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Weird Science

J.J. Abrams tries to play it straight(er) with Fringe.

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Illustration by Henry Jansen  

When I call J.J. Abrams, his assistant says he’s delayed: He’s in a “weird place.”

It’s just Maine, it turns out. But can you blame me for imagining the man suspended in a wormhole? I’d just watched Fringe, a series teeming with telekinetic hoodoo.

Like Lost, like Alias (even Felicity, if you count that time-travel finale), Fringe is set in a universe where paranoia is common sense. There’s a terrifying (and gooey) act of bioterrorism. There are hints of corporate conspiracy; there is betrayal and Blair Brown with a robot hand. There’s even Timothy Leary–esque lucid dreaming in a sensory-deprivation tank—an homage to the eighties sci-fi flick Altered States.

But Fringe is also a risky departure for Abrams, who has built his reputation on masterful puzzle-box narratives. It’s a procedural, a sort of Law & Order: X-Files Unit. “I got sick of people saying they didn’t understand the story,” says Abrams of his previous series. “I felt like there was an interesting experiment possible: Can we do a show that deals with story the way we love story, but takes on a different condition each week?”

Will the old monster-of-the-week technique trigger the same intense loyalty (and entitled rage) in viewers as something like Lost? Fringe’s star is an unknown Cate Blanchett look-alike named Anna Torv, who plays a plucky investigator. Accompanying her are Lance Reddick as another in his series of baritone bosses with mysterious motives, Mark Valley as a hunky G-man, and Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson in roguish man-boy mode. There’s also an actual mad scientist, played by John Noble, an unstable Mulder eager to convert any passing Scully.

Abrams himself is clearly on the side of the Mulders. “Invisibility is coming our way!” he says. “You can’t really go a day without reading something. How’d that guy’s heart stop beating and then start again? Robotics are beginning to cross that line from absolutely primitive motion to motion that resembles animal or human behavior.” David Cronenberg was a major influence, Abrams tells me, and I can see it in the show’s frightening opening sequence: the physical terror, the mix of ick and wonder.

Do his kids—10, 8, and 2—watch his shows? “Oh my God, no. I think when you’re 10 years old, it’s too much to see something with the threat of death in every episode. Kids are better left naïve about certain things. Our first son, he was like an empath, a very sensitive, good little boy. Is it really worth the nightmares that follow watching something like this? He has all his life to get tough.”

Fringe
Fox; premieres September 9, 8 p.m.


Related:

Fall Preview 2008

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