Comic Con doesn’t actually start until Thursday, but on Wednesday they had a “preview night” and opened the doors to the exhibit halls for members of the press and those holding 4-day passes. To make the “preview night” even more special, an exclusive advanced screening of the pilot of J.J. Abrams’ new Fox television series, Fringe, was shown to those in attendance, including yours truly. Sitting right next to Head Honcho Josh Tyler himself, I took in what, as Abrams’ explained in a video introduction, is the first official non-leaked screening of the episode. It was time not-so-well spent.

Abrams and his writer/producer cohorts from Alias and Star Trek, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, have cooked up Lost-lite, heavy on the weird goings-on, probable interlocking conspiracies, and mood enhancing sounds, but lacking the originality that keeps us heading back to the Island to find out about the survivors of Oceanic flight 815. The “fringe” of the title refers to fringe science, where the normal meets the paranormal and interviewing a dead person (as long as they haven’t been dead more than six hours) is possible.

The pilot introduces FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Australian Anna Torv) who is part of an investigation into a toxin that kills everyone aboard a German airline headed for Boston (the opening minute or so echo Lost so closely, it can’t have been unintentional.) Early in the investigation, Dunham’s boyfriend, Agent John Scott (Mark Valley) is exposed to some of the same toxin and will also die if Dunham can’t crack the case and find a cure. Her only hope for doing so (uncovered after surfing the Internet for a few minutes… now that’s police work!) is Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a brilliant scientist who is also currently residing in the nut house.

Nobel’s Bishop, who at times seems like an extension of his nutty father/steward in Return of the King, is the best thing going on the show. At turns both funny and pitiful he gives the standard brilliant kook character a shot in the arm. Unfortunately, the other characters, including his estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson), a creepy corporate executive (Blair Brown), and Dunham’s task force boss Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) all come across as stock and predictable. Torv is the weakest link here, with almost no charisma and a vocal style that makes me wonder why they didn’t just have her speak with her Australian accent and explain it away somehow.

Explaining away non-sensical behavior is all over the pilot. For some reason the government can’t interview Bishop without his son being found and brought along. In one scene Broyles blocks something Dunham wants to do, but in the next she demands he do something and he puts up not resistance at all. A mind meld between two characters, facilitated by Bishop, requires the female to be stripped to her panties and placed in water but not the male (not that I’m complaining.) In the one that almost made me laugh out loud, an FBI team surrounds a building to arrest a suspect who then slips out the basement unobserved and is pursued by civilian Peter. Of course, Peter then takes it upon himself to slip into the interrogation room and rough up the suspect in order to get critical info.

The problems with this could go on and on. The car chase, the rooftop chase, calling the big, bad corporation Massive Dynamics, it all adds up to not much intrigue but a case of trying a bit too hard. I can’t see the show working out of its problems if future episodes are as silly as the first (and as gross, the scene where the toxin works its way through the plane is kinda disgusting.) It also is saddled with Torv as a lead, but Noble is great and Jackson has potential if he can stop being smirky cool guy and get some more interaction with Noble. The series will premier on September 9th on Fox and run Tuesdays at 9:00 pm.

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