Tuned In

Test Pilot: Fringe

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Torv (center, wearing brain-melding gizmo) with Noble and Jackson. / Mark Ben Holzberg/FOX

Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next fall’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But, premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: Fringe (Fox). Fox held a screening of a rough cut at its Manhattan office and a pilot screener won’t go out to critics until later in the summer. But I didn’t sign an NDA or anything, so I consider myself free to do a (relatively nonspoilery) writeup.

The Premise: This being a show from J. J. Abrams (Lost), it starts with a mishap on a plane and ends up in a conspiracy. A flight from Germany lands itself on autopilot at Boston’s Logan airport after a virus escapes in the cabin and kind of, um, melts everyone onboard. Special agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is called in to investigate, and discovers that the disease is connected to shadowy military-private research in fringe (hence the title) science. To combat the weird science, she needs a weird scientist: Walter Bishop (John Noble), an institutionalized genius whom she can only get sprung through the help/coercion of his estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson), a difficult genius himself. Their investigation in the two-hour pilot involves a cow, a corporate conspiracy, and a mind-meld procedure akin to the old Looney Tunes episodes in which a mad scientist would wire someonee up to the brain of a chicken. By pilot’s end, Dunham is only beginning to investigate a series of similar, bizarre disaster/experiments worldwide, known as The Pattern. But a pattern of what?

First Impressions: While promos for the show made it seem very bleak and serious in an X-Files-y way, I was relieved that the script had excellent dialogue and a sharp sense of humor (also, come to think of it, in an X-Files-y way). The caasting has been nailed from top to bottom, from newcomer Torv to Noble (who just about steals the pilot) to Lance Reddick as a government superior who bears an old grudge against Olivia. Some early reviewers have grumbled about Jackson, but I’ve liked him since Dawson’s Creek and I think he’s a perfect match for the roguish, sarcastic Peter. (The main problem with Peter is that he doesn’t have quite enough to do in the pilot—once his father gets freed from the looney bin, Peter sort of becomes luggage.) I was gripped and entertained from beginning to end. My one reservation—and it’s a big one—is with the ongoing storyline, or what little I can see of it. The Pattern, and the conspiracy behind it, seem awfully generic so far; there’s nothing as fresh and surprising as, say, the polar bear in the pilot of Lost. But that’s a problem for future episodes to resolve (or not).

Do I Want to Watch Another One? Definitely. I’ll be surprised if I see a better pilot—judged simply as a self-contained pilot—for this fall. But I think it’ll be a couple episodes before we know if this is actually a great series or not.