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Rant #388
(published June 26, 2008)
Review: JJ Abrams' Fringe—pilot episode
by Morgan Johnson
Fringe is the new show from JJ Abrams, the creator of Lost, Alias and Mission: Impossible III. It's due out in the fall, but thanks to the magic of the internet, this reviewer has seen the pilot. It gets its name from the idea of fringe science, which ostensibly the governmental heroes of Fringe will be investigating, after this pilot episode brings them all together. During one scene roughly a third of the way in, Agent Woman explains that fringe science is, "mind control, teleportation, astral projection, invisibility, genetic mutation, and reanimation." Already we've established that the show will be science-blind and stupid. Genetic mutation is real, not fringe. It is the basis of evolution, of life as we know it. Any show that lumps genetic mutation in with astral projection needs to be watched with caution. Americans are bad enough with science—how many of us think Creationism is a valid scientific theory?—we don't really need JJ Abrams help here.

The show opens with a panicked generic American man on a flight from Germany to the U.S.. He is bug-eyed and sweaty and freaking the hell out. He whips out an insulin pen, injects himself with some concentrated phlebotinum and then melts the faces off of everyone in the plane. The pilot manages to switches on the autopilot and the plan lands safely, with everyone on board reduced to goo. This is the part where you should either stop watching or at the very least stop thinking, because nothing melts faces in the real world like that. Well, at least nothing you inject into yourself. We're meant to think that this is some sort of genetic super terror OMG weapon. And yeah, it's gnarly when one of the passengers has his jaw fall clean off. But mostly it's stupid. Science doesn't work like that. I expect more out of my science TV these days.

Cut to FBI Guy and Agent Woman, in bed. He is bland and resembles the dull male lead from The 4400. A show which also had a bad case of the stupids when it came to science, but at least they wrote it all off to time travel and mutant powers. Agent Woman is our protagonist. Immediately we know that Something Bad is going to happen to FBI Guy. And yes, in a few short scenes he gets a bad case of the face melties. But first FBI Guy and Agent Woman get assigned to help Homeland Security investigate the crash. Daniels from The Wire is the head of Homeland and is simmering with rage as a rule. He hates Agent Woman, and now I do too. I do whatever Daniels tells me to. There are hints dropped that she busted men under his command that did Bad Things to some women, and he hasn't forgiven her.

Through a series of clues, FBI Guy and Agent Woman end up at some storage lockers. Not giving a fuck about 4th amendment rights they cut the locks off them all. One locker has boxes in it. Evil boxes? Nope. Vanilla boxes. Freedom boxes. These boxes mean no harm. Another locker has a car swathed in tarpaulin. The car also isn't evil, as far as I can tell. It may be Christine. Door number three, as always, is the winner. It contains evil computers and evil animals all freaking out in cages. I think one of the animals is a shaved ferret. I immediately feel very sorry for the props guy who had to shave that ferret. Then Johnny "the terrorist" Whitebread shows up, panics, and blows up all of the storage lockers. This knocks out Agent Woman and doses FBI Guy with the potion of Face Melting +1. And even though on the plane one tiny injection was enough to melt faces up and down the flight, here no one else gets it.

At the hospital—HOLY FUCK—the doctor is Peter Outerbridge, aka Dr. David Sandstrom from TV's Re:Genesis. I love Outerbridge. Re:Genesis is one of the best science shows ever, about a team of maverick biochemists working to stop biological outbreaks. I love Re:Genesis. But this smacks of Abrams' usual stunt-casting for pilot episodes, like having officer Matt Parkman be the pilot who gets eaten in the pilot of Lost.

Agent Woman follows ill-explained leads and discovers a disgraced scientist who has been locked in a loony bin (do we even have these anymore? I thought Reagan killed them all.) for seventeen years. She thinks he may know what's going on, despite having had NO CONTACT WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS. Seriously, he asks at one point if NASA still exists. Think about that for a second. The last time this guy was outside we had just invaded Iraq the first time. The human genome project had done squat. There was no Windows or Apple, for all intents and purposes. CD players still cost way too much money. Think of how many scientific breakthroughs and political changes have happened since the last time this guy was relevant. But the guy can't see anyone except for family, by court order. So Agent Woman goes to Iraq to talk to his son who is, no shit, Pacey from Dawson's Creek. Pacey is a GENIUS and they mention his IQ, and we're supposed to be impressed. Like anyone who knows anything about standardized testing and how IQ is really measured could possibly give a fuck.

