October 3, 2008
Beyond the Fringe
By Guy Adams
The new show from 'Lost' director JJ Abrams, a potent mix of weird science and skulduggery, will thrill Britain like it did America, says Guy AdamsThere are many ways to kick off a new television series, and very few of them will ever be completely original. But it's difficult to think of a screenwriter, living or otherwise, who has brazenly recycled an old dramatic device to quite the same effect as JJ Abrams.
In 2004, the modish film-maker used an air crash to deposit several dozen characters essential to his new programme, Lost, on a desert island in the South Pacific. The show is now in its fifth season, having clocked up more than 80 episodes and won a hatful of Emmys, Golden Globes and Baftas.
And Abrams has been at it again. His latest TV drama, Fringe, began with an air-crash sequence that saw a flight from Germany to Boston hit turbulence halfway across the Atlantic. By the time it had landed (via auto-pilot) every passenger on board was stone dead and in a nasty state of advanced decay.
Air crashes aren't the only trusty old idea floating around Fringe. The show, which debuted in the US on 9 September, follows a fragrant female FBI agent reminiscent of a young Gillian Anderson through various close encounters with the supernatural. The drama is full of car chases, explosions and experiments in darkened laboratories of the kind last seen in The X-Files, while its stylised "look" recalls the long-running TV series Alias, the last serious foray by Abrams into the cultish world of science fiction.
You might, therefore, wonder at the point of tuning in when Fringe makes its UK debut this weekend. But don't be put off: the science-fiction drama may push some well-worn buttons, but it also happens to be one of the best new shows in television.
In American broadcasting's corridors of power, where last week's TV ratings are everything, and besuited executives keep a beady eye on the trends as soon as they emerge, the progress of Fox's flagship new scripted drama has been watched with mounting excitement.
To many players in a market facing a long-term struggle against fragmenting audiences, the way Fringe has been created, marketed and sold to the public represents the future of their troubled industry.
Thanks in no small part to Abrams, an uncompromising director who honed his craft on the slick Jerry Bruckheimer action movies Armageddon and Mission: Impossible II (and who's signed up to direct the forthcoming Star Trek prequel), everything about the show has been kept devotedly upmarket.
Its premiere was produced at a cost of $10m, making it the most expensive pilot in American television history. Individual episodes are six minutes longer than standard, meaning that they've been aired with half the advertising breaks of traditional US dramas.
Production values and special effects are virtually on a par with feature films. Abrams has also succeeded in keeping his narrative on the right side of cliche, while successfully avoiding the myriad plot twists that made watching many episodes of Lost impossible without referring to a DVD box-set.
Fox's canny marketing campaign has already secured a cult audience through the judicious use of online trailers and the not- necessarily-accidental leaking of the show's pilot episode to an internet site before broadcast.
The premise of Fringe runs something like this: FBI agent Olivia Dunham finds herself thrown into the centre of a global conspiracy involving "fringe science" - the study of such far-fetched disciplines as telepathy, invisibility and levitation.
Together with a mentally unsound but gifted scientist called Walter Bishop and his son Peter, Dunham investigates a series of often-deadly experiments that are occurring, for reasons that remain unclear, in a co-ordinated sequence known as "the pattern".
The bad guys, so to speak, include various fellow members of the FBI loosely connected to a large corporation called Massive Dynamic, which holds the patents for various fringe science technologies.
It may sound far-fetched. But some of America's most highbrow television critics have heaped praise on the early episodes and predicted that the show will make serious stars of its cast, who include the unknown Australian Anna Torv (Dunham) and the former Dawson's Creek actor Joshua Jackson. "As pilots go, this one is sensational," announced The New York Times. "An artful, suspenseful mix of horror, science fiction, layered conspiracies and extended car-chase, Fringe sets out to stretch the boundaries of conventional network series." In USA Today, it was declared "the best new show of the fall," while New York magazine declared that it deserved "a huge huzzah". The Hollywood Reporter noted: "What really makes Fringe so promising is that it is potentially reminiscent, in a small way, of the battle-of-the-sexes charm that once made Moonlighting the best hour of TV of its time."
Audiences seem to agree. Having drawn 9.1 million viewers for the first episode, Fringe achieved a rare feat in US broadcasting by actually increasing its figures for the second episode, with 13.3 million viewers making it the fifth most-watched programme of the week. Hundreds of thousands more are said to be watching online, in a trend that mirrors the fragmenting nature of audiences for shows that attract both younger and more cultish audiences, as recently seen with Gossip Girl.
"It's certainly benefited from its scheduling, since after the premiere it was moved to Tuesday night, straight after House, which is one of the most popular shows in America," notes Jon Weisman, a TV expert at Variety. "It's also being heavily promoted by Fox, as it's the only scripted drama they've launched this fall. Having Abrams on board is also crucial. With everything he makes, you're going to attract a core audience who'll watch because of his name and reputation, particularly now he's got the Star Trek prequel film coming out."
A final measure of the show's success has been the fact that it has been cropping up in the news pages. On Monday, USA Today carried a stern article warning readers that the series is guilty of "blurring boundaries of science", according to some of America's foremost boffins.
"Bottom line, it's way out there," Michael Bell, the associate director for infection control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta told the newspaper. "A lot of things in the show don't bear much relationship to science as we know it."
To Abrams, who at 42 boasts two Emmys, a Golden Globe and a reputation as one of the hottest properties in world television, that's beside the point. "The point of the show is not to be a classroom film on the state of science and technology," he said. "It's science fantasy. We're trying to entertain people with interesting characters placed into exciting situations, not bore them."
All of which suggests that Fringe may turn out to be yet another Abrams plane crash that ends happily ever after.
'Fringe' is on Sky One on Sunday at 9pm
Lost in Abrams: his career so far
JJ Abrams made his first venture into television in 1998 as the co-creator and executive producer of the freshman TV series 'Felicity', about a girl who follows her high-school crush to New York, where he is going to college. The series ran for four seasons and picked up several awards, including a Golden Globe for Keri Russell, who played Felicity. Abrams co-wrote both theme songs for Felicity.
The ABC 'spy-fi' series 'Alias' ran for five seasons from 2001, with Jennifer Garner playing the CIA agent Sydney Bairstow; more awards followed, including a Golden Globe for Garner. The show explored the difficulties caused by the need to conceal her career from her nearest and dearest while assuming multiple aliases as a double agent for her missions. Abrams was again responsible for the theme music.
Abrams's best-known series, 'Lost' (left), started in 2004. He co- wrote it with Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof. Again, the fantasy thriller won multiple awards. 'Lost' follows the survivors of an air crash on a seemingly deserted island.
Abrams was executive producer on this 2006 series, which followed six very different New Yorkers going about their lives, oblivious to the effect they're having on each other. A mysterious series of coincidences gradually draws them together.
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