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Pilot Inspektor: FOX's "Fringe"

Every once in a while a pilot comes along that is so perfect, such a shining indication of what the final series will be, so perfectly cast and directed, that it's impossible to look away.

That pilot, ladies and gentlemen, is definitely FOX's phenomenal science-tinged drama Fringe.

In a nutshell, Fringe is The X-Files for the new millennium: eerie, gripping, and still haunting even after the final credits have rolled, albeit containing an overt (rather than subtle) humor that never existed in that series. In this case, the aliens aren't from outer space: they're the mega-corporations that dot the American landscape, pushing science and technology past their limits and exploiting that for their own gain. It poses several ethical questions: when does the pursuit of scientific discovery go too far? Who is monitoring the rapid advances in technology in today's day and age? And what happens when a scientist--or a group of scientists--decides that the world is their laboratory?

Longtime readers of this site know my longstanding love for the pilot script, from Transformers scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman... who previously worked with executive producer J.J. Abrams on his seminal ABC series Alias and on the feature films Mission Impossible III and Star Trek. My original review of Fringe's pilot script from last October can be found here.

A quick recap: a German plane self lands at Boston's Logan Airport with no signs of life on board and the windows covered in what appears to be blood. An inter-agency team is quickly assembled to investigate the incident; a team which includes Agents Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and her secret lover/colleague John Scott (Boston Legal's Mark Valley) and is overseen by Philip Broyles (Lost's Lance Reddick). Broyles puts Olivia onto a possible lead involving a storage facility; they discover a makeshift lab, which their suspect detonates, unleashing a wave of chemicals onto Agent Scott... and then he escapes into the night. Looking for a way to save John's life, Olivia tracks down the only man capable of saving him: Dr. Walter Bishop (Lord of the Rings' John Noble), a genius scientific researcher who had been committed to a mental hospital years before. But the only way she can get to him is through his estranged son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), a genius misfit with no love lost for his father.

Still with me? During his years working on a classified project for the US government, Walter Bishop investigated the shady area of fringe science (ha, not just a clever name), studying things like teleportation, telepathy, reanimation: the inexplicable things hovering on the, well, fringes of pure science.

The produced pilot of Fringe, which I ran home to watch last evening, doesn't differ all that much from the written script. Under the master direction of Alex Graves (Journeyman), it's even more taut, suspenseful, humorous, and downright scary as the pilot script but now has the added benefit of a top-notch cast and stunning visuals. Hell, even the on-screen graphics that announce the varied locations of the pilot episode are creative and innovative, existing not so much as words on the screen but words embedded in the actual landscape, through which the camera moves like thick smoke. It's a genius visual and one that gives the action a distinctive and unique flair. And the special effects--particularly those involving Agent Scott's transformation into a transparent, crystalline structure--are absolutely breathtaking.

As Olivia Dunham, Australian newcomer Anna Torv is transcendent. Once again proving that no one picks a star in the making like J.J. Abrams, Torv is positively radiant on screen, effortlessly combining the steeliness of Jennifer Garner with the soulfulness of Cate Blanchett. Simply put: she's riveting, whether she's jumping off the roof of a building or climbing into a sensory deprivation tank. You can almost see the wheels turning in her head as she begins to put the pieces of this puzzle together as she begins to see that isolated and inexplicable incidents may be linked, as she begins to see The Pattern.

In reading the original pilot script last year, I was a little concerned with how the character of Dr. Walter Bishop would really be portrayed: it's a difficult character to play, one gifted with genius and cursed with madness and the line between the two facets of his personality seem pretty darned blurred when Fringe first begins. In the gifted hands of John Noble, Walter does spring to life and his scenes are master classes in the making: at once heartbreaking (he's unable to find the appropriate words when he first lays eyes on his son after 17 years), disturbing (he admits he's wet himself in the car), and hilarious (his astonished amusement at SpongeBob SquarePants).

As for Joshua Jackson, he seems as though he hasn't ever left television. He is such a natural as the gifted and misunderstood Peter, so adept at running from his problems, that it almost seems written for him. Jackson gets to play wry, sardonic, and romantic, sometimes all in the same breath. The chemistry between him and Torv is outright palpable as much as both of their characters might fight against it. The scene in which she disrobes in order to slip into the tank is so understated (and Peter's awkwardness and attraction to Olivia so apt) that it's easy to root for them. ('Shippers, start your engines now.)

