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TV Watch: "Fringe"

By admin Published: September 8, 2008

Premieres on Fox on Tuesday
You know, I think this would make a lot more sense to me if I had seen '"Altered States"

In most literature, but fantasy literature in particular, there's a line between storytelling that is absurd but somehow acceptable, and storytelling that is simply absurd. "Fringe," the new thriller from J.J. Abrams, tries to stay on the acceptable side of the line. But it tumbles to the other side. ...

There are plenty of places where you may see it tumble, but mine is probably in the emphasis on a fella in crisis whose body looks far too much like the Visible Man model I had as a kid. That, and one of the worst beards I have ever seen on a character in a production with a reasonable budget. And both things are part of an eerily excessive homage to the Ken Russell/Paddy Chayefsky movie "Altered States" (see poster, above) that includes plot flourishes, location (basement laboratories) and possibly even casting (Blair Brown is in both "Fringe" and "Altered States") and audio clues (similarly sounding scientist names -- Jessup in "Altered States," Bishop in "Fringe"). "Altered States" is a rather famous disaster -- Chayefsky and Russell feuded spectacularly; see Shaun Considine's book "Mad As Hell" for details. We won't know if "Fringe" will be a disaster until the ratings are in. But, oh, does it have potential.

And I am getting a little ahead of myself. "Fringe" begins as a pure horror movie: an airplane flight undergoes a horrifying, gory incident which leaves no one alive -- and sets the government in search of an explanation that may involve terrorism. From there it morphs into a thriller which has echoes of Abrams's "Alias" and "Lost" -- but which is still rooted in terror; more than once the tone and look reminded me of the Kurt Russell/John Carpenter version of "The Sting."

But as the two-hour series premiere gradually assembles its core team -- including a tough FBI agent (Anna Torv), a mad scientist (John Noble) and the scientist's adventurer son (Joshua Jackson) -- it brings in scientific theory, fantasy, grand conspiracies and an underlying mystery. But it does so in a way, and in a world, that is feverish in its intensity, rich in hallucination, as if the audience has joined one of the characters in taking LSD. Locations in the premiere are identified with huge letters floating within a scene, and also seemingly part of the scene -- so you see them not only superimposed on a location but, as you look upward, as giant letters floating overhead.

It is trippy, to be sure. But trippiness can also lead to incoherence and, as much as "Fringe" wants me to believe that it knows where it's going, I don't think I want it to guide to through this trip. (I might be better off with Jimmy Carter, some juice and the Allman Brothers.) Oh, there are good things in it, like Joshua Jackson channeling George Clooney. But it was easy to drift into distraction.

For instance, I kept thinking that, even with a superficial resemblance to Cate Blanchett, that Torv had a lot of Evangeline Lilly in her expressions, especially around the mouth. And, come to think of it, Blair Brown has a look akin to Julianne Moore's in "The Big Lebowski" -- albeit with a stunning little reveal that would fit right in the Dude's bowling-pin fantasy. But a show like this does not benefit from side trips. You're supposed to be studying every twist, freeze-framing and zooming in search of clues. And I didn't care about the clues. I was drifting because I was bored. And I didn't even have commercials to create more distractions.

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