I was sharing a cocktail with Generation Minus One supremo Rob Haines earlier on this week discussing life, love, art and why David Eddings is a bad writer (Gee Note: I mean how many times can one man use "bat-like wings" to describe a dragon in the space of three paragraphs? It's a dragon dude. We get it. Nobody expects it to have wings like a budgie. By the way, it should be noted that Rob doesn't share my hatred of Eddings. But then Rob also doesn't share my hatred of many things, including Madonna, microwaves, soap operas, and perfume counters in department stores. I don't know, I'm just a big ball of untapped rage. Kinda like Bruce Banner, but without the need to buy a new pair of jeans on a daily basis) when an idea struck me.
We got on to the topic of Rob's recent reviews of old video games on his website and how much I'd been enjoying this new addition, when I came up with the idea that maybe I should do something similar here. Sci-Fi television is going through a bit of a boom period at the moment, with Lost going from strength to strength and with Dollhouse about to grace screens all across America, television for nerds has never been in a stronger shape. So in a small break from our normal posts about monsters, aliens, ghosts, and all that jazz, we here at I Saw Elvis decided to do a wee bit of a television review.
J. J. Abrams is on a roll at the moment. Coming off the back of a phenomenally successful run as producer and occasional writer of Lost, he has become something of a player in the movie world, writing and directing the moderate triumph that was Mission Impossible III (Gee Note: Which really deserved to make a hell of a lot more money than it did), producing the blockbusting Cloverfield, and writing and directing the new “re-imagining” of Star Trek. Which isn't bad for a guy who once wrote works of unparalleled crapness such as Gone Fishin' (Gee Note: The movie's tag line is “Even the fish are laughing!”. Because, you know, fish have a great sense of humour. Think of all the great stand up comedians that have been fish. Billy CODolly for example. Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ah ha ha ha ha. That's really funny right? Well if you like that you'll love Gone Fishin'. If on the other hand you actually have a brain, stay well clear). Since abandoning such “commercial” projects and unleashing his geek from within however Abrams has gone from strength to strength.
So when I heard that Abrams would be creating a new show for FOX, you would think I'd be all kinds of excited about it. Except, for reasons I can't quite place, I wasn't. Maybe it was the idea that it would be broadcast on FOX, a channel that has cancelled more good shows in the past five years than Mickey Rourke has had comebacks, yet still manages to put rubbish on the air like Hole In The Wall. Or maybe it was the lack of hype surrounding the series over here, compared to other such recent American imports such as Lost, House, The Shield, and others. Fringe simply hasn't made a splash this side of the pond, despite it being broadcast on Britain's most prominent cable channel. Whatever the reason, I set my DVR to record the series and then, er, didn't watch any of them.
That was until the beginning of this week, when I had literally nothing else to do (Gee Note: Well nothing else to do that would have involved sitting down). And so I picked up my remote and proceeded to watch several episodes of Fringe back to back.
Problem is there's a lot of stuff in there to hate. For a start it draws inevitable comparisons with both Lost because of the association with Abrams, and with The X-Files due to it's content. Now while Lost does have occasional problems (Gee Note: Like the fact that not one character has a conversation that goes “Dude, did you see that? It's a bloody great big smoke monster!! What the hell was that?!? No really, we should try and find out all about that thing. Because, you know, it might be important don't ya think?”) it remains one of the finest written pieces of television currently on the air. The X-Files was a cultural phenomenon, tapping in to a section of society never really catered to by mainstream American television before. It also helped that it's two lead characters, the laconic and slightly goofy Agent Mulder, and the uptight yet feisty Agent Scully were perfectly played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson respectively.
And sadly Fringe doesn't stand up against those two behemoths of entertainment. Realistically of course it was never going to. But in a way it doesn't give itself a fighting chance. For a start Fringe is like a drunken Mel Gibson at a bar mitzvah - i.e. about as subtle as a brick. For example, in the pilot episode to put over the idea that one of the characters is an asshole he refers to the female lead contemptuously as “sweetheart” . Which is fine. Except he does it at the end of every sentence, to the point where it just sounds forced (Gee Note: Either that or he's a fan of David Eddings. Zing!). The way the show is structured also creates problems, in that the makers of Fringe are trying to tell an overall story, but also delivering an X-Files like “Monster of the week”. As such with all this exposition going on, character development tends to get left by the wayside. For example allow me to list the number of things I know about the shows lead character Olivia Dunham.
1.She's an FBI agent.
2.She was romantically involved with a colleague for a bit.
