"Fringe" creator, producer & writer J. J. Abrams was quoted recently with -- "I'm drawn to overarching, long-term stories..." Well guess what Jeff? Me too! And thank you. I am sure many of your long term aficionados feel the same and are grateful that the latest Bad Robot production is finally here to mesmerize and entertain the world.
If you did not watch the premiere of "Fringe," then having someone effectively describe it to you is 90 percent simple, and 10 percent impossible. In a nutshell, the impossible part of it goes like this: Instantaneous flesh melting contagion... self-landing airplane (possible)... "on-time" self-landing airplane (impossible)... see-through skin... fully articulated robotic limb... robotic limb covered in see-through skin... 4-yearolds disappearing for a decade, then discovered half-way around the world -- and still 4-years-old... synaptic thought transfer between minds -- living or otherwise... re-animation of the recently deceased.
The rest is fairly straight-forward. The Feds are on the job investigating strange occurrences. A "terror-related" event has happened where very bad bio-technologists have turned the good folks of Flight 627 into a human swamp on the floor of the aircraft. A multi-agency task force responds quickly to the event and begins to investigate. Did I mention two of the Feds have "a thing" going away from the office and out of sight of their colleagues? Well anyway, both of them are part of the incident investigation team, and when they hit the storage lot on what they think is a routine lead -- wham! Bad stuff starts happening.
This storage lot looks like any U-rent, in any-town, North America, but when our Feds start cracking the garages open, we start to see some of the animal oddities in the makeshift labs that line the storage lot. I swear there was a shaved albino weasel in one garage -- and the garage next to that one had what looked like a Shar Pei turned inside-out, only it was the size of a rat. I digress... a bad guy emerges from one storage garage, a foot chase ensues and, to elude capture, the bad guy speed dials some prepositioned explosive charges near one of our agents.
Later, we catch up to our two Feds in the hospital. She is recovering nicely, while he was exposed to exotic chemicals in the explosion, and is expected to die in the very short term. She quickly finds her way back to the task force to find possible solutions to the dying agents illness. Eventually, a scientist with a connection to the chemicals is identified. There is only one problem though, he has been camped out at the funny-farm for nearly two decades and is only accessible through family. So our Fed high-tails it to the mid-east where she meets up with the genius son of the mad-scientist, and coerces him to return with her to extract his father from exile. Dad and son unite and the three agree to work to solve the exotic illness. The delightfully mad Doctor resurrects his old lab where answers and solutions start to flow.
When I say "start to flow," I refer to the blur that followed. Car chase, foot chase, fist fight, prisoner intimidation, mass conspiracy, double agents, top secrets, patient suffocation, collusion, government denial, and corporate cover-up. In all of that, there are only three things that need to be taken away from the final scenes. First, amazing things are happening all over the planet in an apparent "pattern." This is a story thread that should underlie most episodes, this is an iceberg that we haven't even seen the tip of yet. Secondly, our little trio of problem solvers has absolutely no idea how little they know about the extent of the conspiracy they are just starting to touch upon. Thirdly, surmise that they were deliberately and actively recruited to do exactly what they are doing as a team -- though they haven't a clue they are together by grand design.
Plusses for Me
Endearments. We heard a few "Honeys" and "Sweethearts" in the Pilot episode -- at least I did -- and they hit me like a "phantom ring." The phantom ring is a production technique in recent years, that the audio folks put into a show to re-focus your attention. The ring sounds like any phone you might have in a back room in your house, very soft, but clear. The effect on you (and you know you have responded to it before) is to perk-up and think to yourself -- "Is my phone ringing?" I am not terribly politically correct, but the "honey" and "sweetheart" calling immediately caught my ear. Ultimately, the intent was to draw the viewer to the focal character in the show, Dunham, and the content of her character. Faced with the "old-boy" network and their way of doing business, Dunham did not respond with a standard -- "I'm gonna tell on you." or the ever popular "I'm not gonna talk to you anymore". She simply ignored the condescending endearments from her joint task force boss (Broyles), while the sweetheart's from the kid genius (Bishop Jr.) extracted a much heartier -- "I can and will destroy you... if I choose to" reaction. To me, this says tons about her character and her mettle.
Chemistry. Not the pseudo-science kind of chemistry, but the human inter-action kind, shows a lot of promise for "Fringe's" future. I cannot say that I'd seen Torv (Dunham) or Jackson (Bishop Jr.) in anything before, and I barely remember Noble (Dr. Bishop) in some of my sci-fi favorites, but I will say they all have some serious "screen presence". Most actors don't have that presence - but these three all do, which helps make each scene a little crisper, when they are acting opposite one another. I think they call that synergy... and that is what will probably carry the show, this core group dynamic, however long "Fringe" runs.
