J.J. Abrams talks Fringe

  • 25comments

Every fall television season has one heavy hitter that stands out above the rest. The can't-miss hit that's sure to be a ratings smash. The kind of program that restores faith in those who think TV is going down the toilet. A show that viewers don't TiVo--they watch it *gasp* live. Unless you are a teenage girl (in which case The CW's 90210 is your anticipated program), that show this year is Fox's Fringe.

Fox held an intimate roundtable (OK, it was actually a rectangular table) with the producers of the show in New York City on the same day it hosted the show's premiere party, and invited TV.com down to participate. The panelists included all the main brains behind Fringe: fanboy messiah J.J. Abrams (who brought delicious Magnolia cupcakes for the sweet-toothed journalists), Roberto "Bob" Orci and Alex Kurtzman of Transformers fame, J.J.'s right-hand man Bryan Burk, and Jeff Pinkner, one of J.J.'s go-to scribes. The quintet have a long history together, having worked on Lost and Alias as executive producers, and return to work again--this time in full force--on Fringe.

The science-fiction drama is drawing comparisons to another Fox sci-fi show of yesteryear, The X-Files, and rightfully so. Fringe focuses on three people who investigate the unexplained. But unlike The X-Files, Fringe doesn't concern itself with ghost stories, folklore, or aliens.

"The title itself refers to fringe science," said executive producer Robert Orci, referring to science and technology that is on the verge of breakthroughs in the real world. "So I think the idea is to keep it so that it's maybe a couple minutes in the future, not weeks in the future or years. You can read any science or tech parts of the newspaper nowadays, and there are just really strange articles in there that 10 years ago would have been unbelievable, now it's like 'The Pentagon has invisibility cloaks'…It's meant to be right now."

The pilot, an extended episode premiering September 9, deals with a "self-immolating virus," in Orci's own words. But when asked for more examples of what types of "fringe science" viewers can expect from other episodes, the panel largely kept exact details under wraps.

"We're trying to take a lot of our ideas from mainstream news sources," said Orci. "Go online, get a science magazine, and you'll see what we're trying to do."

Any fan of J.J. Abrams' previous works knows that there's often more to the story than just what's going on in a single episode. An over-arcing mythology is always a key to his projects, and Fringe will be no different. And yes, they do know almost exactly how the show will end...in fact, they made it a priority to know that early.

"If they let us run for 12 seasons, you'll see [the ending] in season 12," explained Kurtzman. "If they take us off the air by nine episodes, you'll see it in episode nine."

"Shows that sort of say 'yeah we know our big answer' but they don't really, you can tell," admitted Pinkner. "You can tell because the storytelling starts to feel like it's treading water...and we knew that if we were going to go into this, given how massive it is, we had to know our endpoint."

The producers wanted to make a show that appealed to their own tastes by combining things they loved growing up with successful genres that resonate with audiences today.

"The fun of this for us was taking the kinds of things we loved growing up and combining them, and playing with them, and making them into something that is hopefully brand new while being in the spirit of things that inspired us," said Abrams, who listed The Twilight Zone as a major inspiration for Fringe. What Abrams loves about Twilight Zone was the way it combined "characters that were damaged and heartbreaking with situations that were absolutely terrifying"--something he's bringing to the table with Fringe.

As far as the show's tone, Orci explained it best: "We're trying to crash a procedural with the genre stuff we like," referring to shows such as CSI. The group had to go against their instincts and study lots of said procedurals to see how they tick.

In other words, this won't be another Lost, even with J.J. on board and an opening scene eerily reminiscent of the plane crash in Lost's pilot. Viewers won't have to endure the mental marathon that Lost requires or fear that missing an episode means being left in the dust. Loyal viewers will be rewarded, however.

Abrams has repeatedly said that one thing he learned from Lost and Alias is that once someone took a vacation from the shows, they found it hard to get back in the swing of things. As such, each episode will be self-contained, but longer character storylines will stretch out over the series' lifetime.

One of those storylines to pay attention to is that of the family black sheep Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), who sees his scientist father institutionalized in a mental hospital for 17 years. "I think he's finally going to leave the Creek this season," Abrams jokes, referring to Jackson's role as the wise-cracking Pacey Witter on the teen sudser Dawson's Creek. "All I love to do [on set] is make Pacey jokes." Abrams then gets serious when asked how the character will fit into the show moving forward and really breaks down Peter, who essentially plays third wheel in the pilot. "He's this guy's son, and he's never really found a purpose. In his life, despite his screwed up relationship with his father, despite not wanting to be there and not being good at staying in one place, this guy finds his purpose in this unlikely situation."

Playing Walter Bishop is actor John Noble (The Lord of the Rings), and his character is already a fan favorite. Walter's unconventional methods, beverage requests in the middle of life-and-death situations, and LSD-making provide much of the comic relief, but he's also prone to bouts of screaming madness. Abrams compares him slightly to Hugh Laurie's title character in House--the show gets filtered through the mind of this brilliant yet flawed man.

The third arm of Fringe's trio is Olivia Dunham (comely Aussie newcomer Ana Torv), a tough FBI agent who is thrust into a dire situation after a fellow agent becomes infected with the aforementioned virus.

"Obviously the key for us was Ana, getting her first," said Abrams, speaking about the casting process. "The thing with Ana was, we saw her and all agreed that she had a quality that we had not seen that was smart and vulnerable and beautiful, but not phony beautiful."

"She's accessible, there's something very open about her, very inviting," Kurtzman added. "Especially given the kind of odd science our show is about every week, [things that are] very clinical and cold, to experience it through her eyes, it's very relatable. It was instantly clear with her."

"You've got this veritable nutcase in Walter, who is brilliant but out of his mind," added Abrams. "You got Peter, who is a very world-weary, sardonic guy. Having those people on either side, [Olivia] becomes the audience. What's critical is while you will laugh at Peter, you will be amused and amazed by Walter, you will be Olivia."

Of course the main draw of Fringe is going to be many mysteries it proposes and the questions it asks.

"It's not a show that asks one question, it's a show that asks many," said Kurtzman. "There's a mosaic of different mysteries that equal the sum total of our one show Fringe."

There's only one question on Fox's mind: Will Fringe live up to the hype? Find out when it premieres September 9 on Fox.

What are your expectations for Fringe? Sound off in the comments section below!

Like TV.com on Facebook