Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TV REVIEW: Fringe (pilot)

The pilot for J.J. Abrams' series Lost (2004 - ) is -- without any exaggeration -- the finest I've ever seen. That's not a comment on the direction the series has ultimately taken (don't get me started, please...). Just my honest assessment of the involving, intense first episode. It was...amazing.

By direct contrast, the pilot for J.J. Abrams' new genre series, Fringe is one of the absolute worst that I've seen in a good long while. With Fringe's disappointing initial outing, we very much have a modern case of the Emperor's New Clothes: the pilot is alarmingly naked in terms of real human interest, and shockingly devoid of originality in terms of conception, look and execution.

There's been a lot written in the press lately (hype) about how Fringe is not a rip-off of The X-Files. Don't believe a word of it. This show is such a flat-out rip-off of Chris Carter's work it's actually an embarrassment. Allow me to enumerate (briefly) some of the many similarities between the two productions:

1. Fringe, like the X-Files is set in the milieu of the FBI. With agents, search warrants, stake-outs, car-chases and "investigations."

2. Fringe, like the X-Files, finds solutions to unusual problems (like a nasty new airborne disease/terrorist WMD) in the notion of "extreme possibilities" (the paranormal/fringe science) On The X-Files, this description meant any number of things (NDEs, Astral Projection, psychokinesis, etc.). First up in Fringe: "a synaptic transfer" that allows two minds to meet in the dream world. You may have seen this idea played out already in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) with Linda Blair and Louise Fletcher. Lower. Lower...

3. Fringe, like The X-Files, focuses on an untrustworthy authority figure. In fact, this character-type was a regular staple of The X-Files. Specifically, I'm referring to the incredibly sympathetic notion that someone derided, dismissed or de-valued by society at large (perhaps a criminal, perhaps a madman, perhaps just an unconventional thinker...) could be the best source for understanding "the truth" about the featured mysteries. Even "Spooky" Mulder fits this type to some degree. As do the conspiracy theorists, The Lone Gunmen. As late as this summer's X-Files: I Want to Believe, we saw this character type at his most raw and troubling, in the form of the psychic pedophile priest. On Fringe, we get quirky, inappropriate Dr. Bishop, both a madman and a criminal, one who possesses many secrets.

4. Fringe, like The X-Files, focuses on the "The Mytharc" or "Pattern." The X-Files was famous for an exploration of a larger conspiracy, one including the FBI, heads of state, and various departments in the United States Government. The conspiracy had a secret, malicious agenda. In Fringe's pilot, we're introduced not only to a specific episodic mystery (an airborne, self-eradicating germ) but the conspiracy operating behind it. There's not a Cigarette Smoking Man hanging around yet, but we have Blair Brown (replete with a cheesy robotic arm...), a representative of the company Massive Dynamic. She and her corporation are working behind the scenes on the by-now rote malicious and secret agenda.

5. Fringe, like The X-Files, centers on a male/female pair-up. It's Duchovny and Anderson on The X-Files, and Joshua Jackson and Anna Tory on Fringe. I should point out an important difference here. On the X-Files, Scully and Mulder actually boasted fields of expertise. Mulder was a behavioral psychologist (and one of the best profilers in the FBI). And Scully was an M.D. The characters on Fringe seem to have no specialties at all. Peter Bishop (Jackson) is simply tagged a "genius" (that way, a writer has to do no research whatsoever - the character is just SMART!) and Olivia Dunholm (Tory) is merely your average gun-toting, ambitious FBI agent. Each character is about as interesting as wonder bread. Without the crust.

6. Both shows have the same home: The Fox Network. Wonder how that happened?

So yes, pretty clearly, Fringe is a dedicated rip-off of The X-Files. iI's also a rip-off of a short-lived, obscure series from 1998 called Strange World, which concerned "medical mysteries" like the one featured in this pilot. My problem: it's not a good rip-off of either show.

The X-Files is such a classic not merely because the subject matter (the paranormal) is fascinating; not merely because the conspiracy is intriguing. But rather because it boasted the good sense and artistry to create two characters (Mulder and Scully) who viewed their world in vastly different ways. As viewers, we saw the world interpreted through each lens. The writing and acting were so utterly brilliant that moments of heavy exposition played not like boring recitation of fact...but foreplay. We fell in love with Scully and Mulder because they were both smart and passionate. And I don't mean passionate about sex, necessarily, but in the manner they interpreted "the facts" of any given case. Ideas represented the currency of the show. Bold ideas; boldly interpreted.

Whereas on Fringe, there's only the veneer of intelligence, not intelligence itself. In other words, all the concepts and ideas in the pilot are pulled from smart sources (like The X-Files and Altered States), but don't feel organic to this enterprise. You can't import intelligence, and you can't import wit. This was the same problem I had with Orci and Kurtzman's brain-dead Transformers (2007) movie. There was no authentic human element to grasp. Similarly, Fringe already seems anti-science, railing against "science" and "technology." In The X-Files, the villain was the misuse of science and technology, not science and technology itself. There's a distinction there. One asks us to examine human nature (how do we apply our knowledge wisely and morally?) and the other is blatantly anti-intellectual.

