Friday, June 20, 2008

Review: Fringe (Pilot)

There's a new super-hyped show coming this September, brought to you by J.J. Abrams, the fellow behind Alias and Lost. Somehow, either by mistake or design, the pilot has made it out onto the internets. I was particularly interested in seeing it because I had "casually" (yes, I know nobody really thinks people just "happened to be passing", even if they were) wandered past this show being filmed on location and a shot I had seen being rehearsed or filmed made it into the commercial, which you can see on YouTube.

Having got my hands on a copy of the pilot, I've reviewed the show for general interest's sake. It's non-spoilerish- I've tried to restrict my 'reveals' to things commonly mentioned in descriptions in the show, but like any review, you're going to pick up some idea of the show. If you want it to be entirely new, you shouldn't read reviews at all. :P

I found the pilot mostly competent, but nothing really striking. The whole thing without commercials (obviously) is 81 minutes long, and apparently cost $10 million to make. Presumably, with J.J. Abrams and his frequent co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci at the writing and producing helm, there was a certain amount of carte blanche going on. Perhaps this isn't the best idea. Success tends to make people sloppy.

The opening was grotesque (warning: if you are squeamish, the opening scene might be one to skip) but other than being eye-catching in its grossness, provided little in the way of interest.

The credits were very reminiscent of Lost's. The title and the various place names throughout the show reminded me very much of the words you create in 3D-Max. I think if it was simplicity they were going for they should have got with flat words. The choice to have place-titles as part of the scene itself was pretty interesting but in my opinion stood out as a little gimmicky.

From the opening hook, the plot progressed in a fairly standard manner, introducing the three main characters, all of whom were pretty standard. All three of the main characters seemed to have been given character traits like you buy tins at the supermarket (I'll have a small tin of womanizer, a tin of tough, a tin of mad scientist). None of these traits, or any others, were particularly convincing. The genius (Joshua Jackson) exhibited few signs of extreme intelligence and never once had a chance to use his brain, the mad scientist (John Noble) didn't seem terribly mad (although he got the only humour in the show and fared well for it). The other main character (Anna Torv) was given few individual traits, but seemed to carry the part off reasonably well.

Any tension between the characters was presented with half-hearted dialogue, and quickly dispelled as the plot progressed.

However, I liked Lance Reddick in his role as someone-who-knows-more-than-the-rest-of us. He managed to provide more mystery and ominousness with his obvious dialogue than any scary shrieks and music could summon. I liked to see ReGenesis star Peter Outerbridge passing through; he didn't have much to say, but he did a good job not saying it, if that makes any sense. A woman who I think was played by Charlotte Rampling was suitably evil, but there was nothing unremarkable or new about her portrayal of the Evil Woman character.

Wobbly characterization is normal in a pilot. The writers are still hammering out the ways the characters act and speak and actors are still figuring out who their characters are off the page. However, Fringe does not suffer from this kind of wobbliness. The characters do not make sense, are inconsistent and bland. Any tensions are resolved or swept away far too quickly (although they may be resurrected in episode two, I suppose.)

Thankfully, despite the problems with character, Mr. Abrams delivered an episodic plot that wrapped up at the end of the episode with hints of more X-Files-type plot to come. That said, at the moment, I'm getting little of the sense of gleeful mystery I get from the X-Files. The characters display surprise at or disdain for the various science fictiony bits, but there's no sense of fascination from even the mad scientist. What scientist working at any level doesn't take some kind of fascination in his or her work, let alone somebody working in a field unknown to majority of the world?

What I most enjoyed was seeing the bit of Toronto I've spent the last four years living in, doubling variously as Harvard and Boston. I'm referring to the environs of the University of Toronto. The choice of the new wing of the Royal Ontario Museum as the Evil Corporation was interesting. It was lovely to see University College and Knox College (and even the stump of the CN Tower- I guess they have a giant tower in Cambridge, too) doubling as bits of Harvard. Meehee. And the flashiest bits of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology as a centre of operations. The University of Toronto looks good on camera (you can also see it in The Hulk).

Overall, I think the show suffers from a lack of heart. J.J. Abrams can deliver a reasonably good show- I truly enjoyed the first season of Alias- but here he has barely produced a competent one.vOn top of that, there's a spark that is conspicuously absent from the plot, the dialogue, the characters and the mystery.

What I'm hoping to see: Much better characterization, better dialogue, a slightly less cliché plot. Much more spark.

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