September 3, 2008

Written by Cal Kemp

Here’s the pitch: A sexy female FBI Agent gets thrown into a world of paranormal “fringe” science alongside an eccentric mad scientist and his reluctantly-involved wastrel son. Each week, the trio investigates zany and mysterious scientific occurrences which may or may not be part of a larger pattern affecting the world from the sidelines.

I like zany science fiction! I like eccentric mad scientists! I like sexy female FBI agents!

And yet I don’t like “Fringe”.

The pilot episode introduces us to Olivia Warren (Anna Torv), an FBI agent in a secret tryst with her partner, John Scott (Mark Valley) and suddenly charged with the task of solving the mystery of an international flight where — for no good reason — everybody aboard suddenly melted.

The investigation leads to possible terrorism and, after an explosion, Scott winds up infected with the same meltiness that killed the passengers. Warren has a limited time to find the cause and, hopefully, the cure. She learns that a crazy scientist, Walter Bishop (John Noble) may have the answer but — because of bizarre FBI politics and hospital procedures — she needs to track down Bishop’s only living relative; a globe-hopping roustabout named Peter (Joshua Jackson) who has grown to hate his father and only reluctantly joins Warren’s team.

This gives us the three characters who work from Walter’s weird-science lab doing silly things like linking peoples’ minds for telepathic communication and talking with dead bodies.

There are two major problems with “Fringe”. The first, and probably the easier to overcome, is that it’s just not very well written. This happens to pilot episodes a lot and it’s forgivable, even though JJ Abram’s pilot track record is so very, very high. In this case, though, we’re left with a lot of head-scratching and not in a good, “LOST” way.

Verisimilitude is stretched pretty far if we’re to believe that it’s easier for Warren to fly to Iraq and track down Peter than just find some way around inane hospital protocol that only Walter’s living relative may visit him. This woman is involved in a terrorist investigation and has a direct link to Walter. There’s no special case to be made here? And what if Peter had died? Then no one would ever be able to talk with Walter?

(On a side note here, I’m betting that — because this is so particularly badly written — it’s going to pay off in a future plot-point. I won’t go into theorizing until everyone gets a chance to see this, but I think it’s a setup for a twist coming later. That said, it’s still awful writing.)

Likewise, we’re treated to a lot of plot inanity. Everything from Warren’s secret relationship that just doesn’t seem to matter whatsoever to the forced whodunit revelation that, instead of leaving you saying, “Wow!” has you going, “So?”

The bigger problem, though, is just that “Fringe” is simply unspectacular and, for a science fiction, that’s a big, big problem.

I’m not talking about a mega-budget or fantastic effects (though “Fringe”, allegedly, has both of those). What science fiction needs is to have something that takes the audience’s breath away and leaves them truly astonished. The closest we get to that is the idea that the government can interrogate dead bodies shortly after their death. That’s would be cool enough if it wasn’t already a basic plot device in “Torchwood”, “Pushing Daisies” and the “BPRD” comic book series.

“Fringe” feels very been-there, done-that with obvious (and acknowledged) predecessors like “The X-Files” and “The Twilight Zone” and I’m just not sure if there’s anything new the series brings to the table. I’m willing to give the next few episodes a shot as, again, I’d really love to love this series but, as it stands, color me truly disappointed.

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