It’s no lunatic ‘Fringe’

Times Television Critic

The poor airline industry. As if rising gas prices, increased security measures and constant cost-cutting were not enough, now there’s another J.J. Abrams pilot. Travelers who have finally shaken the anxiety-provoking images of cult-inducing “Lost” can look forward to a whole new set of phobias thanks to the opening moments of Abrams’ new show, “Fringe.”

As lightning crackles around an international flight to Boston, a wild-eyed passenger injects himself with something one can only hope is a tranquilizer, and then next thing you know . . . well, I don’t want to spoil anything for the 19 people who haven’t seen the pilot online, but it results in the assemblage of every law enforcement agency in the country donning hazmat suits.

Because comparisons are unavoidable, it must be noted up front that this is not the same sort of jaw-droppingly what-the-heck-kind-of-show-is-this pilot that “Lost” had. Frankly, we know what kind of show this is going to be. “Fringe” stands for Fringe Science, which includes everything from mental telepathy to reanimation, so much of your enjoyment will depend on how much you still miss the “The X-Files.” While “The X-Files” told us the truth is out there, “Fringe” posits the equally vague notion that “Everything is part of a pattern.” So, if you’re the type of person who needs every little thing, or indeed any little thing, to make sense in a pilot, then you should probably watch “Fringe” in solitude, preferably with the door closed, so the rest of us can enjoy it for what it is -- an uneven but promising jumble of horror, thriller and comedy that is not afraid to reference SpongeBob and “Altered States” in practically the same scene.

Let the games begin. On scene at Logan Airport are secretly trysting FBI agents Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and John Scott (Mark Valley), reluctantly reporting to Agent Phillip Broyles (“Lost” veteran Lance Reddick), the stern and possibly sinister head of the interagency team investigating the “incident.”

It becomes abundantly clear that Broyles has a beef with Dunham, who, in her role as interagency liaison, recently busted one of Broyles’ friends. Vindictively, or so it seems, he sends Dunham and Scott to follow a weak lead at a storage facility. There the discovery of a secret lab leads to an explosion in which Scott is exposed to chemicals that leave him in a coma and looking like a child’s anatomy model, you know, the ones where muscle and bone are visible through a clear plastic shell. Olivia, fortunately, receives naught but a becoming scratch on her porcelain forehead.


So not only is Olivia trying to solve some sort of mystery that may or may not threaten the world as we know it, she is trying to save the Man She Loves. With some expert interagency Googling, she discovers the existence of Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a chemist who is linked to terms like “infection” “dissolve + flesh.”

However, he is inconveniently in an insane asylum where only family can visit (don’t ask). So she zips off to Baghdad (don’t ask), where she coerces Bishop’s brilliant but black-sheep son Peter (Joshua Jackson) to accompany her to said asylum and, eventually, spring the old man.

And that’s where “Fringe” starts to really move. First of all, Noble, who played the power-mad Lord Denethor in “The Return of the King,” is just terrific as the modern-day Victor Frankenstein. With his rich rumble of a voice and uncanny ability to appear penetrating and childlike often within moments of each other, he’s clearly having the time of his life.

And Abrams gives him plenty to work with: mind-melding, dream states, bubbling jewel-toned potions, treachery, murder and more secret labs. Heck, he even throws in a cow. And behind it all lurks, as it so often does, Corporate America, in the form of Massive Dynamic, an (evil?) company that has, apparently, co-opted many of Bishop’s out-there theories. Blair Brown plays executive Nina Sharp, and that makes “Fringe” worth watching right there.

Over-arching all of this is that crazy Pattern, a series of seemingly unlinked mysteries and tragedies that Dunham and the Bishops will be called upon to help solve in subsequent episodes. That is where the “Fringe” will live or die.

Like an airline flight plagued by turbulence, the pilot hit more than a few bumpy places -- “dissolve + flesh”? Really? Never have our tax dollars been so lavishly spent by an agency liaison, who can fly to Iraq, refit an entire laboratory and conjure up SWAT teams in three seconds flat because she has a hunch. Meanwhile, Peter tortures prisoners and devises serums with no authorization save that he went to MIT; to his endless credit, Jackson, late of “Dawson’s Creek,” makes it play.

By setting “Fringe” in the real world, Abrams has given up some of the creative freedom he had with “Lost.” If you acknowledge the real world, you must play by at least some of the real-world rules. Which means scenes like a cow being led through a crowded Harvard hallway, though amusing, have got to go. Yes, the lab is in the basement, but basements always have back doors.

More important, the sooner Abrams can get all his key players -- including, one hopes, Olivia’s likable fellow agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo) -- on the same imaginary-agency team the better, because I’m pretty sure it’s against FBI protocol to take LSD on the job to mind-meld with your partner/lover. Even if he is translucent.