Fringe could have been a bleak, darker-than-dark series but instead the tension and foreboding atmosphere are abated by the inclusion of some off-kilter humor, often from Walter Bishop himself. And, hell, there's even a cow. But these moments aren't overused, still shining like little gems among the darkness of the rest of the plot.

Ultimately, Fringe is spellbinding television, flawlessly setting up both an intricate overarching mythology (another J.J. Abrams specialty) as well as the possibility for self-contained procedural storytelling, a rare combination and one that will undoubtedly work for the series in the long run. As for this jaded critic, I'm going to be the first one in line for what promises to be yet another dizzying and mind-opening J.J. Abrams rollercoaster ride.

Fringe launches with a two-hour premiere on August 26th on FOX.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: NCIS (CBS; 8-10 pm); Most Outrageous Moments/Most Outrageous Moments (NBC); Reaper (CW); Dancing with the Stars (ABC); American Idol (FOX)

9 pm: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC); Reaper (CW); Dancing with the Stars (ABC; 9-11 pm); Hell's Kitchen (FOX)

10 pm: Shark (CBS); Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

8-10 pm: Britcoms on BBC America.

I don't know about you but by Tuesday night, I'm usually in need of some comedy in my life. Why not stick around on Tuesday nights for BBC America's new comedy lineup, consisting of classic episodes of Coupling, new comedy Not Going Out, and Absolutely Fabulous? You'll thank me in the morning.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Lance Reddick of "Lost"? Excuse me, Lance Reddick of "The Wire". Lost might be immediately more recent but "The Wire" wasn't that long ago and his performance there ought to be a highlight, no?
Anonymous said…
Anonymous, that's really all you took away from this review? Wow, you are bitter. Unfortunately, more people have seen Lost than The Wire so I understand why he would use that as a reference.I can't wait to see this show which sounds amazing!!! This might just get me through the wait for season five of Lost.
Anonymous said…
Hey Anonymous,

If you're gonna split hairs, it would be Lance Reddick of "Oz" - he was on that HBO series for two years before "The Wire" came along.

Whoops...
Unknown said…
The snooze-fest called Cloverfield cured me of the belief that everything J.J. Abrams touches is gold. However, Fringe sounds like a winner, and I'm looking forward to it in August. Maybe Abrams should stick to TV? :-)
Anonymous said…
Cloverfield a snooze-fest? Did we see the same movie?

Well, whether you liked Cloverfield or not there is no denying the genius of Fringe. I was lucky enough to see the pilot and was on the edge of my seat the entire time. The writing, cast, and direction were all extraordinarily good. And the tone was the perfect balance of drama, suspense, and humor.

This is definitely the X-Files of the future.
Wow. Joss Whedon's Dollhouse was at the top of my list for new shows I was excited about seeing but, based on your review, I think Fringe may have just moved into first place. It sounds absolutely incredible!
Unknown said…
@Bella Spruce: Heh, I figured I'd see a response to that comment. There's no denying Cloverfield was well-made from a technical perspective. But to me, it was Blair Witch meets Alien. Maybe I've seen too many movies, but it was predictable, plot-less, and depressing--not the ingredients I look for in a flick. Sure, the scene in the subway when they turn on night vision was scary, but it was a cheap scare and totally predictable. Nothing was ever explored or explained, and everyone dies. Snore. :-)

Anyway, I suppose this should be about Fringe. Sorry!
Page48 said…
I don't like to wish away the summer, but I'm anxious as hell to catch the debut of "Fringe".

"Cloverfield" was over-hyped crud. The characters couldn't die soon enough to suit me, they were absolutely loathsome. The good news about "Cloverfield" is that is was barely an hour long. Why there is a sequel listed on IMDB is way beyond me.

"Fringe", on the other hand, is can't wait material.
Anonymous said…
Was out of touch, but must respond to Eric. So it isn't butterness that drove my coment, it's body of work.

Reddick was a pivotal and key player in The Wire, whereas in Lost he has appeared maybe 4 minutes total? And yes, in identifying him in the article I'd list him as being from either The Wire or Oz (both actualy, great shows both)than list him as being on Lost.

