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'Fringe' blinds viewers with science

REVIEW | Series gives 'X-Files' an update


September 9, 2008

Another plane, another mystery. It probably isn't the best way for "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams to begin "Fringe," his latest series, but there it is.

A flesh-eating virus breaks out on a flight in the middle of a lightning storm. The plane is, of course, able to land itself after the virus has killed everyone on board, including the pilots (one of many events about which you will be asked to suspend belief; we are told that such technology currently exists, but if it did, would we need pilots at all? I digress).

I'm on the bubble with "Fringe." The characters are all interesting and the acting is top notch, but the plot is essentially an update of "The X-Files" with the addition of terrorism and the office of Homeland Security. It doesn't help that the first half-hour is excruciatingly slow-moving as it sets up the show's basic premise.

The show's title comes from fringe science, a very real field of study that ignores traditional scientific theories in favor of speculative ones that can't be tested and confirmed by current technology. There's a thin line between science and science fiction, it seems. Both the atom and plate tectonics were considered theories of fringe science at one point and have subsequently been proven. Viewers can expect a lot of pseudoscience babble. To Abrams' credit, very little effort is made in the pilot to dumb down the theories for the rest of us (though it could just be me; I was never much good in science).

John Scott (Mark Valley) and Olivia Dunham (tough-as-nails Anna Torv) are FBI agents carrying on a forbidden office relationship on the down-low when both get calls to investigate the plane incident.

Before Scott and Dunham can get in there and get their hazmat suits dirty, the investigation is hijacked by Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick of "The Wire"), a menacing agent from the Homeland Security Department, who informs both the CIA and FBI agents on the scene they all report to him.

Broyles and Dunham have previously locked horns (as a military investigator, Dunham got one of Broyles' friends convicted on several counts of rape), and both have axes to grind.

Dunham's investigation leads her to Walter Bishop (an offbeat and engaging John Noble), a brilliant scientist possibly driven mad by his research and now institutionalized. In order to get access to Bishop, she has to enlist the help of his reluctant and estranged son Peter (played with much sarcastic wit by Joshua Jackson of "Dawson's Creek" fame).

Rounding out the major characters is Blair Brown as Nina Sharp, a shady executive with a bionic arm straight out of "Terminator."

At times, the show seems as if it is ready to collapse under the weight of its premise. There are hints of evil corporations and larger government conspiracies.

Abrams even heaps a heavy dose of "Lost" mythology on things with the brief cuts that show seemingly random images (an apple with two fetuses in its core, a frog with a Greek phi letter in its skin, a hand print with an omega) before the show goes to a commercial. The images and their potential meanings will no doubt be much discussed in the coming weeks in the blogosphere. I'm betting that only a few people outside of that fringe will care. The rest will scratch their heads and turn the channel.