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Harper's hearth have you fuming? Dive into Abrams's Fringe

Headshot of John Doyle

Oh, my shattered nerves.

The new fall TV season is almost upon us. There's the U.S. election. ("You are obviously a left-wing, snivelling [expletive,]" an American reader wrote to me the other day, with admirable pith. Then he accused me of consorting with "gay intellectuals," which is admirably accurate.) And now that unctuous nitwit in Ottawa, the one who puts his hair in the fridge every night, has called an election here.

Have you seen the TV commercials? The one to cherish is called Family Is Everything. Old hair-in-the-fridge sits in an armchair, like a man twice his age, and rambles on about playing the piano while his son plays the guitar. This raises questions, you've got to admit.

Who's playing the spoons while this ensues? It has to be Stock Day. And is Jim Flaherty in the corner doing that thing where you put waxed paper around a plastic comb and blow on it? For the percussion, like. That would be one helluva Conservative jug band. After the music session, no doubt, they all have a s'mores night and show photos of the family vacation on a slide projector. All the while, Laureen is in the corner knitting sweaters for the veterans. I think the insight we are meant to glean is that, while these family nights proceed, Stéphane Dion is out consorting with gay intellectuals in Montreal. Go on, make another TV commercial. I dare ya.

Let us now escape. Please. Escapism is vital in these desperate times. Especially if it involves "a new drama that will thrill, terrify and explore the blurring line between science fiction and reality." Right-o, let's indulge.

Fringe (Fox, A, 8 p.m.) is the show in question, and darn entertaining. Not half as scary as the political shenanigans, even if it has innocent individuals being turned into a messy goo. It's all a plot to change the world, you see, one that began when some wacky genius professor began dabbling in "fringe" science. That was back in the 1960s, when people were doing drugs and messing where they should not have been messing.

The show is an early arrival in the new fall TV season, and highly anticipated. (My big-picture look at the new TV season will be in Saturday's paper.) It comes from J. J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) and a couple of guys who wrote the last Mission Impossible movie.

It starts in the present. A plane lands at Boston airport and, it seems, everybody on board has been turned to goo. Still, the plane landed. Along comes FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Australian Anna Torv) to investigate, with her partner, in more ways than one, Special Agent John Scott (Mark Valley).

Things go awry in the early stages, and the trail leads Olivia to Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), an apparently mad professor. Thing is, he's been institutionalized for the last 20 years. The only way to get him out, and acquire his help, is to make a deal with his rogue of a son, Peter (Canadian Joshua Jackson, from Dawson's Creek), and enter into the world of experimental science.

Fringe is splendidly made, and in Torv has an excellent lead actor. She's got real presence and there's a convincing sense of a smart woman made suddenly vulnerable by traumatic events. It's a pity that, midway through the pilot episode, she's obliged to wear a bikini and float in water to participate in the mad professor's scheme. Torv is very lovely, but it seems indulgent to make her body an object of scrutiny so quickly.

Still, there's action and wit to keep the story compelling. Jackson is very good as the bitter, smart son of a disgraced man. No offence to the actors here, but there is also a cow that makes an outstanding appearance. (The cow is also Canadian; the pilot was made in and around Toronto.) This is first-rate escapism.

By the way, Abrams has promised that Fringe will not get as convoluted as Lost or Alias, and viewers will be able to tune in at any time without feeling perplexed by the plotting. As long as this doesn't mean the characters do fireside chats about the family being everything, that's fine.

Check local listings.

Also airing tonight

PRIVILEGED (CW, CITY-TV, 9 p.m.) is being called the anti-Gossip Girl, which is a bit true. It's about rich, feckless teens, but is breezy where Gossip Girl is brooding and 90210 is just bad. The focus is on nice, smart Megan Smith (Joanna Garcia), who has a degree from Yale, and wants to be a journalist. A noble ambition, you'll agree. When she loses her job, she is hired by cosmetics mogul Laurel Limoges (Anne Archer) to tutor two bratty teen nieces. Nice they are not. Events unfold among the superrich of Palm Beach, Fla., and Megan is as wide-eyed as we are at the wealth and the antics. Privileged is nice and not stupid.

TO DUBLIN WITH LOVE (Bravo! 9 p.m.) is a repeat of Barbara Doran's doc about the March Hare performers from Newfoundland visiting Ireland, and it's followed by Live at the Celtic Roots Festival (Bravo!, 10 p.m.) with performances from a festival in Goderich, Ont., and features the great Sean Keane singing in both English and Irish. And it, too, is followed by Voicing Irish Music (Bravo! 10:30 p.m.), about the Celtic music scene in Kingston. Jigs, reels, nobody blowing on a plastic comb. J.D.

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