And if number of people who have seen a show trumps show quality, tell Jace to stop pushing those hard to find quality BBC shows for things like American Idol. After al, more folks have seen American Idol than Life on mars, so it must be the better reference.
Anonymous said…
@anonymous. I've read this site for a while and he's referred to Reddick by both his Lost and Wire credits and before he turned up on Lost this season Jace had a number of casting things for Fringe that always had his credit as The Wire. Thanks for telling us what you would do with his credits if you wrote the article. Maybe next time you could just write the review since you're being so particular.

The review made me very excited to see this as it seems like an updated version of X-Files without aliens. Yes it's on Fox but I think that they'll give it more of a chance than they will give Dollhouse.
Evilyn2U said…
This show sounds utterly amazing!

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http://the-fringe-element.com
Anonymous said…
Well, I can't say that I was as enraptured by it as you were, but I liked it a whole lot. Mostly, I liked the possibility of where it's going.

I liked most of the casting, but I wasn't as taken w/Torv as you. About 15 minutes in, I sensed the clipped accent thing, and a quick check of IMDB confirmed that wasn't her natural accent. I found myself often distracted by her American accent, and didn't think that her character really shined as much as it hopefully will in the future.

JJ was great, though. nice to see him back. As you said - it's like he never left.

And I always like Lance Reddick -he was awesome as that police officer on one ep of West Wing. ;)

My main quibble with your review? X-Files had plenty of humor. It was always a part of the show.
Anonymous said…
This pilot is ugly and what is worse I don't see much room for improvement. The characters are lame (specially the father), the scrip is awful and you never can believe they take it seriously. It's really that bad.

The only thing I liked was the italian guy from the Black Donellys.
Anonymous said…
I had the opportunity to watch one of the pilot versions. In all honesty, the show has potential. So I'll give the good then bad.

Good

* Great image and look for the scenes. It was shot in a way that at times made me wonder if Mulder or Scully would pop up. *sad sigh*

* OOH MY OZ! lol. Cast members from the series OZ ups the ante with the onscreen talent. Anyone who has seen the former HBO series will know that to be on that show you better be a damn good actor!

* Great effects and general plot line, the twists and turns really had me on edge!

* Josh Jackson (Dawson's Creek fame) is half-bad in his role. His impressive character profile was a bit of a stretch, imo.

THE BAD

* Tone.Tone.Tone. Good gravy, I could not stand the forced love story...although it serves its purpose for the plot, I didn't care for it. I'd much rather see more about the elusive scientist.
Bottom line, they had a great start with the mystery but mixed it with a smaltzy sentimental "I need to save you" bit.

* Anna Torv who plays the lead Olivia Dunham comes across too vulnerable and soft. I know it's wrong to compare her to Gillian Anderson...but what made Gillian Anderson's portrayal of an agent compelling were the moments of being less sentimental. She put this really strong veneer of being able to compartmentalize, a method Torv failed to put as Olivia. Sure, she's allowed to be upset but it bothered me her character was more driven by saving her lover than the overall point of finding the truth. I don't feel there was a balance and it threw off completely the tone of the pilot.

I just wish she approached her character with more conflict in showing her vulnerability on her face. I'd like to see the character stronger.

* Sweetheart, Honey? UGH!!! Seriously, how lame was it in the beginning of how she's basically patronized...it made me respect the characters less and made me see her as weak. Yeah she fought back, in her own way...yet if the writers are going to have her be treated that way? Have some kind of comeback for her...

* Conviction. - I know that as actors you have to be in the moment but there points in the film where I felt like it was a bit off in their explanation of how the mechanisms work. For example. We don't hear Peter Bishop use his science jargon too often. Then towards the later half he explains out of nowhere the details of being able to find medical alternatives? Yes, I'm a bit vague because I don't want to give too much away. Essentially, we're give a profile of his intelligence and are expected to just buy it and keep it in mind. I don't see the "genuis" mentioned until the end...and that's where I think the pilot continuous teeters between good and bad.

They need to tone down Dunhams scenes and add a bit more about the father/son dynamic, and the elusive criminal. I wanted to know more of the details of Peter's father. I think they could have really succeeded with embellishing more on it.

All in all? I'm hoping that the changes made to the final pilot really have the above mentioned improvements.

I was more disappointed by seeing the miss chances to make it better. The pilot overall is good but it's not the best.

I'd give it 2 1/2 out of 5 (five being the best)

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