September 8, 2008

Barney: Creepy ‘Fringe’ Could Be the New ‘X-Files’

By Chuck Barney

If J.J. Abrams drives a better car and lives in a bigger house than most of us, it's clearly because the man possesses an uncanny ability to concoct turbocharged, thrill-ride entertainment that sucks us in and holds us spellbound. (See: "Alias,""Lost,""Cloverfield.") There are a lot of deluded people in Hollywood who think they can pull that off, but, really, it's harder than it looks.

And now it appears Abrams might have scored again with "Fringe," a creepy, mystifying sci-fi mind-bender that trades on elements of "The Twilight Zone" and "The X-Files," yet still manages, for the most part, to feel strikingly fresh.

At the heart of "Fringe" is the whole idea of weird science -- science that pushes the envelope and blurs the line between the possible and impossible, and, in some cases, is used to do very bad things.

Tonight's 90-minute pilot opens on board a Boston-bound jetliner that suddenly experiences a blast of bone-jarring turbulence (shades of "Lost"). Instead of crashing into a spooky tropical island, it lands safely at Logan Airport. Just one very big problem: All the passengers on the aircraft have perished, victims of some kind of eerie phenomenon that turned their flesh to goo (here is where "Fringe" will make you cringe).

Enter FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (Australian actress Anna Torv), a tenacious, no-nonsense type who has a bit of a "La Femme Nikita" vibe to her. But there's no way Olivia can wrap her head around this flesh-melting stuff, so she calls upon Walter Bishop (John Noble), a crusty old mad genius who has spent the better part of the past 20 years in an insane asylum and can only get sprung with the cooperation of his bitter and estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson of "Dawson's Creek").

Preposterous? Absolutely. But Abrams and his collaborators have long excelled at taking weird, out-there concepts and weaving in just enough heart, personality and dramatic gusto to persuade fans to give them some slack.

And so, when Olivia's investigation eventually involves monkeys, a cow, a shadowy corporate conspiracy and a kooky mind-melding experiment straight out of "Scooby-Doo," well, you just go with it and pass the popcorn.

It certainly helps that the writers have incorporated refreshing bits of humor that undercut the darkness of it all. And it also helps that they've hit a home run with the casting. Torv is an engaging, kick-butt heroine and Jackson succeeds at being prickly and sarcastic without being too off-putting. Lance Reddick ("The Wire,""Lost"), as Olivia's superior, is also riveting in a small role that I hope becomes meatier as the series unfolds.

But it's Noble who pretty much steals the pilot. As the unstable scientist, he gets off some of the show's best and funniest lines and does so with a deadpan delivery reminiscent of Vincent Price. From start to finish, the man is thoroughly watchable.

The trick for "Fringe" will be to take the thrills and chills of a well-crafted pilot and sustain them over the course of the series without going too far over the top and/or losing viewers in a muddle of mythology. Regarding the latter, Abrams has promised that the show will be less rigorously serialized than either "Lost" or "Alias."

That's probably a wise decision, and one that should keep viewers coming back for more.

Reach Chuck Barney at [email protected] Also check out his "TV Freak" blog at SERIES PREMIERE- - WHAT: "Fringe"-- WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday -- WHERE: Channels 2 and 40 (Fox)-- GRADE: B+

Originally published by Chuck Barney, Contra Costa Times.

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