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Back when LOST came on TV, I watched the first episode and my Spider Sense tingled. By that time I'd already waded through the meandering Twin Peaks and Chris Carter's four initially interesting, but ultimately muddled attempts to be vague and pointless: X-FILES, MILLENIUM, HARSH REALM, and THE LONE GUNMEN. These pretty much burned any last vestiges of patience I'd had with a story that begins an arc that features a devastatingly big super secret conspiracy that lasts for seasons on end. A gimmick that just keeps getting weirder and weirder with every episode until you realize that instead of winding tighter and ever inward to unveil a core of extraordinary revelation, is instead unraveling into a confused and contradictory mess. After I watched a few more episodes of LOST (about six weeks worth because at first it was, after all, fascinating), I knew that no one on the J. J. Abrams crew had any idea where in the hell they were going. I stopped watching.
Abrams himself, in interviews or announcement, would drop coals of vague clues or assert that he did indeed, know where he was going. LOST had a point. It had an ending. Well, an ending is wherever something stops. The Sopranos had an ending - a pointless ending (oh wait, no I'm just a moron! The Sopranos had a Stupendously Brilliant ending if you knew just how to watch it! The Emperor has clothes, I'm just too dim to see them!).
Around about the time that Abrams began marketing CLOVERFIELD, and some of my friends were weaning themselves off of LOST (HEROES siphoned off much of the LOST audience. HEROES makes a lot more sense), I carefully watched what J. J. was doing with his viral marketing campaign. And I reached a personal conclusion: I think Abrams really doesn't know where to go with a story and doesn't care. Everyone was watching all of his weird trailers and faux commercials for Slusho, and the various faux websites (nearly all of which didn't have a damn thing to do in regards to illuminating the movie one whit. Check out the archived CLOVERFIELD NEWS page).
What Abram's interested in is marketing. Even LOST is doing nothing more than marketing and promoting the next episode. There doesn't need to be anything really happening, just the promise of something odd, or weird, or nothing at all. Abrams, like Chris Carter before him, uses Red Herring marketing. All he wants is a weekly "hook" that can grab the audience's attention, and then play the audience out with promises of unveiling the great something. Thing is, Abrams doesn't have a great something. He only has a hook: the first five minutes of his story - and a line, feeding the belief that what wowed us in the first five will return in the next 12 to 24 episodes. It's a good ploy as far as salesmanship goes. In a single season, with a sufficiently inspired writing/creative team, you are bound to have a couple of ideas that are amazingly cool. At least, cool enough that you can toss them into the story - the less relevant the better - to add another supposed facet to the mystery. If it contradicts what has come before, even better. THAT will leave those yahoos guessing. By the time the whole show caves in on itself, you've had a good two, three, maybe even five year run! That's profitable enough. Especially in this day and age where you can hawk a few seasons of your TV show off on DVD before the rubes catch on.
I've tested my theory by going back on what Abrams did to market ALIAS and LOST, how his current and former fans feel about those shows^, and how folks buzzed during the run up to CLOVERFIELD: A fascinating but ultimately dissatisfying movie, and I closely watched his marketing on FRINGE.
Then tonight, I actually watched FRINGE. Like LOST, the first episode is very cool.
We start with a plane during a severe storm. Folks in the plane handle it better and worse than others, but one guy gives himself an injection in his belly. The guy next to him tries to calm his fears, but this guy is starting to lose it. Then he gets out of his seat while the Fasten Seat Belts sign is on. The stewardesses try to stop him, then one of them see what is happening to the guy. Merry Mishaps occur.
The next thing we know, having landed by automatic pilot, the plane is on a seperate runway (as far from the other planes and main airport as possible). FBI agents, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv: FRANKENSTIEN [TV]) and her partner John Scott (Mark Valley), decked in biohazard suits, enter the 747 only to discover that everyone seems to be in various stages of melting. Some are just skeletons, others are covered in steaming, translucent soft tissue. All are dead.
