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Fox's creepy 'Fringe' finds its footing

And creator J.J. Abrams is eager to give it free rein. 'The rhythm of show is clear now,' costar Blair Brown says.

September 17, 2009|Geoff Boucher

VANCOUVER — The low-slung motel looked like the sort of place Norman Bates might open as a north-of-the-border expansion of the old family business. The roadside sign promised "TELEPHONES" in every room but the brownish-orange carpeting and peeling paint were nothing to call home about. The radioactive Russian cosmonaut in the parking lot, however, was something you don't see everyday.

"Who comes up with this stuff?" asked a smirking Joshua Jackson, one of the stars of the Fox series "Fringe," which returns tonight with the premiere of its second season of conspiracies and codes, parallel worlds and evil corporations, mad scientists and con men. "Seriously, who are these people?"

Jackson was waiting for the camera to start rolling again on a bright, crisp afternoon during an on-location shoot for a mid-season episode of "Fringe." Nearby, the show's other stars made idle chit-chat or had their makeup checked while a quartet of extras outfitted in FBI haz-mat suits practiced their task -- wheeling around a shiny metallic casket with ominous radiation stickers and assorted pseudo-scientific warnings in Russian. Well, everyone involved hoped they were pseudo-scientific warnings.

"Can we get a translator and find out what this writing means, specifically?" asked Jon Cassar, director of the episode and an industry veteran with 59 episodes of "24" on his resume. "Maybe it says 'Do not open until Christmas' or 'Watch 'The Simpsons' on Sunday night,' knowing Fox."

The mood on the set was upbeat and with good reason. A few hours later, the cast -- led by Anna Torv as FBI agent Olivia Dunham, John Noble as the kooky, scene-stealing Dr. Walter Bishop, and Jackson as slippery genius Peter Bishop -- would be at a party celebrating the release of the first season on DVD and, more importantly, there is a strong expectation that the show is poised to finally realize its often cited potential.

"The second year is much tighter," says Blair Brown, who plays the mysterious Nina Sharp, who may or may not be the villain of the show. "The writing is wittier, more complicated but also there's clarity to the stories and character. And we are all speaking with quite different voices. The rhythm of the show is clear now."

Early on, "Fringe" was neither fish nor fowl (nor was it amphibian, like those strange frogs in the opening sequence). The show possessed the same trench-coats-and-autopsies ethos as Fox's signature 1990s sci-fi show "The X-Files," but it was also informed by more recent, purer procedurals such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and even "Bones," which teams a federal agent and laboratory oddballs but with far more flirting.

Lance Reddick, a tall, lean actor whose withering scowl is known to viewers of "The Wire," "Lost" and "Oz," portrays Phillip Broyles, the federal agent who supervises the "Fringe Division," which investigates teleportation, telekinesis and, well, anything that would have been filed under the letter "X" in Fox Mulder's basement office.

Reddick said as cast members found their characters and the writers sharpened their intentions, "Fringe" became its own series last season as opposed to a well-polished collage of other shows.

"We found who we were in episode 10, the episode where Olivia got kidnapped," Reddick said. "We were trying to hedge our bets and trying to be too many kinds of shows at once. I'm not saying we got rid of the procedural element because each episode still is on a case -- a case in terms of the quote-unquote police work -- but it's not formulaic, not like the early episodes. What keeps the show most watchable is the fact that it is character-based."

Those characters have kept critics on the side of the show even when "Fringe" left viewers rolling their eyes or scratching their heads. Noble, in particular, has been a sensation as the mad scientist Bishop, who was extricated from a mental hospital to help solve the mysteries of fringe phenomena, which are becoming more frequent as part of a worldwide pattern that is a key thread in the show's larger tapestry.

Critics have been as uniformly kind to Torv, who some call the show's cipher. Robert Lloyd, reviewing the first season's finale in The Times, said Torv and show as a whole have "soulfulness of a dry, cool, wintry variety" and said Torv is fine amid the more vivid cast members since "much of the drama is located in her 'Alice in Wonderland' eyes."

In person, Torv is much more reserved than her two lead costars. "I'm all serious, they have all the fun," she said with a wink of her buttoned-down character but perhaps referring a bit to herself as well. She said the job of working on a creepy sci-fi show does have its perks however: "The other day Olivia got to eat worms. So there was that. . . . "

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