liked the look of the show, which is stylish and slick without devolving too often into Michael Bay-style quick-cut indecipherability (the main exception being the car chase at the end). I even liked the bizarre way that floating words identifying locations would appear within scenes, integrated into the action rather than mere subtitles. I got a kick out of the SOUTH BOSTON legend seeming to be frozen and covered in snow, as though it were actually physically present in the wintery setting. And I really enjoyed the playfulness used with the BAGHDAD IRAQ caption. From the helicopter's eye view, it is visible below in a legible size; when a reverse angle is taken from the ground, the B in BAGHDAD is backward and gigantic, as though the word were a permanent fixture of the city's skyline, right above roof level. Completely pointless and show-offy? Yes -- but I don't think I've ever seen anything like it before, so points for originality and cleverness.

A lot of what I didn't like about the show has to do with the cast. Torv seems like she could be a solid lead, if she wouldn't so frequently wear an intimidated look on her face. Often it looks as though she is cowed by whomever she is speaking to -- Reddick, Brown, Noble, nearly everyone she interacts with she greets with a wide-eyed, timid countenance. Perhaps that can partially be ascribed to the fact that she's in fear for Valley's life throughout the episode, but that seems generous. And it doesn't explain why she's so flirtatious with Jackson.

As for Jackson -- holy crap, that dude will not shut up. I'm okay with his wiseacre performance when it plays naturally off the other actors, but there are a number of scenes throughout the episode where it becomes absolutely overbearing. At one point, Torv and Noble are having a discussion of vital importance to the case at hand, and Jackson interrupts them in between every single fucking line to toss off some smart aleck comment. Dag! Rein it in just a little, would you, Pacey?

I have a big problem with Noble's character as well. At the top of the episode, he's introduced as a babbling, incoherent, possible psychotic blamed for the death of a human test subject in one of his experiments; by the end of the show, he's lovably eccentric. Miracle recovery, there.

Something similar happens with Valley's character. He's caught smack-dab in the middle of a series of huge explosions at the beginning of the show, and absorbs some mysterious chemicals which turn his skin transparent, for some reason. Torv and her team find a cure for the chemicals, and his skin changes back, waking him from his coma and leaving nothing but a few crackly marks in his skin as a side effect. In no time at all, he's up on his feet, murdering terrorist suspects and engaging in high-speed car chases. At no point does he show the slightest sign whatsoever of his having been BLOWN THE FUCK UP. Another miracle recovery!

Fringe is an ambitious show. It clearly is attempting to establish a vast mythology, complete with weird symbols and a dark cabal (in the form of Massive Dynamic), much like Abrams' previous shows Alias and Lost. I just don't know if I want to stick around to watch it all unfold. There's some promise, enough to keep me watching next week -- but if it doesn't cohere a little better, not much beyond that.

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