Sunday, September 7, 2008

J.J. Abrams Talks "Fringe," Shark Jumping

(above: press image for "Fringe," yoinked from io9.)

J.J. Abrams did a conference call with press about his newest show, called "Fringe." He's the guy who sort of jump started "Lost," "Alias," "Felicity," "Cloverfield," and is now working on the new "Star Trek" film. So he's got some serious geek-cred and is well-established as a relevant voice in modern television.

That's why a conference call with him about his upcoming television work is a big deal. And in this particular call, he said something that I thought said a lot about what people expect from television and how he delivers it. Specifically, he said that "Fringe" was going to be "jumping the shark" early and often. What he means is that the show will take the things we see as indicating the outlandishness of television and bring them out early.

For example, as Abrams says about "Lost," he brought out a weird, supernatural monster and a polar bear very early in that series to establish just how far the show was willing to go. He doesn't mention "Alias," but in that show, he, within the first episode, killed off a character that was shaping up to be a main force in the show. Both are great examples of doing really stupid, really strange things very early in a series to shake up expectations of the show.

After seeing the pilot cut of "Fringe," I can verify that Abrams does take similar risks and shows you stuff you do not expect from this show within this first episode. It starts like a police procedural and drifts quickly into "X-Files" type territory, hitting some big twists and unexpected plot points, even within the first half of the pilot.

I guess this might be the thing that makes an Abrams project unique. Most shows establish early in their first season they have set boundaries that they are going to live within. They do this by not surprising us too much in those early episodes. Abrams never really goes this route. The reason "Lost" blew up was that we never really did establish what the show exactly was about, let alone what genre it was. We still haven't really found this out.

"Fringe" is set up in a similar way. It hovers through a few genres and shows us a number of things that just can't make sense yet. It leaves us only comfortable enough to accept the confusion it creates. While this is a great strategy for making intelligent, challenging, ground-breaking television, "Lost" might have been the first time this strategy translated into giant viewing numbers. ("The Prisoner," for instance, via similar techniques, had some followers, but didn't score the same share and revenue as "Lost" has managed to score.)

It's nice to get a little insight into how Abrams exploits this tension between the comfort of the expected and the thrill of the unexpected in his shows. Even if it's not as brilliant as "Lost," "Fringe" pays off on this philosophy. You settle into the rhythms of the show just long enough to be really pleased with the syncopation.

Head over to io9 for their coverage of the conference call about "Fringe."

A Brief Note: J.J. Abrams also tried this approach much less effectively with the ill-fated show "6 Degrees." I personally liked it, and I could tell it was struggling to get out of it's drama-rut and into more interesting Abrams territory. I guess it just never got a chance to get out of that rut before it was cancelled.

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