With its paranormal occurrences, ever-autumn aesthetic, extraneous flashlight use at crime scenes, odd bursts of humor, and constant friction between faith and doubt, Fox's new sci-fi serial Fringe just might be a worthy successor finally to The X-Files.
FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Australian actress Anna Torv) is investigating something called the Pattern: a series of worldwide unexplainable phenomena, such as toxins that dissolve people's skin, or a battalion of insta-soldiers designed to grow from newborn to fighting age in three years. Joining Olivia whose recently deceased lover was somehow linked to the Patternity— is sarcastic young genius Peter Bishop (Dawson's Creek's Joshua Jackson). The reluctant Bishop has been recruited to watchdog his loopy, mad fringe-scientist dad, Walter (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's John Noble), who has spent the last 17 years in a mental hospital. Exec producer J.J. Abrams, known for twisty, myth-intense shows like Lost and Alias, is under-recognized for his jeweler's eye at casting. The lead trio here is expertly balanced: Jackson lends his patter-heavy, dubious son a core of decency, Torv alternates between steely action and wavering self-doubt, and Noble plays his cuckoo genius with the daffiness of Christopher Lloyd and the diction of Frasier Crane. Dashing around a subterranean lab at Harvard, his pure delight is strangely adorable amid all the gloom. He pulls off childish outbursts that could be cloying on the wrong actor: ''Excellent, let's make some LSD!'' he thrills when one of his mind-warping experiments is okayed. (Some cutesy moments can't be saved, like Walter announcing he wet himself a bit. The writers need to remember Walter is an eccentric, out-of-touch genius, not Rain Man.)
Strong actors surround the trio, including The Wire's Lance Reddick as Olivia's somber boss, Oz's Kirk Acevedo as her old FBI buddy, and Blair Brown (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) as a manipulative executive at the ominous, world-dominant company Massive Dynamic: ''What do we do?'' reads a billboard. ''What don't we do?'' Massive Dynamic definitely does not have its hands clean when it comes to the Pattern, whatever that will ultimately mean. Here's hoping Fringe keeps a tight, freaky focus rather than getting too ensnared in its own grand themes; audiences are veering away from time-consuming, mucky mythology, and this fear of commitment could explain why the drama has yet to make a ratings splash. Heavy-handed conspiracies who did what and why are sometimes less interesting than their outcome: splatters of blood on the windows of an airplane, with every passenger inside gruesomely jellied; a nurse screaming as she sees what's emerging from the belly of a panicked woman who swore she wasn't pregnant. These types of things are perfectly creepy all on their own. B+