I know a lot of people have already seen the pilot of Fringe, as it was available in various ways before the TV showing tonight, but it was the TV viewing that I watched. In case you missed all the adverts, it is a show about mad science (fringe science): an FBI agent is introduced to the world of mad science in the process of investigating a mysterious plane crash where everyone was killed by some flesh eating virus, and saving her FBI boyfriend who was also infected. In the process she recruits a mad scientist from (where else) a looney bin with the help of his boyishly good looking con artist super-genius son, and we get a glimpse of the world of a rival mad scientist who has gone corporate -- he used to share a lab with mad scientist number one.
The show is quite well directed. The opening sequence which takes place on an airplane (shades of Abrams' other show, LOST) was really well shot with the lights flickering and the camera lunging. When blondie gets taken to the hospital the picture and sound go violently in and out in a way that is pretty arresting, and both the LSD sequence and even the storage locker fight was shot really well. The design of Megacorp or whatever was really nice, as was the reveal of the secret of the red haired woman who works there. The twist at the end and the final moment were pretty good.
But for most of the show I was just bored. The show keeps getting compared to X-Files but the proper point of comparison is Threshold -- like Threshold, Fringe is trying to be X-Files 2, and like Threshold it picks what it likes and runs with it. Threshold focused exclusively on the alien thing, and Fringe focuses exclusively on the non-alien stuff (that Scott, and others, argued was always the better half of X-Files anyway). X-Files could be great but it was never a show I followed except randomly, and in syndication. I feel no need for Fringe. It was not exactly terrible, it just didn't feel like much. The mad science is the kind of concept you need a Grant Morrison to really sell, because he is they guy that is going to come up with really weird ideas, or at least make the old ideas feel new by giving them a new name or a new twist. But telepathy, flesh eating viruses, talking to the recently dead -- I have seen this stuff before and seen it better. You cannot put The Filth on TV, but you could learn a thing or two from the presentation of ideas.
And the characters are no help. Our resident Mad Scientist is alright, thought I thought their vision of his crazy was a little to pat -- he just tosses weird non-sequiturs in with his brilliant stuff, and they are not that funny. More than one was predictable. Our FBI girl is just dull as dishwater, as is the aforementioned boyishly good looking skeptical sarcastic genius. These are characters that look alright on paper (clear motivation, clearly distinguished) but are just uninteresting on screen, and the actors are not helping. Lance Reddick was totally wasted, and not just because he was so great on the Wire and deserves a bigger role -- even when he appears for a moment on Lost he commands in a way he just does not here.
The plot, again, looks great on paper: you personalize the thing on the plane by giving the girl someone she can save, and you raise the stakes by having it be someone she just shared "I love you"s with. But it just feels contrived pat and screenplay-neat and reminds me that while "From the creator of Lost" had me excited, "from the writers of Transformers" had me wary. The occasional madness -- like the cow, and the thing with Spongebob -- are ok, but not nearly enough. And the plot has this kind of A to B to C to D quality that got on my nerves: the locker to the son to the dad to the lab (did they really just give him the lab back after 17 years and set it up a day later), to the guy, to the megacorp and so on. A subplot would have helped.
And how long do I have before I have to suffer through some Disaster Movie style parody of the 3D credits where serious FBI guys, or the camera, crashes into them, spoiling the mood?
In short there is nothing like the humor of Firefly, the dialogue of West Wing, the shocking energy of Lost, the cute girl factor of Alias, or the solid acting and drama of Battlestar to get me to come back.