Thursday, August 14, 2008

Nearly Worth Watching: "Fringe"

Caught the "Fringe" pilot early, so I can officially tell you that this is 80% a Show Worth Watching.
First, the bad: There’s a good deal of “Let’s Set Up The Series” stuff – characters speaking in exposition, vague subplots initiated, and a nice tour of the set you’ll get to see each and every exciting week, if the show gets picked up. It’s annoying, but on a pilot, everyone’s gotta just soldier through it, and assume this won’t be so prominent in later episodes.

The more painful bit of the bad is the fact that the lead actress looks like Kate Blanchett and performs like Elizabeth Rohm. She is startlingly bland, exhibiting almost no personality in the face of some truly weird concepts she’s supposed to be at the front of. It’s disappointing, firstly because how many decent, attractive character actresses are there who could deliver lines with a spark of excitement and curiosity – let alone decent AMERICAN actresses who could do the job?

But that’s something we have to cope with, since the rest of the cast makes up for it. In particular, John Noble, playing the scientific lead who will anchor the plot of the series itself. He isn’t charming or rakish. He’s not Dr. House. The Walter Bishop character is quite truly a Mad Scientist, delivering his lines like an autistic Vincent Price. At one point, he casually mentions that he’s pissed himself – “Just a squirt,” he clarifies – and that tells the audience quite a bit about the show that’s hopefully lined up.

I imagine a lot of actors chomp at the bit to play The Good-Guy Mad Scientist, quietly excited to inject an FBI agent with an LSD-Ketamine mix and toss her into a sensory deprivation tank. That enthusiasm is clear here.

Most surprising, I must admit, is Joshua Jackson as the scientist’s estranged son – also a genius, though a stubbornly directionless one. Though at first I thought he was trying a bit too hard to come off as “adult” despite looking like a youngish 25, as soon as he’s got Noble to play off of, Jackson comes alive, alternating between snarkily berating his father’s work and bemusedly translating for him, since he seems to be the only other one that “speaks Walter.”

That the show’s got J.J. Abrams’s “Bad Robot” company attached can be read one of two ways – “Lost,” or “Alias.” The vague references to “The Pattern” hint at the problems the latter series faced when it became clear that it had no real gameplan and just kept inventing new, obtusely-named threats. But I’m hoping for the quality of the former to keep it in check.

Helping that is the clever bits of gruesomeness displayed in the pilot. Not only the airborne toxin that turns people’s skin translucent – which the show manages to keep looking disgusting no matter how close up it gets - but more throwaway gags like the woman who casually strips off the skin of her arm to reveal a bionic prosthesis. If they can keep this attitude going, I’ll be impressed.

There’s a way of looking at this like a 21st-century redo of “The X-Files,” and hopefully that’ll be the case. The alternate is it devolves into a painful hybrid the last couple of years’ failed genre shows, “Night Stalker” and “Bionic Woman.” But it’s my hope Abrams and company have learned their lessons by now.

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