J.J. Abrams Lures Casual Sci-fi Fans to 'Fringe'

"Fringe," due tonight (8 p.m. ET/PT, Fox), is one of the most highly anticipated shows in a fall season offering few buzzworthy new series. And the latest from the brand-name producer comes with a new twist: It melds his penchant for strong characters and shadowy conspiracies with the sturdy TV case-of-the-week format that lets less rabid viewers step in and out of a series.

Something is out there …

And it could be a J.J. Abrams show that won't leave casual fans feeling lost.

The drama "was designed to be an experiment for us," Abrams says. "We wanted to do a show that had a procedural template, a sort of structure, but doing a procedural in the mold of "CSI" and "Law & Order" didn't interest me; it's been done to death."

But he also wanted to avoid the oft-heard complaint from sometime fans of his earlier shows: "So many people would say to me, 'I was watching Lost or Alias, but I missed a couple of episodes and I couldn't keep up and get back into it.' "

"Lost" "is a club," he says, "and I think it is a much more difficult show to pick up and start watching" midway through. "I wanted to try something where the door was opened a little wider."

This time, he borrowed from "The X-Files," grafting a larger mythology onto the series that rewards loyal viewers but isn't essential to any weekly episode.

"Fringe" centers on no-nonsense FBI agent Olivia Dunham, played by Australian newcomer Anna Torv, 29, who explores odd occurrences of "fringe" science: In the expanded first episode, a planeload of passengers is dead on arrival in a gruesome airport scene.

To solve the case, her path leads to brilliant but mad scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble), who must be extracted from a mental hospital with the help of his estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson), dragged reluctantly into the mix. The three form an unlikely team that solves other disturbing mysteries each week and slowly discovers a wider pattern of events and people that might connect them.

It's a wrinkle sure to please the legions of Abrams fans who besieged him at July's Comic-Con International in San Diego, where he touted both Fringe and his upcoming "Star Trek" feature film, due in May. "It was like being in the court of the king," Jackson says. "That is definitely his world."

The mystery grows

On a hot day back at the Fringe studios here last month, shooting had just begun on the season's pivotal fourth episode, the first to deeply explore the larger mythology and the last to air before a two-week break for the World Series. As such, it will leave many cliffs hanging, the better to lure viewers back in late October.

The pilot was filmed in Toronto, but tax breaks lured the show to New York, and the actors have been busy filming on location in the city's neighborhoods. Here they checked out the FBI offices, freshly built on a vast soundstage.

In the episode, Walter Bishop has gone AWOL, but he has been rounded up, and in a six-minute scene — an eternity for a TV show — he's being interrogated by Dunham and his own son about some sort of missing cylinder.

Torv and Jackson, in the dark as most actors are about the show's future direction, say they've finally gotten some idea where it's going — and where their characters came from. "Every question that gets answered will leave three more at least," Torv says. "You're getting satisfaction, but every time you get satisfaction, there's more to know." The mystery "keeps getting broader and wider and bigger."

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