On Tuesday, September 9, FOX invites television fans to “imagine the impossibilities” as the hotly anticipated new show Fringe makes its debut. Fringe takes its title from the branch of science outside the mainstream, on the cutting edge of what is known and believed possible.
It’s an area of great interest to executive producer/co-creator and writer J.J. Abrams, and as his track record shows, what interests Abrams tends to interest the rest of us. Fringe’s Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci are the team behind Star Trek, Mission Impossible III and Alias, and Abrams also has hit shows Felicity and Lost to his credit. He and series star Joshua Jackson (Dawson’s Creek, Bobby) chatted via conference call about science, fiction, and the grey area between the two.
The session led off with a question about the relevancy of today’s political landscape to the show. Abrams denied any specific context, but said, “Every week we read or hear or see about some kind of potentially horrifying scientific breakthrough. The reality is that we are in a time, whatever party is leading the country, where science is out of control. Having said that, maybe everything is out of control.”
Given that the show has a shadowy and ambiguous corporation playing a role, Abrams was asked whether he was trying to make any particular point about corporate culture. Abrams responded that he’s always found large powerful organizations dramatically appealing, because “it’s hard to believe that there isn’t some kind of interesting, compelling intrigue happening behind the doors of those corporate headquarters." He confirmed that we’ll be hungry to learn more about the people behind Fringe’s mystery company.
With the show sitting at the intersection of science and fiction, the inevitable question is how far the show’s grounding in real fringe science will be stretched. Abrams explained the show’s stance:
When we did the pilot for Lost, we had the monster appear at the end of the first act. We did that very consciously because we wanted to say to the audience, “We’re jumping the shark now,” like we’re doing crazy stuff from the beginning. We’re not going to wait. On Fringe, we very consciously did what is in many ways a preposterous, out there, far-fetched scientific story point in order to say to the audience, "This is what you’re going to be getting on the show." Now it may be more extreme in some cases, less so in others.
Some shows, I think … will deal with science very much as it exists. But I think for the most part the fun about it for me with movies and TV shows, especially in the genre of either horror or sci-fi, is that pushing of the envelope and going further than you might otherwise. I think the show will definitely be pushing the edge of the envelope, but I don’t think it’s going to be about that. I don’t think we’re going to be trying to top ourselves every week because then we’ll just be in a race against ourselves and then there’s no way to win that one … I would rather be delving into who these people are and what makes them tick than doing something just for shock value.
Fringe will be less serialized than Abrams’ other shows like Lost and Alias. There will still be an over-reaching mythology and long term stories, but the aim is for viewers to be able to follow the show even if they miss an episode. The show runner said although there will be elements that recall The X-Files structure, a closer model would be, rather surprisingly, ER. Abrams felt that the rhythm of his show is much like the medical drama, "where you have these ongoing relationships, these ongoing storylines and yet week to week when the door bursts open you’re faced with the insane urgent situation of the week."
To a question about his own expectations for the show, Abrams noted that it’s impossible to second guess what anyone will think. However, he said, "I can say that it’s one of those shows that if I had nothing to do with it and saw it coming out, I’d want to kill myself. I’d be so miserable because it is so the show that I’d want to watch … That doesn’t mean that it’s good or bad. It just means it is so the kind of show that I am excited to see." And that, he said, is the key advice he would give to writers trying to break into television writing: “Write the show that you desperately want to see and that is the closest you can get to certainty that it will appeal to a lot of people.”
Turning to the casting of Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop, Abrams explained, “As a director/writer/producer, all you ever want is to work with actors who make you look better, who make the work you do seem as good as it can be and even better than it is. I always felt that Josh had that ability. I’m thrilled to finally get a chance to work with him.”
Jackson had his own share of questions, which the actor fielded with a dry sense of humour that bodes well for the likeability of his character. Jackson hasn’t been on the small screen for a while, partly to recover from the time demands of TV. The reason he signed on for Fringe was "the quality of the script … and the density of it. And the fact that even while it was a totally satisfying story unto itself, you [could] see that it was laid in there, the potential for a whole world, a whole universe of other stories." And, of course, he pointed out that Abrams’ track record for keeping stories compelling over a long period of time didn’t hurt!
Jackson sees his role as a translator between his mad scientist father Walter Bishop (John Noble) and no-nonsense FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). In his view, “that’s an interesting dynamic because ultimately what that boils down to … is a very typical dysfunctional family. And you put that dynamic, something that’s relatable and understandable to everybody, and you put it in this fantastically outrageous world of Fringe and it makes for an interesting day’s work.” Besides the character’s complicated relationship with his father, there will be eventually some focus on the sparks between Peter and Olivia. Abrams confirmed that “there’s no doubt going to be a sort of slow burn relationship that develops between the two of them.”
As the interview drew to a close, Abrams was asked if he thought TV is in a golden age for sci-fi. He answered yes, but “partially because we’re living in an incredibly advanced, and almost uncontrollably so, period of scientific achievement. It’s pushing what we all thought was … that comfortable, almost quaint, version of what sci-fi is to a very different place, and that’s where Fringe lives.”
Fringe will premiere on Tuesday, September 9 from 8-9:35 PM, ET/PT, on FOX.
Photo credits: Joshua Jackson: George Holz/FOX. Peter and Walter Bishop with Olivia Dunham: George Holz/FOX. J.J. Abrams: FOX.