Monday, September 29, 2008

No Fringe Benefits

Normally, about this time of year, I would have been sniffing around the new television shows premiering in the US to get an inkling of what might be heading this way in the next few months. Except this year I simply haven’t really bothered to pay the Fall schedule much heed, instead using my time to watch that show.

Or it simply may have been that when I did check out what was eventually commissioned, post-WGA strike, I wasn’t thrilled that quite a number of them were to be American versions of shows I’d caught over here. While some shows like The Office managed to translate well, I wasn’t exactly holding my breath over The Worst Week of My Life and Kath & Kim, or Life on Mars.

Foreign remakes aside, one theme running through a number of new dramas appears to be science running amuck. Or, depending on how you want to look at it, really really-bad science, and that doesn’t even include the resurrected Knight Rider from NBC. It was bad enough that last year the network brought back The Bionic Woman, though without the definite article. How bad must the other ideas pitched have been before they decided to put their money on that damned talking car?

One of the shows that has come my way is Fringe from JJ Abrams and the two guys that wrote Transformers. Now, I loved those first couple years of Alias and am even still clinging on to the hope that Lost will make some kind of sense at some point, but Fringe seems to have gone right off the rails from the absolute get go. I don’t know how they pitched it, but with an FBI Special Agent heading up the oddball team of characters, Fringe is like The X-Files but without the alien bullshit.

Or rather, it’s like The X-Files with a whole bunch of different bullshit. With wayward “science” that’s on the bleeding edge replacing extra-terrestrials, it means that by trying to make it understandable, if not credible, the blather-filled plots lack a sense of urgency as characters talk about things rather than getting on with it.

Maybe concerned about this they’ve whipped up some rather unusual elements to throw into the mix that certainly differentiates it from everything else. To begin with there’s a really mad scientist doing really mad science stuff. Even with his barrage of non-sequiturs it still becomes tired pretty quickly because it’s exactly what you’d expect. Now, a mad scientist on a cookery show would be something, having him put together bizarre recipes and declare, “My creation lives!” when it comes bubbling out of the oven.

Then there’s a remarkably clean cow, which is certainly very different. Having lived on a farm, I can tell you that the average domestic bovine will take a big messy shit at the drop of a hat. There was even one instance, though not on our property, where a cow happily crapped on the head of the calf behind it without batting an eye. That’s what they do. In fact the reason we slice these animals up and eat them is not simply to piss off pasty-faced vegetarians but to stop the surface of this fair planet turning into one massive cowpat. Maybe the Fringe cow has had its butt scientifically plugged.

Next there are the most bizarre on-screen legends that pop up through the course of the episode. Remember how The X-Files used to have the little Courier supers running along the bottom of the screen to note the locations, whether it was Bumfuck, Idaho, or whatever other godforsaken place? And then Heroes used a comic-book lettering font to keep track of the various characters and locations. Fringe tries to go bigger and better with massive, fuck-off, 3D words floating in front the different locations.

Maybe a decade ago this would have been kind of cool, given all the mapping it would require, and especially with the show-off camera moves thrown in. But since that kind of software is readily available, and in fact there are programs that will do even flashier stuff on the market, the first time these massive names appear it’s puzzling, and every instance after become just plain annoying.

After all that there’s just one last point to flag up. It had me raise an eyebrow, and to see if any other people got it I mentioned it to H when we sat down for a beer recently. You see, the pilot involves a commercial airliner than pitches down at Logan airport. I told H this, added a few more details and he came back with, “That sounds like the first episode of Department S.” Exactly. Then the second episode of Fringe has a woman give birth to a baby that grows into an adult in minutes. He flagged up the Alpha Child episode of Space:1999. Right again.

Apart from all the other nonsense with the scientist and the cow and the legends, they’re getting plots from Lew Grade’s old ITC shows. I’m not sure which is the scariest? Anyway, Sky has paid good money for the show so it’s turning up on Sky One sometime soon.

The other big bad science show is a US adaptation of Stephen Gallagher’s Eleventh Hour with Rufus Sewell in the Patrick Stewart role. This looks a far better bet, but a recent comment from one of the producers had raised a cause for concern. Not so much about the show, it’s more about how these Hollywood types view their country as consisting of the West Coast, East Coast and the flyover States in between.

Talking about the differences between the UK and US versions on Sci Fi Wire, Executive Producer Cyrus Voris states:, if you go to the English countryside, you can buy more that people are cut off from stuff in terms of some of the scientific crisis and ideas. We went through a whole thing on an episode that they're shooting now, which has to do with an outbreak of a smallpox hybrid. The big thing was “Where do you set it?” Because if you set it in New York City, it's unbelievable that the entire city wouldn't come to a stop and be shut down in, like, four or five hours.

It became, like, “OK, we have to find someplace in the U.S. [where] it's a little more believable that the story can play out in the way it needs to for drama.” I think they had a little easier time in the British version of doing that. If there's some little town, some coal-mining town out in the middle of the British countryside, you can believe a little bit more that stuff can get a little crazier, as opposed to some part in the U.S.

Wait a second; has this guy just said that Britain has more rural and isolated communities than America? Somebody needs to buy him a gift certificate from Rand McNally.


At 8:58 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

On the upside, I think he just found the explanation for Wigan.

At 7:03 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


You're probably right. I'm sure I went through Wigan once some years back. If it's the place I'm thinking of, I had to change trains there and instead of swapping to a different platform, I had to walk across to a different station. Very strange.

At 12:59 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

Fringe is weak.

The well-groomed cow walking around the lab is one of those WTF elements that kills the illusion stone dead.

It also doesn't help that the female lead can't act.

Even with those hotshot producers involved, can't see it getting a second series.

At 1:22 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

It was when the fucking cow got milked that I thought enough is enough.

I think it's the first show this year to get a full season order with FOX giving Abrams and the boys the back nine.


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