The premiere of Fringe does not reveal much beyond what we already know about the mind of producer J.J. Abrams. The man likes, beyond anything, to tantalize viewers with a good mystery. And so far he’s been successful: TV viewers are still waiting to see where Lost will take them, and the constantly shifting alliances on the show make it almost impossible to predict. Fringe features Abrams’s signature story fodder: Characters with intricate pasts blithely walking into a perpetual whodunit fueled by corporate dalliances into areas of study better suited for an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Unfortunately, Abrams might run the risk of becoming another M. Night Shyamalan (a quintessential one-trick pony) if Fringe turns out to just be a variation on the devices that have made Lost a success.
Abrams doesn’t lie about the fact that he wants to create a show in the vein of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone. What those shows gave the public was the chance to reencounter their world in the modality of “truth is stranger than fiction.” X-Files introduced subtle emotional undertones to give its varied episodic outings cohesion. It also hinted at a larger secret to be uncovered, but did not obligate itself to explicating those central themes every week. Lost riffs on similar topics (corporations more powerful as governments, sci-fi as a signifier for philosophical debate) but does so by creating an alternate universe, which manages to intersect with our real-life universe through clever meta-advertising: books written by characters within the show, online video games that reveal information about the show’s central mystery, even false websites and ads to send curious viewers down endless rabbit holes. This type of promotion was also used in Abrams’s marketing for Cloverfield, which let the audience build its own anticipation through its clever viral marketing campaign. Except for a DC Comics-released prequel comic book, Fringe has yet to receive the same level of meta-advertising (though the media packet I received was kitsched out to look like an F.B.I. file, and even contained a digital recorder with secret messages from a central character on the show). It would not be a surprise if the series receives similar treatment as Lost should it reach hit status.
The first episode of Fringe weathers many of the problems any premiere faces: the task of introducing central characters and presenting enough of the show’s plot to whet viewers’ appetites. The premiere of Lost didn’t need to do much beyond hint at the bizarre things the characters would be facing; the initial plane crash alone was a compelling introduction of the characters. Fringe attempts something similar (with an opening scene involving a plane, no less) but can’t quite match the primal thrill of vehicular destruction. We find out, of course, that there is some mystery to be solved, and that this mystery is actually part of a bigger mystery, which, no doubt, is all a part of some even still more mysterious mystery.
The show’s characters are a lot of your stock F.B.I. and security agents as well as scientists and, of course, roguish outcast types: Lance Reddick plays (big surprise here) a lead officer; Joshua Jackson plays some hunky-but-brilliant son of brilliant-but-insane Walter Bishop (John Noble). If Lost is any indicator, all these characters surely have sordid pasts that the show will uncover as time goes on and the carefully crafted plot is slowly revealed. The show’s title sequence promises forays into the paranormal and other fringe sciences such as reanimation, clairvoyance, and what I’m pretty sure is the show’s version of the Vulcan mind meld.
What has made Lost so unique is that the show’s central conceit of time travel became an actual narrative device. While the premiere of Fringe does not attempt anything like this, one can only hope that Abrams might try and play games with the narrative structure of his new show to change up what looks to be a pretty routine exploration of things that should be exhilarating.