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."

Along for the ride are Dunham's boyfriend and fellow agent John Scott (Mark Valley); her stern boss, Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick); and the manipulative Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), an executive at a mysterious corporation run by Walter Bishop's former lab partner.

Jackson plays the resident doubter, with a dash of the sarcastic humor he displayed as Pacey Witter on teen drama "Dawson's Creek." "In a show like this there has to be a skeptic," he says. "You need someone to be the voice of the audience going, 'That just doesn't make any sense.' "

But eventually, he says, "you fall into a Mulder and Scully land where it's like, how can she still be so skeptical of this world — and I was a huge 'X-Files' fan — after eight seasons, when she's seen so much proof to the contrary?" Peter comes to "believe in the science, he just doesn't believe in the methodology."

His eccentric-genius dad is key to the puzzle: "Something happened 17 years ago where he was put into a mental asylum, solitary confinement, shocks, drugs," Noble says. "He's really stuffed. He has short-term memory loss. What you have is these flashes in and out of his memory and his lucidity."

Fox sees flashes of a sci-fi-tinged hit it has been seeking since "X-Files" left the air in 2002. That show, along with "Twilight Zone" and "Twin Peaks," served as a big inspiration for Abrams and his team of writer-producers led by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who worked on "Alias" and wrote "Trek" and "Transformers."

More 'sci' than sci-fi

The two have mapped out the show's ending: "We know what the pattern is; we had to know what it was all leading to," Kurtzman says. "It's something that can be revealed whenever we want to," in 13 episodes or 13 seasons, depending on the show's success.

Fox immediately jumped at the chance to be in business with Abrams. "We heard the one-liner —'Indiana Jones' meets 'X-Files' — and that felt like a Fox show to us," says entertainment president Kevin Reilly.

As for the lead roles, "these are not three stiffs," says network chairman Peter Liguori. "They are three characters who are incredibly colorful, with faults and neuroses and just surprises."

The network is providing a big theatrical-film-style marketing push that began last May. "This is a big event, and that's what Fox does well," Liguori says. And it's the first to get Fox's "Remote-Free TV" treatment: fewer, shorter commercial breaks that will expand each hour-long episode's content by six minutes, to about 50, in a move designed to reduce DVR skipping. (Tuesday's premiere will run 83 minutes.)

Abrams says Fringe is more "sci" than "sci-fi" in that its stories dwell in the realm of the possible, however remote.

But "his shows become a victim of their own success," Jackson says. "Especially 'Lost,' which has an almost frighteningly rabid fan base. People take the show so personally that if they feel like it's deviating from their own understanding of it, they're going to be personally insulted. It's harsh because they're your greatest fans and the trumpeters of their shows … but they're almost inevitably going to be pissed off because they're not the writers."

"I know the pitfalls we can fall into," he says, "but I'm so excited to be working in sci-fi. This show is right up my alley."

Abrams likens a new-series start-up to "a massive collaboration of crew and cast and writers and ambition and practical realities, and above all finding a tone and groove. You're constantly battling every possible growing pain. I remember going through exactly the same thing on 'Felicity' and 'Alias' and 'Lost.'"

Torv says she tries to ignore the high bar set for the show, given its pedigree. "If I took any of it on board, I'd just crumple in a ball and not function."

But Jackson is sure about one thing: "People have extremely high expectations of what a J.J. Abrams show is going to be," he says. "This show can only be very good or off the air; those are the two choices."