Monday, 22 September 2008

Fringe S01E01 - A Review

Firstly may I apologise for the paucity of updates in recent weeks. I was holidaying in America and Canada for most of this period. Normal service will resume from this point on. Now that Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire and The West Wing are over, there’s a gaping void in American television where a real candidate for “best television show ever” should be. J.J. Abrams, America’s most irritatingly named, overrated fabulist, would like to fill that void. Most people who recognise the name know Abrams for Lost - every slack-jawed, pseudo-intellectual phillistine’s favourite show. Abrams has done little of note since Lost, with two unwelcome entries into the world of film - the distinctly underwhelming MI:3 (these missions are clearly not impossible enough if we've had 3 installments) and the sub-Godzilla, headache inducing Cloverfield.

Abrams new science-fiction series, Fringe, premiered in the US on August 8th. It is set to hit British screens soon, on Sky One. The show unites what we are to assume Abrams intends as wildly opposed characters – an FBI agent, her sullen boss, and a young, troubled genius - who tackle something called “The Pattern.” The Pattern is a series of seemingly unrelated strange happenings, that will obviously align into some inter-connected pattern by the season’s end. We are informed that they are caused by people toying with the so-called “fringe sciences”: pseudo-sciences like telepathy, reanimation, cryogenics etc.

The 80 minute, $10m pilot centres around a terrorist attack on a transatlantic flight involving some kind of weaponized biological agent that makes people’s skin go juicy, then transparent, and then kills them. Viewers are invited to accept many implausible scenarios - the Department of Homeland Security allows a young F.B.I. agent to investigate a case almost single-handedly that involves the aforementioned weapon. She chases after wild leads on a whim and cuts through red tape, waving the Patriot Act about with practically no supervision or backup. Given that it’s a science-fiction series, viewers will be more than willing to suspend disbelief for all the vaguely paranormal, pseudo-scientific elements, but the na├»ve depiction of the bureaucracies becomes irksome quickly. They are presented fallaciously as bottomless pits of manpower, resources and financial backing, a poorly-conceived crutch for the fantastical plot to lean on. Some political context and exposition would be welcome, but perhaps this will follow in future episodes.

The cast is predictably, uniformly attractive. Anna Torv, an Australian, plays Special Agent Olivia Dunham, a former investigator for the Marines now assigned to interagency liaison work. Other than her accent, which appears to be stuck somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, her performance is competent enough. Furthermore, she looks great in her underwear, which is convenient because the plot calls for her spend half her time in it. Joshua Jackson, as the science genius Peter Bishop, isn’t stretched much, as he’s simply asked to play his character from Dawson’s Creek, only less thick, and slightly more angry. Dunham’s boss is played by the shrewish, but handsome Lance Reddick. Last seen as Lt. Cedric Daniels in The Wire, the pilot episode of Fringe seemed to employ him in much a similar role (essentially using his piercing stare to cut down those under his command), except embodying a far lesser character, with a far inferior script.

Fringe is far from awful, but it is incredibly dull. You can only assume that most of the $10m budget was spent on cocaine for Mr. Abrams, because they certainly didn’t get their money’s worth from the special effects or the “star” cast. The plot is more pedestrian and linear than exciting and labyrinthine, planting few seeds that could invite viewers to return for future episodes. The interplay between the characters grows tedious quickly, and you can easily plot the course of the relationships from their initial dalliances and conflicts. Sadly, the most inventive, original thing about Fringe is the way in which they employ the intertitles explaining where the action has shifted to.

In a world with a million possible distractions, and several far superior shows (for instance The X-Files, which Abrams has so obviously plagiarised), Fringe really doesn’t warrant your attention. Unless of course you’re are a big fan of Lost. In other words – a complete moron.


(Published in a heavily edited form in the Epigram, 1 Oct, Issue 204).

Monday, 1 September 2008

'Tis the Season

Since the new television season officially kicks off tonight it seems like the appropriate time to take a quick look at the new shows on the horizon, with some speculation and for those that are cautious, zero spoilers. A further look at pilots was going to come but they don’t seem to have particularly leaked out into general consumption, True Blood and Fringe excluded and Fringe nearly gave me an aneurism watching it, let alone reviewing it in depth.

