Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Three Fs: FlashForward and Fringe

I was frankly skeptical when I heard that Executive Producer Marc Guggenheim had raved on Facebook about the FlashForward pilot. After all, Guggenheim was a creator of the earnest but mediocre Eli Stone, which had a great premise but poor execution. I'd also read Robert Sawyer's book Flashforward and seriously doubted the premise would translate to television.

I'm happy to report my skepticism was totally misplaced.

In fact, after watching the first episode, I wouldn't be surprised if I enjoy the show even more than the book. Sawyer's novel is less of a mystery -- the source of the blackout is revealed early on -- and more of a character study of the scientists who caused the event. Also, the flash forward therein catapults human consciousness 21 years into the future, instead of a mere six months. Obviously, these elements wouldn't make for much of a weekly show.

So, the TV version wisely changes things, making the cause of the flashforward a mystery and focusing upon FBI agents trying to piece together what happened. Indeed, while the pseudo-scientific premise -- particle accelerator malfunction -- may remain the same, the motive and identity of those responsible will probably be very different. My guess is that some sinister corporation has been experimenting with such an accelerator to time travel or affect probability.

The shorter jump makes sense, too, though I would have made it a full year. Six months is an awfully compressed time frame. Mark's vision of the Mosaic investigation and men with laser-sighted guns will probably occur in the first season finale. But such a major reveal should really take place later in the series, like season two or three. What I don't want is for the show to start each season with a similar flash that sets up the storylines for the year.

Still, that's a minor and speculative quibble. As I say, there's plenty to love about this show, including top notch writing and acting. Brannon Braga wrote "Cause and Effect," a classic Star Trek: TNG episode that takes a cool and unconventional approach to time travel. And David S. Goyer penned "The Dark Knight," one of my favorite films of any genre, ever. I'm less familiar with Guggenheim's work (besides Eli Stone) but know he has plenty of fans, too.

Jospeh Fiennes and Sonya Walger are both totally believable as husband and wife Mark and Olivia Benford. John Cho is also great as Mark's partner Demetri Noh, who doesn't have a vision and assumes it's because he'll be dead in six months. I buy Courtney B. Vance as their dapper and baritone FBI superior. Even Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is solid in his cameo as an agent on their team, though my first reaction was: "this guy's getting a little overexposed."

For some time now, ABC has looked in vain for the "next" LOST. Time will tell, but I think they may finally have found it in FlashForward.

Great shows usually grab me from the very start. I knew I would enjoy the Wire, Dexter, and Battlestar Galactica after the first episode or two. I was sold on LOST after the first promos. (Plane crashes are a major fear of mine.) In the case of Fringe, it took me a full season to fall in love.

I originally panned the show as too derivative of the X-Files, but you all everybody urged me to give it another chance. So I caught up on Hulu in time to watch the mind blowing season finale. And I'm not talking about Leonard Nimoy's freaky guest spot as the elusive William Bell, or the revelation that Pacey is from an alternate reality (which I already suspected). When they pulled back to reveal the twin towers of the World Trade Center...

Let's just say, as someone who was in Southern Manhattan and saw the towers fall with my own eyes, it was a powerful and disturbing image. It also illustrated brilliantly, on both literal and metaphorical levels, the mythology of the show. There is more than one of everything, including an alternate reality that differs in important ways from our own. One lingering question from the finale: are the towers standing because 9/11 never happened or is the alternate reality behind our own in time?

My casting concerns were overblown in retrospect. Pacey is more palatable than I'd imagined. And the writers have wisely toned down Lance Reddick's character, Agent Broyles, making him the quietly authoritative figure Reddick played so well on the Wire. Anna Torv is as adorable as ever -- I love Agent Dunham's bemused look when people try to BS her. Walter Bishop continues to be the most compelling character on the show, though the mysterious Nina Sharp is giving him a run for his money.

This season has gotten off to a slow start with stories returning to the show's X-Files roots. The possession of Agent Francis is an intriguing development. But his method of communicating with the mirror universe is a little cheesy. It would be creepier -- and make more sense -- if we could actually see another pair of hands typing in the mirror. I'm confident, however, that the show will regain steam once the focus returns to the engrossing main story arc.

Right now, my guess is that the two realities are unstable and destined eventually to merge into one. The coming battle is between "living receivers" (to borrow a phrase from Donnie Darko) like Agent Dunham whose special talents will facilitate the merging process. The winners of this inter-dimensional conflict will decide which version survives when alternate realities collide.