Pacey is in Iraq doing an oil deal. He isn't talking to Americans or BP, so how smart could he be? The script pretty much directly rips off Matt Damon from Syriana here, and it's disgusting. Agent W shows up and gives a wholly implausible speech about how the man she loves is dying, and when that doesn't work she blackmails Pacey to come talk to his father, so she can get his outdated opinion on the Face Melties. Pacey gives a speech about how his father is the most "twisted, brilliant, myopic, sonofabitch on the planet." And man, does this show love its hyperbole or what? I can't wait to see what the most brilliant man on the planet looks like. W explains that Pacey's pop was a chemist who researched genetics and "Fringe Science" for the military. And yes, the military in real life did investigate this stuff in the 1970s. Jon Ronson's book, "The Men Who Stare At Goats" is all about this. It's fascinating. He details how the Army was asked to investigate pseudoscience, and so they took the stupidest people—the dead weight—and assigned them to Army Intelligence, tasked to investigate this stuff. There was an Army officer who was assigned to walk through walls. And he tried over and over to do so, banging his nose every time.

This show makes so much more sense now. It's the special olympics of government agencies.

Mr. Brilliant Scientist is a mumbly, twitchy beardo. He of course knows all about the Face Melty Virus. He is played by Boromir's dad from Return of the King. The scenery around him is covered in teeth marks. Dr. Beardo wants to see his son. He does, and is an ass. He's locked up in the governmental loony bin for experimenting on humans at Harvard, but he can leave if a guardian signs a form. Note to JJ Abrams: I don't think it works that way. Pacey doesn't want to let Beardo out, but Agent W again threatens the blackmail. Awesome. She is totally winning the hearts and minds. The government releases Beardo, but for some reason they confiscate his beard. Beardo reveals that he shared a lab with this Not Bill Gates dude (hereafter NBG). He also pisses in Agent W's car. I like this guy.

Back in the hospital, FBI Guy has become the Amazing Visible Man. Or maybe Slim Goodbody. The special effects are gnarly, and are predicated on the idea that the man has not an ounce of body fat. They seem to be confused about what kind of doctor Beardo is, previously he was a chemist but now he has a scalpel and scrapes off some of FBI Guy's skin like it was frosting. Is he an MD as well? They then re-open Beardo's lab in the Harvard basement—which hasn't been repurposed in seventeen years—and he spits out a long stream of crap that is supposed to be impressive. "I need 2,000 pounds of silicon, a micro-organism detector, a two-year old cow," but it isn't played at all for laughs or to point up his anachronism, as it should be. They act again like science hasn't made any progress in 17 years. He may as well ask for an Atari 2600. Remember: this is a man who possibly never used a computer mouse and has never even heard of the internet. He has probably never heard of retroviruses. Pacey explains that "a few lines of DNA separate humans and cows," which is true. But also true for potatoes. That doesn't make cows particularly good for testing. There is a reason scientists use chimps and rats for everything, after all.

Through the magic of montage the lab gets set up and science is done. Dr. Beardo has no lab assistants, so I guess it'll take him four or five years to accomplish this.

Agent W admits that she didn't really have any blackmail material on Pacey, she was lying about the blackmail. Pacey admits to owing money to the mob. *Yawn* And then Beardo reveals that FBI Guy has 24 hours to live. We have no idea how much time has passed. We're given the impression that it's been an afternoon, which is completely preposterous. Good news: FBI Guy didn't get hit with the Face Melty virus, no, but just the raw chemicals in the storage locker made his skin translucent. But he'll die because his brain won't get any oxygen. Wait, what? The stupid, it burns.

We're now halfway through. *Sigh*

Dr. Beardo proposes to create a mind link between Agent W and FBI Guy, and then babbles a lot of contradictory crap. It's painful to watch. I wonder if Abrams wrote here, "Make shit up for three minutes" and the actor just riffed. I doubt it. I bet Beardo could've spun more competent bullshit on his own. Beardo says he needs to put a probe into Agent W's head and dose her with ketamine and LSD to make the brain link work. Pacey tries to talk her out of it and is the voice of reason. But apparently Agent W really is part of Army Intelligence, because she agrees. We're all winners!

It's supposed to be shocking that the scientist wants to use LSD, but we live in a world where the government seriously worked on developing a bomb to make soldiers both gay and horny so that they would stop fighting and just have hot gay soldier sex on the battlefield. I do not find Beardo shocking.