The CW has decided that what sells is money and sex after the success of Gossip Girl. Of course they seemed to have missed the point that while GG gained a lot of buzz this didn't translate into actual ratings. Because the show is aimed at young people who download their TV, rather than watch it. As Dirty Sexy Money was taken as a title one such new show gets the boring title Privileged, about two little rich girls and their poor tutor. From the previews available the tutor looks like she will be as whining and neurotic as Dawson’s Creek's Joey Potter. She comes with the obligatory male best friend completely in love with her, yet as per usual she remains completely oblivious to the raging erection he gets every time she so much as breathes near him. The actresses playing the two rich girls are attempting a mediocre impression of Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls yet only ever achieve a substandard Marissa Cooper, which is never a glowing commendation. The other big new show on this network is the much lauded 90210 spinoff/remake/revamp. About a group of rich kids... but everyone knows this premise already. Somehow the casting department managed to snag the actor that played Michael on The Wire, who will no doubt enjoy his new gritty material on the streets of Beverly Hills, moving from dealing with heroin addicts to shopping addicts. Oh and obviously he is playing both the kid from the wrong side of the tracks and fulfilling the "token" quota. Wire fans know he can do better. Further to this Jessica Walters, previously of the excellent Arrested Development, has been cast and the two show runners used to work on the classic Freaks and Geeks. For a show so shallow there really is a strong calibre of talent behind it that could give it depth, thus meaning it may actually be worth watching. A concern though is the way the show is being marketed, its simply baffling. The CW is trying to gear itself toward a teen audience, yet this show is doing all the stunt casting it can to pull in fans of the old show. Bringing back old characters and allowing them to dominate proceedings isn't going to win over any new fans, nor let the new characters develop and breathe on their own. Its pretty much going to alienate and annoy everyone, just actual rich kids.

Fox has Fringe, the new show from J.J. Abrams, about investigators into the paranormal with an overriding conspiracy built in. Basically it looks set to be a mash up of the elements of J.J.’s previous shows, mystery (Lost), silly spy antics (Alias), angst, angst and more angst (Felicity), it is overall and most importantly a completely blatant rip off of the X Files. With the failure of the recent feature film you have to wonder if there is still a viable market for this. Still, the fanboys will lap it up making it at least a moderate success as J.J. Abrams can seemingly do no wrong, despite abandoning most shows he produces to the ether as soon as he spots something new and shiny. As an aside another Wire veteran turns up here, Lance Reddick. He played Cedric Daniels in The Wire and here he also plays Cedric Daniels from The Wire (not typecast at all then). Dollhouse, from Joss Whedon is coming next year starring Eliza Dushku as an agent for a company who pulls off assignments varying from crime to sex fantasies for high paying clients/perverts, her mind being wiped and freshly imprinted with a new personality for each mission. It does sound rather like Alias, except with the useful happenstance that being an undercover spy created tension. It sounds like it will play more like a brunette Buffy being put into a variety of invariably tiny costumes designed to send the males in the audience into salivating fits of joy. Since the network already commissioned another brand new pilot for Dollhouse it may soon be sitting on the scrap heap beside Firefly. At least it can’t be any worse than last years Bionic Woman.

Speaking of Bionic Woman, NBC apparently did not learn their lesson in how to remake an old show. Not least another bad old show. The network doesn’t seem to understand that what made the remake of Battlestar Galactica a success was that it is completely and radically different to its original namesake. This season Knight Rider drives on to the airwaves and the showrunner promises that it will be like watching The Fast and the Furious every week. The only film I’d like to see even less week in week out is Van Helsing and I regularly thank God that didn't happen. To pair with this NBC also has a remake of Top Gear, which you can bet will feature generic, square jawed bland hosts and a whole bucketload of product placement. Afterall why give a fair critical review of something when you can get given a ton of money to give an entirely biased one, if you need a case in point simply pick up a copy of Empire, the magazine seemingly incapable of giving an average rating in a review.

CBS has Worst Week, a remake of a thoroughly pedestrian British sitcom. The plus point here is they couldn't really make it worse and can only really improve; however the only recent remake of a British show that has worked is The Office and that is mainly due to some fantastic casting, amazing creative team and a strong finished product to draw inspiration for. That an executive can think that The Worst Week of my Life was successful and creative enough to remake simply illustrates the dire state of the British sitcom at the moment (Peep Show excluded). A remake of My Hero can only be on the horizon and if the thought of that doesn’t chill you to the bone I don’t know what will.