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Fringe” benefits

J.J. Abrams’ new sci-fi series arrives with hype—and potential

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Can X Files meets Alias sci-fi show Fringe live up to the hype?

Anointed this year’s Heroes or Lost before even premiering, thanks to online buzz, a screening at Comic-Con over the summer and the presence of co-creator J.J. Abrams of Lost and Alias fame, Fringe (Fox, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.; premieres September 9 at 8 p.m.) arrives with a daunting amount of hype to overcome, and its solid action/sci-fi execution isn’t quite as revolutionary as some may have hoped. Still, it’s a bright spot in this haphazard new season full of remakes and spin-offs, and has the potential to develop into something complex and intriguing—either that or become completely convoluted and incomprehensible.

The network shorthand here might be “The X-Files meets Alias,” a match made in fanboy heaven, and Abrams and co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci pile on as many cool, cutting-edge elements as they can in the show’s pilot (which reportedly cost $10 million to produce). It starts with a graphic depiction of a deadly chemical attack on an airplane, and includes explosions, a trippy CGI dream sequence, a frantic car chase and the female lead stripping down to her underwear.

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Fringe (FOX, Sept 9 at 8 p.m.)

Despite all that, it feels less like a big-budget action movie than the opening salvo of a long-term narrative, and that’s definitely promising—even if the plot itself is fairly standard government-conspiracy-thriller stuff with a few bells and whistles added on. Australian actress Anna Torv plays FBI agent Olivia Dunham, brought in along with her boyfriend and fellow agent John Scott (Mark Valley) to investigate the plane incident. The trail soon leads to a literal mad scientist (John Noble, with a great Vincent Price-like voice), who’s been locked up in a mental institution for 17 years.

To solve the case, Olivia has to spring the scientist, and to do that she needs his rebellious son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek). Following the requisite twists and turns, many of which are genuinely exciting, it’s clear that Olivia, Peter and Peter’s father will be teamed up for the foreseeable future to investigate what they call “fringe science,” phenomena beyond normal scientific explanation. (The show is careful never to use the word “paranormal.”)

The team’s two support agents are underused in the pilot, as is The Wire’s great Lance Reddick (who’s also had a recurring role on Lost) as the Homeland Security agent who puts the team together and on the path of something called “The Pattern,” which hints at the grand conspiracy unifying all the strange goings-on. There’s a great kicker at the end that will have audiences hungering for more, the kind of moment that dozens of fan sites and hundreds of message-board posts are built on.

The show’s biggest weakness might be its own ambition, which works very well for a pilot but, as long-suffering viewers of both Alias and The X-Files learned, can become stifling over time. Abrams has a habit of launching shows and then drifting off to do something else, and he isn’t giving up his movie career to focus on Fringe. In the case of Lost, the show had a strong show-running team (Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse) to guide things when Abrams left, and one hopes that Fringe will benefit from the same creative strength (Kurtzman and Orci are also busy feature-film writers). If the producers can tell clever, exciting standalone stories while building a conspiracy plotline that makes sense and actually goes somewhere, they could end up with a show that outlives its hype.

The bottom line: ***1/2

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