This show is part of the insulting "ticking time bomb" method of governmental oversight, where it's perfectly okay to break any laws you want to as long as you're in a hurry. Note that the actual U.S. government has admitted they've never really had a ticking time bomb scenario, like ever, so when TV shows present one it's just a convention of the genre, like instant DNA tests.

Agent W is floating in the world's best lit sensory deprivation tank and goes walkabout in FBI Guy's head. The cinematography gets very dreamlike and someone starts trying out all of the visual effects in their editor one after the other. I full expect to see a video toaster wipe any second. Actually, this looks pretty cool, but it's ruined by the actors speaking. Agent W gets a look at the terrorist's face and it takes less than five seconds of her messing about with face software to create it and get a match from the airline's record of his face. Wait, huh? Do airlines really take giant color glossy photos of your face at some point? The terrorist is the identical twin of the guy who injected the Face Melty virus back in scene one. I have second degree stupid burns now.

Terrorist Twin works for Not Bill Gates. Agent W crashes Not Microsoft's office and talks with Charlotte Rampling, who explains that Terrorist Twin was fired and that Not Bill Gates is a good man. She explains how he saved her life and then she TEARS OFF THE SKIN OF HER ARM REVEALING THAT SHE IS A CYBORG. Wow. Why isn't the show about her? The arm is really fucking sweet. Rampling asks, "Do you think [Terror Twin] is part of The Pattern," in a way that is both awesome and also shrieks This Is The Series Plot. Also, she mentions a few dates and either the math is bad on the show, or it's set in 2013 and no one told me til now. 1997 + 16 years. Rampling then states what must be the show's mission statement: Science and technology have advanced at an exponential rate for so long that it may be beyond our power to regulate or control them. Christ. It's the backdoor singularity. Coincidentally, that's the name of my first porno.

Beardo is watching Spongebob Squarepants. He calls it profound.

The FBI mobilizes a million agents to capture Terror Twin. He of course lives on the top floor of a building with a large central staircase. Why do criminals never live on the second floor? Come to think of it, what do the guys who live on the top floor of my building get up to? The shots here look like they were ripped straight from The Professional, and I full expect Leon to swing down from the ceiling and shoot everyone in the face. No knocking, no warrant. They trash his place. Agent W finds a trapdoor into a filthy lab full of monkeys and shaved ferrets.

Meanwhile in a car outside, Pacey and Daddy Beardo have a moment which is spoiled when Terror Twin runs by. All the FBI are busy, so Pacey and some cops chase him. Agent W catches up and they have a rooftop chase where they should have broken their ankles about a dozen times. And then without even talking to the Terrorist, Beardo comes up with a cure for FBI Guy.

Daniels shows up and shows Agent W The Pattern. The X-Files. The plot. Earthquake machines and abducted children who don't age and people who know things! He implies that someone sinister is behind it all. Dun dun dun! Agent W goes to talk to Terror Twin, who now that I see him better may have been the bad guy in the last Bond film. He tells her that he killed everyone on the plane for the FBI and directs her to a buried audiotape proving her point. The tape reveals that FBI Guy hired Terror Twin to kill everyone, and then back in the hospital FBI Guy kills Terror Twin.

Insert car chase here. I've never liked car chases, as a rule. Sure, some are pretty good. Ronin had a solid car chase. But usually they feel like filler, like vestigial film. My grandpa always preferred foreign films because of the lack of car chases. In any case, FBI Guy crashes and is dying, and in his last breath he says things to move the plot forward, instead of, y'know, acting like a person and being emotional or apologizing or pleading for medical attention. I think when I'm on my deathbed I'll say something cryptic about hidden treasures and a conspiracy, just so my children will have something to think about at the wake. He implies that Agent W is somehow a part of The Pattern and then dies. Yay! Now kill her off and I can watch my show where crazy Beardo, Peter Outerbridge and Daniels from the Wire sit around and drink beers and say gruff things.

The final scene wraps up with the set-up for the series. Agent W tells Pacey he needs to stay on with his father, investigating the X-Files. And of course, all of The Pattern is going to be associated with Mr. Not Bill Gates and Beardo. And Agent W is, I don't know, probably Not Bill Gates' daughter or something.

This is truly X-Files by way of JJ Abrams. So expect no answers. Expect the rules to change constantly. Expect wooden actors and too much hype. Just don't expect me to watch any more of this.

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