So what we're left with in this pilot is a dull police procedural with a conspiracy underneath, and a touch (and I mean a touch...) of the paranormal. Oh, there's a car chase, well-staged. There's a creepy prologue (also an element of The X-Files' formula), here set on a plane in flight. There are some nice special effects involving a man with translucent skin, but the X-Files has already done that too (in Fight the Future and the Season Six premiere.) Worst of all, in Fringe's pilot there's no joy, no fun, no sense of curiosity at all. It's a mechanical, heartless product...a machine grinding out sausage for the masses.

I'm going to keep watching, and I hope the series gets better. I would always rather write a positive review than a negative one. And I have been wrong before, that's for dang sure. But for the time being, I'm going to call a spade a spade: Fringe is a charmless, brazen rip-off of The X-Files. One that copies all the specific elements of that TV classic, but has zero understanding of why it worked in the first place. Fringe is positively soulless. In fact, that's the creepiest thing about it.


  1. Anonymous6:09 PM

    Thank you so much for this excellent review! It is well-thought out and a wonderful exposition of the elements that "make the show." I admire your ability to distill things to their basic elements and separate the dynamic from the imitation, demonstrating which concepts make a show appealing and original.

    While I may try this new show out once in a while to get my paranormal fix, I will never be quite so dedicated as I am to the original sense of wonder, fear, and ultimately the story of hope that was and is the X-Files. The acting and chemistry will likewise never quite be the same as the original. I am not typically a sci-fi fan; I watch mainly law enforcement shows. Only The X-Files has managed to draw me in, frighten me, make me curious about concepts that I have always discounted, and make me feel the pain and joy of two characters who exist only in our minds. Thank you again for saluting those who had the insight and courage to do it first and do it best.

  2. Once again you have summed up my feelings better than I ever could. When I finished watching Fringe, I couldn't help but miss Mulder and Scully. While I'll give Fringe another episode or two, I just don't find myself caring about any of the characters. I was immediately invested in the characters in The X-Files, and that investment meant that I was also invested in the greater mythology. Unless I become more invested in the characters of Fringe, I'm not going to be willing to put in the time to ever care about, let alone try to figure out, "The Pattern".

  3. Thank you both for your comments on this review. I have to admit, I was hoping for a more promisng pilot than what Fringe delivered.

    Given all the similarities to The X-Files, from characters, to subject matter, to myth-arc/pattern, I would love to see a coherent counter-argument as to why Fringe isn't a rip-off.

    I don't think there is one. Which is a bummer. I'd rather have a new show that I love and follow, than one that is stinkeroo.

    I guess the ratings for the pilot weren't too strong, either...people smelled what this was a mile away.

  4. Once again, you've done a bang-up job here, John. Not only in crafting a well thought-out, intelligent and critical review, but in sharing a good chunk of my brain while doing it.

    I've got a lot of personal issues with J.J. Abrams, but one that isn't personal is that he doesn't seem to have much originality left in him. He has a lot of ambition, but doesn't seem to know what to do with it, and ends up "borrowing" (which is the too-kind term for how blatant this latest offering is) creatively from other, earlier, better projects; sometimes even his own, but usually those of others. He also has a nasty habit of abandoning old projects for shinier, new ones.

    One thing that always struck me about The X-Files; what made it truly WORK, was that it was entirely organic. The show never forced the attention of the viewer, and the writers were allowed to create naturally. We weren't meant to assume Mulder and Scully would be paired up, it progressed naturally thanks to the unparalleled chemistry of the two leads and writing that focused elsewhere and let the magic happen in the gaps. The mytharc was almost entirely composed on the fly, which allowed ambition and creativity to flourish, rather than weigh things down.

    These days, television has the weight of expectation on it before it even really gets out of the gate, and the way shows are being produced isn't helping. Abrams is the type of creator who flourishes on those expectations, rather than being limited by them. On the upside (for him), this makes him a pretty solid success, but on the downside, it makes his shows feel awfully stilted and creatively parched to me.

    All rambling aside, thanks again for another wonderful read. I've been so glad to discover your blog this year.

  5. Anonymous5:50 PM

    Amen. Once again, your review didn't disappoint. Thank you.


  6. So essentially, there can never be another show that features the paranormal, conspiracies, and a male/female duo? I mean, if that is the case, just say so. This certainly was the case with 'Nightstalker'. Is it hubris to try? Is it the height of arrogance for Abrams to attempt a series with this subject matter? I mean when this show was just a rumor, it was derided as a X-Files knockoff. I am just spit-balling here, but it would be my guess that Abrams has heard of the Chris Carter classic, and that he plans on offering a different trajectory for 'Fringe'. Just my guess.

    I get it, I do, The X-Files is my 2nd favorite tv series of all time, right behind TZ. I loved the X-Files, the execution was flawless! But I also appreciate the genre too. And in a time when every other show is trying to be CSI-lite, or a derivative of Friends or a wannabe Seinfeld..... well I welcome, with open arms an attempt at a genre driven series.

    True, the similarities to the X-Files is inescapable. Some are a necessity, only a US govt agency such as the FBI can make the series "BIG". I suppose they could have been CIA, or NSA or DSS or DEA or anyone of the 20 or so alphabet agencies operating, but everyone knows the F-B-I. 'Nightstalker' tried to navigate this by using a big LA newspaper, well-funded & articulate journalists, but it just did not have the same gravitas. It just seems that the comments are little harsh, after all, it is doubtful that anyone reading this review on JKW's blog was not a fan of the genre and therefore would be a little more receptive.


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