Ah yes Olivia Dunham, played by Australian actress Anna Torv. Maybe it's due to her characters lack of motivation, but Torv just doesn't fit the role as an FBI agent. You know how in Silence of The Lambs, Jodie Foster plays a trainee FBI agent perfectly, being both authoritative and vulnerable at the same time? Well Torv comes across a bit like that. Except, and here's the problem, Torv doesn't carry that authority with her. Instead she smiles too much, pouts when she should be looking stern, and runs excitedly to her superiors whenever she works something out. It's hard to shake the idea that she isn't just there for work experience, as opposed to being a fully fledged employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At one point beaming with pride she announces “There are too many things I'm not good at. One thing I can do is... memory. Connecting things. Putting them together.” which at first made me go “Well yeah, it's kind of what they pay you for as an FBI agent” and then secondly made me wonder what the hell those things were that she wasn't good at. Because so far in this show Dunham comes across as some kind of smiley Superwoman, which is terribly boring. I mean at this point I'd settle for her getting stuck in traffic or breaking a nail. Something, anything, that would make her less of a cardboard cut-out and more human.
The show also has a tendency to shoe horn parts of the plot in from nowhere, like an aeroplane parachuting relief aid to a war torn country. “The Pattern”, a series of interconnected acts of science fiction terrorism and the programmes big, evil, unseen threat, is first brought up in conversation by Dunham's superior for, er, no reason at all. No really, it just kind of came out of nowhere. “Say John how's the wife?”, “Good thanks. By the way there's been a series of attacks that have led to deaths of many civilians, all of which have employed equipment and techniques deemed to be physically impossible.”, “Uh... OK. Say is that the time? I'd love to catch up but I've got to be... somewhere.”. At one point Dunham was offered a job by a mysterious corporation after having chatted with a representative for the firm for about 30 seconds. The idea being that the firm were evil by offering the lead officer a job so that the investigation will then be dropped. It think. I don't know.It all happened a bit quick. It does totally make one yearn to live in America if it's that easy to gain employment however. Turn up somewhere in a suit. Hold down a conversation for half a minute without swearing, and you're in. Piece of cake.
However, despite all of the above irritations Fringe is actually quite enjoyable. The rest of the regular cast are excellent, from Lance Reddick (Gee Note: Who seems to make it a personal mission to turn up in all my favourite programmes. It's very much appreciated Lance. Very much appreciated) to Joshua Jackson. Now my only prior knowledge of Mr. Jackson was that he was once in a show called Dawson's Creek that I never watched but assumed was some kind of teenage girl thing. So my hopes for him before watching Fringe weren't high. However, approximately three minutes in to my first Fringe episode and the guy had completely won me over. He's charming, likeable, and does a nice line in sardonic bewilderment.
Also putting in a stellar turn is John Noble as a crazed scientist working in conjunction with the FBI. His most famous role previous to this is as Denethor in The Lord of The Rings franchise (Gee Note: Or as I called him the other night in the pub “That weird king who got really pissed off when Sean Bean died”. Apparently three Long Island Iced Teas are enough to cause my memory to get a tad fuzzy. They should come with health warnings. Like cigarettes. Instead of pictures of diseased lungs however they could have a photo of me scratching my head and looking confused with the caption “BEWARE: Long Island Iced Teas can cause you to make a prat out of yourself. I mean just take a LOOK at this guy. Do you want this to be you? No? Well then pour this down the sink and go get yourself something else to drink.”).
And the plot, despite it's crazy nonsensical pacing, is fascinating. The concept that the world is on the verge of a scientific revolution and that we, ordinary members of the public, are all unwilling test subjects is the type of thing that you can really sink your teeth in to, bringing up all kinds of opportunities to go completely woovy berserk if you wanted. With theoretical science as your playground, anything's possible. And so this programme feels like it could veer off in a random direction at any given moment, which is a wonderful sensation to have when watching television.
So there we have it. A solid if unspectacular start to Fringe. Which is fine. Some series grow and get better as time goes on, Buffy the Vampire Slayer being a perfect example of this. Some on the other hand open with a bang and then fail miserably to keep it going (Gee Note: Heroes I'm looking at you. God that show is beyond awful currently. I'm tempted to conduct a poll along the lines of “at what point did YOU stop watching Heroes?” Me, it was the big reveal about Sylar's family at the beginning of season three. I mean I dragged myself through season two in the vain hope that it would get better and it didn't, so when season three started in a similar fashion my patience finally ran out.)
Hopefully Fringe will grow and prosper. There are already enough elements to make it a success, and so given time it should become a truly great show in two or three seasons. At which point FOX will promptly cancel it.
Because no matter how good Fringe gets, it'll never be a Hole In The Wall.