After they get their samples and evidence, the entire plane is burned on the tarmac. Something very terrible is going on and Olivia and John, to begin their investigation, find themselves in the temporary employ of Homeland Security and answering to Agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick). Then things take a turn for the VERY worse when, with clues leading them to a storeroom facility, an explosion of one of the rooms hits John, with the effect of contaminating him with whatever killed the people on the plane. Rushing him to a special hospital and biohazard facilities, the agents are able to slow the deadly effects of the mystery chemical contamination. They induce a coma and lower John's body temperature greatly. Now, instead of melting right away, he melts slowly, with his skin going from opaque to transparent.
It's hard to tell just what it was that had old Walter committed to the booby hatch in the first place, but he is definitely the worst for the wear in having been there. There's an expected, yet still interesting emotional and professional dynamic between the Father and son. Peter, still nursing the wounds of a lost childhood, remains on the warpath with his Father, and Walter just remains on his own weird path, more convinced than ever that he's right, now that his once forbidden knowledge just got him sprung. It's made clear that, due to Olivia's desperation and Homeland Security Agent Broyles grasping for straws in the face of the unknown, Walter has carte blanc. For all of the damage the asylum may have caused, Walter is keenly aware that his freedom is entirely dependent on proving his theories correct. And the only way he can do that, and have a chance at staying out of the hospital, is to save John's life.
Thus begins a twisty, turny show called FRINGE, complete with the musty old cliché of the Evil Corporation. Yes, there is one of those here. Even back in the 1940s and 1950s, the Evil U.S. Government, or the Evil Corporations or the Evil/Mad Scientists (Walter is mad at any rate) were so overdone that writers who dismissed with these tropes entirely went on to great fame and fortune. Ian Flemming recognized that, if you are going to have a secret organization bent on world domination, they need to be a pretty well funded organization. So instead of picking any one country's government or corporation, he created Specter. Like Che Guevara, or Al Qaeda, or the Taliban, they belonged to No. One. Country. Even Saturday Morning kiddie shows like Lancelot Chimp (actual chimpanzees dressed up in human clothes, out to save their Simian world!) had their evil nemesis, C.H.U.M.P. And of course, the Cartoon G.I. Joe fought against the forces of Cobra! James Cameron realized this and had the evil and unexpected outgrowth of our defense system become SkyNet in THE TERMINATOR - or COLOSSUS for you old timers. And whether you are talking stories for adults or stories for children, it all works because the evil forces can't be pinned down to any one place. And their unknown nature makes them all the more scary because you have no idea where they are or what they're up to or even what they are capable of doing. Still someone thought it was a good idea to make the secret corporation a brick and mortar tech corporation with a specific address.
So FRINGE is about a mad doctor, Walter Bishop, vs his old partner (a la SNEAKERS), who has amassed a group of evil scientists, the publicist for whom is one Nina Sharp (Blair Brown: ALTERED STATES). And if you have any doubt that Nina may not be an evil scientist, she even has the robot hand. Yes, if SciFi movies have taught us anything, its that the person with a fucked up hand cannot be trusted. Everyone from Rottwang in METROPOLIS, Dr. No's hands in DR. NO, even Benny-the-jive-talkin'-cabby with both a robot hand and a freak-a-zoid hand in TOTAL RECALL. There's more but moving forward...
I totally enjoyed the first episode of FRINGE as it balanced supremely well between serious and camp ("Let's go make some LSD!"), believable action and unbelievable globe trotting. This first episode, while introducing the evil corporation that will no doubt be the running bad guy, also felt self-contained. There is the bad guy behind THIS particular mystery, plus betrayals, unexpected bad guys, and a hint of some larger conspiracy (this is an Abrams story, what did you expect?). Yet unlike Twin Peaks and the perpetual search for who killed Laura Palmer, or X-FILES and what happened to Muldar's sister, or LOST and "Why are we on this island? No seriously, why are we REALLY on this island? Okay, but why are we really, REALLY on this Island? Wait a minute! ARE we really on this island?" this episode didn't feel like it was embarking on a season long search of some big question.
The big picture point seems to be that there is all kinds of crazy crap happening in the world, and we may just need an off-kilter genius like Walter Bishop on our team. As long as Abrams and Co. don't pull another LOST and fall into the same aggravating rut that ruined David Lynch and Chris Carter's careers, FRINGE could be what many of us have been waiting for! It just might be the fun freak show we wanted and missed from the rise and fall days of THE X-FILES. FRINGE could be The One!
Four Shriek Girls
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