New Abnormalities

Illustration by Jason Gnewikow

If only because it brings Blair Brown back to series television, Fringe deserves a huge huzzah. Unfortunately, this is not the Blair Brown we remember from The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, in which she wrote poetry, taught piano, ate Chinese, and worked in a bookstore where D. H. Lawrence was actually spoken. In Fringe, she is, instead, Nina Sharp, an exalted executive at one of those scary high-tech conglomerates, Massive Dynamic, where she chooses not to tell the whole truth to FBI agent Olivia Dunham. So we have to assume that Blair Brown, of all people, is part of a smoggy conspiracy known to the gnomes at Homeland Security as The Pattern.

(Ask yourself whether anybody in a J. J. Abrams television series has ever told the whole truth to anybody else. Probably not. Although he has promised to finish most of the stories he starts in each new episode of Fringe, as he never did in Alias nor has in Lost, one wonders whether he ever knows where he’s really going. Or why.)

As the series begins, Olivia, wonderfully played by Australian newcomer Anna Torv as a cross between Gwyneth Paltrow and a stress test, is having a very bad day. An airplane has landed at Boston’s Logan Airport with all the passengers and crew not only dead but somehow virally scarfed up, fleshless, skeletal. The boss of the Homeland Security task force to which she is assigned, Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), seems neither to respect nor trust her. Her partner, who is also her lover, has been hospitalized by an explosion that coincidentally also eats flesh. The only man who knows anything about flesh-eating viruses, the disgraced “fringe” scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble), has been confined for seventeen years in a government mental ward, sort of like Ezra Pound. And the only person who can get in to see Walter is his son Peter (Joshua Jackson), one of those ne’er-do-well college-dropout genius types, who hates Walter for his lousy fathering.

Have I mentioned Baghdad? We go there, and after that to Harvard. Mention is made of other “fringe” sciences like astral projection, teleportation, and reanimation, any one of which paranormalities Walter may have dabbled in before his unfortunate laboratory accident, and all of which are likely to construe, in the serial sleuthing of episodes to come, evidence of The Pattern. It is insinuated that The Pattern involves a series of experiments in scientific terrorism—children who never age, number-related comas, boutique tsunamis, etc.—meant to freak out the Feds. The pilot episode alone subjects Olivia to quality time in her underwear in a vat of chemical goo, stoned to the gills on LSD and “dream-sharing” with her comatose FBI partner-lover. In the end, it turns out that Homeland Security so desperately needs Olivia on their side of the freak wars that they show her their top-secret Mulder-Scully-esque X-files and recruit both Bishops as her own mercenary team of pattern pods. And I am the queen of the Nile.

Although generally witty, always absorbing, and invariably violent, True Blood isn’t really a big surprise until its fifth hour, when Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) addresses a congregation of Confederate nostalgics, wannabes, and ancillaries in a rustic Baptist church in southern-gothic Bon Temps, Louisiana. Tall, pasty, Edgar Allan Poetic, and 173 years old, Compton actually served as a Confederate Army first lieutenant during the Civil War. He can tell these poor people what they need to hear about their own vanquished ancestors, “the glorious dead.” Who cares, for a while anyway, that he’s a vampire? So accustomed have we become to bloodsucking as a metaphor for denial and desire—for carnal knowledge, forbidden fruit, alien abduction, drug addiction, lynching bees, and witch hunts—that we’ve forgotten about time. But of course: Past and present feed on each other’s wounds. History itself is ghostwritten and body-snatched.

This church meeting is a rare moment of genuine reflection in a welter that otherwise relies on the sly, the slick, and the absurd, on sex and the supernatural. From Charlaine Harris’s novels about Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress who falls in love with the first vampire to come into her bayou roadhouse after the Japanese invent synthetic blood, Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) has prestidigitated a cable series that combines true romance (Anna Paquin’s virginal Sookie is attracted to Compton because he’s the only man she’s ever met whose thoughts she can’t read), social satire (having “come out of the coffin,” vamps are encouraged to “mainstream,” though many would rather hang out in dives like Shreveport’s Fangtasia), serial murder (somebody’s determined to strangle the entire female population of Bon Temps), and chicken-fried stereotype (every cliché of redneck grotesque is lovingly included, from thuggish sheriff, pool-table slack jaw, and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt to speaking in tongues, cans of Fresca, and the Ku Klux Klan). Alien Nation, the old Fox series about two-hearted beaver-eating refugees from outer space trying to assimilate to Los Angeles, meets Beauty and the Beast, with a soupçon of Buffy’s trademark nonchalance. It certainly beats John From Cincinnati.

And so, to Lilith, Grendel, and Caliban, to Moloch and Minotaur, to devil worship, demonic possession, cannibalism, succubi and zombies, add the “fangbangers” of Bon Temps—Paquin’s lovelorn Sookie, as incorrigibly spunky as a Holly Hunter; Moyer’s Compton, so sensitive he might as well be dead; and Lois Smith’s grandmother Adele, a marvel of friendly feeling, cloudy thinking, and sound advice for which she’ll be brutally punished. Not to neglect Sookie’s smart-mouth black best friend and co-worker, Tara (Rutina Wesley), who reads Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, insults her customers, and takes slavery personally, and the gay black short-order cook at the roadhouse, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), who vends drugs and his own body. Tara and Lafayette are the equivalent, in True Blood, of clowns in Shakespeare and ghosts in Toni Morrison. And keep your eye on that dog, also demonically possessed.

Fox. Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

True Blood
HBO. Sundays at 9 p.m.

New Abnormalities