Science used to be a good thing. Or at least a neutral thing. Now, thanks perhaps to eight years of demonization by the Bush administration, science is our newest go-to villain. High-falutin’ science is taking over the place formerly occupied by inscrutable Asians, creepy Russians and strangely dressed Middle Easterners. Thanks to a fall TV season marked by shows like “Primeval,” “Fringe” and the soon-to-debut “Eleventh Hour,” topics such as evolution, global warming, stem cell research and the like are downright eeee-vil.
“Fringe,” the new high-concept show by producer J.J. Abrams (“Alias,” “Lost”) and writers Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (Mission: Impossible III, Transformers), takes the “science is bad” concept and runs away with it. Though the hour-long drama features a group of government scientists investigating various science-related crimes, our heroes are portrayed as a bunch of crazy wack-jobs who probably caused most of this trouble in the first place. Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is an emotionally troubled FBI agent. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) is a gambling-addicted genius with a questionable background. Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) is a nutty mad scientist type with his own secret lab. For comic relief (such as it is), there’s a cow. Together, they look like ... well, they look pretty much like the cast of “Primeval” or “Torchwood” or any other other show that photocopied the “X-Files” blueprint.
Each week, somebody commits a crime, and the group is brought in to solve it using bizarre scientific methods. In this respect, “Fringe” steals shamelessly from a number of sources. Besides the obvious “X-Files” influence, movies like Dreamscape and Altered States are clear predecessors. (A second-episode twist concerning Peter’s past trod dangerously close to “The Venture Brothers” territory as well.) Wearing your influences on your sleeve isn’t much of a crime these days. But a show about cutting-edge science and technology could drop more current knowledge than LSD, floatation tanks and “eyeballs record the last image dead people saw.”
Oddly, the second episode scored nearly 50 percent more viewers (13.4 million) than the much-hyped pilot (9.1 million). Just as well. The second episode was better, fleshing out its characters more and moving at a quicker pace.
Still, the show’s overarching background conspiracy (which is apparently required scripting for all hour-long shows these days) feels like a tired trope. For reasons unknown, a corporation called Massive Dynamic may be behind “The Pattern,” an increasingly dangerous wave of science-related weirdness. That, and its CEO is a redheaded woman in black who has a cyborg arm and looks like the witch from some Disney cartoon. Hmm. I wonder if she’s eeee-vil?
The show scores points for its quality special effects and expensive-looking camera techniques-all courtesy of those big-time Hollywood creators. Viewers should expect the quality to drop precipitously after the first couple episodes, though, as budgets dry up and Abrams and crew move on to newer projects. After that, it’s all up to the writers. We’ll see who the geniuses are then.