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.