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Published: 7/16/2008

Sci-fi simplification: Fox's 'Fringe' forgoes convoluted plots of 'Lost,' 'Alias'

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Walter Bishop (John Noble), left, and Peter Bishop (Josh Jackson) try to calm a hysterical woman (Jasika Nicole) in the premiere of Fringe. Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is partially obscured behind Walter Bishop.
Walter Bishop (John Noble), left, and Peter Bishop (Josh Jackson) try to calm a hysterical woman (Jasika Nicole) in the premiere of Fringe. Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is partially obscured behind Walter Bishop.
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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - A thriller with a sci-fi bent that's been the talk of the Internet since its pilot episode leaked online earlier this summer, Fox's Fringe comes from A-list executive producer J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias, the upcoming Star Trek movie) and colleagues who have worked on his past series.

The new series stars Australian actress Anna Torv as an FBI agent who teams with the son (Joshua Jackson, Dawson's Creek) of an institutionalized scientist (John Noble) to investigate scientific mysteries. In the pilot, the mystery is about passengers on a transatlantic flight who arrive in Boston mutilated.

Fringe, which premieres at 8 p.m. Sept. 9, will draw inevitable comparisons to series such as Fox's The X-Files, but Abrams and company also cited Altered States and Twin Peaks as influences.

In a nod to the 1980 movie Altered States, the cast of Fringe includes that film's star, Blair Brown, as a corporate executive with a robotic arm. She runs Massive Dynamic, a corporation that manufactured the engines on the plane that lands in Boston.

"There are questions about is she to be trusted, is she good or bad," Abrams said. "She's sort of like this guru character and a font of information. I love the ambiguity of the character."

Jeff Pinkner, a former writer on Alias, Lost, and October Road (all produced by Abrams' company, Bad Robot), serves as executive producer and show runner of Fringe. He said just as a CSI episode begins with a body, Fringe will kick off with a new case each week.

"Our goal is to hold ourselves to a standard so that when the first commercial hits, ideally people will be calling their friends saying they can't believe what's happening on Fox," Pinkner said.

For Abrams that means a marriage between weekly cases and over-arcing stories of the characters, along with the main mystery that seems likely to center on Massive Dynamic. But he's cautious about not making the show's mythology too confusing, using one of his past series as a lesson learned. He described watching an episode of Alias at the home of a star of that series, Greg Grunberg, and being completely baffled by it.

"Literally, it was impenetrable," he said. "I was like, 'I know I should understand this, but who the [expletive] is that guy?' I saw the show from that place. And I know Lost has garnered a reputation for being a very complicated show, and one you have to watch many episodes [to know what's going on]. Fringe is an experiment. We believe it is possible to do a show that does have an overall story and end game but also a show that you don't have to watch episode one, two, and three to understand episode four. We're trying to do a show that doesn't require the kind of insane, absolute dedication to a series that if you miss an episode you'll have no idea what's going on."

Fox's Prison Break was particularly ill-served by the timing of the writers' strike because the writers had set up clues and plots in the first half of the season that never delivered a payoff for viewers because there was no latter half of the season.

"In episode one of [the new season this fall] we have to credibly explain how they got away from Panama and how Sara Tancredi is alive," said co-executive producer Nick Santora.

Ah, yes, Dr. Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), love interest of Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), who was believed to have been beheaded last season.

"We left it open the entire time," Santora said. "That's the reason we put her head in a box in a dark garage. We shot it that way for a reason. We figured if ever there was a way we could bring the character back we'd have that option."

Callies credited fan support with resurrecting her character.

"They seemed to have pretty strong feelings, and that's something worth listening to," she said.

The new season picks up after Michael and Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) have escaped from Panamanian prison Sona. They're seeking justice against The Company, a shadowy group responsible for all their trouble. Once they learn Sara is alive, they try to find her and at the same time destroy The Company while avoiding an assassin (Cress Williams) and T-Bag (Robert Knepper), who's on the loose.

"Dr. Sara is reintroduced pretty early, and Michael and Sara have to find their way back to each other," said Miller. "The question now is what can they be to each other."

Miller's reaction when he got the script where Sara appeared to be beheaded: "It occurred to me we've gotten away with worse. I think our fans appreciate the twists and turns no matter what the subject might be."

The new season of Prison Break is filming in Los Angeles after two years in Dallas and one year in Chicago.

"I don't think we're going back to jail," Miller said. "Michael and Lincoln have been pawns in this deadly game of chess long enough. It's time to stand and fight."

Miller said Michael is at his best when he has a plan rather than when he's reactive, and he thinks Michael may be at his most proactive in season four, which premieres Sept. 1. One planning tool that may no longer be useful is Michael's tattoo, which held his plans for escaping prison in season one.

"I don't think it holds any more secrets," he said. "Its use is symbolic. We address the tattoo issue fairly early and in a definitive way."

It's been more than a year since an original 24 episode aired, and before the new season begins in January, a two-hour TV movie, 24: Exile, will debut at 8 p.m. Nov. 23.

Season seven will begin four years after the sixth season ended, with Exile set 4 to 6 months before season seven begins. Aside from a brief prologue, the two-hour TV movie occurs in real time.

Set in a fictional African country and filmed over three weeks in Cape Town, Exile follows Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and his mentor, Carl Benton (Robert Carlyle, The Full Monty), facing an international crisis. At home, a new president is inaugurated as other government officials scheme, setting the stage for the events in season seven. The new season will also feature a return-from-the-dead reappearance by Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), who appears to be the new season's bad guy.

A year ago at this time, the 24 writers were plotting to start the seventh season in Africa but ultimately abandoned the idea. After the writers' strike pushed the seventh season back a year, it opened up the opportunity to revive that story for a prequel film.

"Anyone in any artistic medium, don't ever throw out any scrap of material," advised 24 executive producer Howard Gordon. "This will tee up the season proper once we get to it."

The plot of Exile involves the plight of children and genocide, a nod to current events.

"24 lives in this very metaphorical place," Gordon said. "It's not a show that's meant to be literalist," but it does involve children as soldiers and events like those in Rwanda and Darfur without saying those names.

Back in the United States, the first female president (Cherry Jones) takes office.

"Her greatest flaw is her idealism," Gordon said, noting some similarities to President David Palmer, who was featured early in the show's run.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, the TV editor for the Post-Gazette, is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles.

Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com



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