Procedurals and Agencies. My concern that "Fringe" would be just another law enforcement 'procedural' drama, where every detail gets a fine-tooth combing, seems to be unfounded. With all of the "CSIs", "Law & Orders," etc... I fully expected "CSI:Boston - Special Science Unit" on premiere night. This episode completely plowed over, and skirted around most of the law enforcement/methodology genre... and that was refreshing. Another concern I had was that the story would bog into inter-agency rivalry - "You can't do that. That's our jurisdiction."... you know the routine. That didn't happen either. Instead, we were greeted with HLS supervising the task force and FBI and CIA personnel accepting and executing orders without a quibble. Again -- refreshing.
Trust. The typical "procedural law" drama has been feeding us in-depth forensic method for years now. We see almost every detail in the autopsies of horrific, mangled corpses. We are not asked to trust a plot point, until we are shown the plot point... mostly because it is a moment of discovery for the characters as well. When Dr. Noble took the scalpel to Agent Scott, I thought, "here we go again -- truth in dissection". Instead, what we saw was just a little patch of skin being removed -- if you could call that skin, it looked more like glazing on a donut. DocH note to self: Agent Scott will now be referred to as "Glazed Donut Guy" or GDG. Back to trust.... On the other hand, Sci-Fi always asks us to trust. I liked this episode because of that; "Fringe" filled its billing as a Sci-Fi fantasy and jumped right to the bigger saga, without spending five episodes filling in the minutia. Let's hope it stays that way... and sign me up for that 'synaptic transfer' thingy -- I'll always trust a loony bin genius when he says that a metal probe in the base of my brain will let me communicate with my departed dad. (I only have two questions for him).
Some of the Minuses
The Harvard lab of Dr. Bishop. What prestigious university keeps prime campus real estate, like the Bishop lab, in a 'barely moth-balled' status -- for nearly two decades?! Apparently Harvard does. We were told early on that the laboratory was being used for storage, so I expected to see crates and boxes packed to the hilt. Instead we saw very expensive equipment, nicely spaced and covered with just tarps and a bit of dust. The only effort to make the lab seem old-timey was the one light bulb that sparked when the place was powered-up. The lab was put in working order so quickly -- I started humming the theme to GhostBusters."
When there's something strange... like translucent skin... who 'ya gonna call... FringeBusters?
Massive Dynamic Executive Nina Sharp - Corporate Menace #1. They really tossed her into the mix with nothing more than a 'look at me and listen' cameo role. I am sure she will be important later on, but her interview with Agent Dunham served one purpose - to briefly identify the playing field, and the game, to the new player (and us). I did like the cool six million dollar arm -- a gift from her benefactor at Massive Dynamic, earning him her undying loyalty. The translucent robotic arm looks very CGI, like a robot from the movie "I, Robot." I do like the actress that plays Nina Sharp, and yes it is okay for older men and women to look older - but she should have asked for the "I, Robot" tummy-tuck or the "I, Robot" chin-lift.
Bad Robots' Reputation. The impression I have of the "most anticipated show" of the new season is that the incredibly talented folks at Bad Robot Productions have a fantastic game plan for the series. They have set the bar so high in the past, that they now must jump over it themselves, along with their new friends, the studio (Warner Bros. Television) and the broadcasters (FOX, CTV, Sky1, Channel Nine and Kanal 5). Bad Robot took some hits in the early days of "Lost" because it took time for the buzz to build around it. ABC ran a half dozen episodes, or so, of "Lost," waited for the word-of-mouth to get going, then re-ran "Lost" from the start. Once the eager viewer base was in place, the rest was history. As for "Fringe," without one second of broadcast time to its' credit, it hit the ground running, by design. The analogy that comes to my mind is that of the kid at the playground that always gets cornered by the bully and bloodied - this time the kid (Bad Robot) didn't get cornered, the kid found the bully and threw a pre-emptive flurry of marketing fists. "Lost" rewrote the rules... "Fringe" is living by them.
Honestly, I feel like I missed the premiere! I have to come totally clean - I did not see the pilot episode. Yes... I "watched" it, but I'd spent so many weeks researching and reading up on "Fringe," and was so prepared to give it the "Lost treatment" (view - analyze - debate - theorize), that I basically neglected to ENJOY the program. How is that? Well, I had the HDTV tape going in one room (to capture screenshots later), and I had the Closed Caption digital recording (think transcripts) going in my man-cave, where I sat and I read 98% of the show... to verify what I had researched. What I forgot to do was just sit and enjoy the unfolding saga like a genuine fan. If I could only go back in ... wait, I know how to resolve that. This Sunday evening, 14 September, 2008, FOX is going to rebroadcast the "Fringe" premiere. Sorry "Football Night in America" -- my vow to myself is to fire up a plate of hot-wings, chill a beer or two, and just sit, watch and enjoy. From what I hear... "Fringe" is really good. -- Review by DocH
"The Same Old Story" -- airs Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 9PM EDT/8PM CDT. I won't feed you the FOX synopsis for next week, avoiding the spoiler, but I will say that the key word in the title isn't "Same" or "Story."