Playful vs. Preachy: Sizing Up TV’s New Science Dramas

10/10/08Follow @wroush

Crime shows generally turn me off, but for years I’ve enjoyed CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, because (as I’ve written before) the heroes are scientists. They catch crooks not by outgunning them, but by observing, hypothesizing, and testing. Of course, the dramatic license that CSI and other series sometimes take with real-world science can be disturbing: no matter how much you “enhance” a still from a surveillance video, for example, you can’t read a license plate in the reflection on someone’s cornea. But you’ve got to applaud creator Jerry Bruckheimer and the show’s writers for bringing out the glamour in a dweeby and meticulous profession like forensic science.

TV viewers clearly have an ongoing appetite for scientists as leading characters. And there are two new series this season that play on that fascination. One of them—another Bruckheimer creation called Eleventh Hour that premiered on CBS last night—tries its best to stick to known, real-world science and its uses and abuses. The other, the Fox series Fringe, has no such scruples. Created by J.J. Abrams, it gleefully mixes factual science with patently impossible claptrap, yet manages to stay charming.

I felt moved to write about the two shows this week because they’re both inspired by science, but take almost diametrically opposite approaches to portraying it—with wildly differing results. In short—though I wish it were the other way around—Fringe is an enjoyable romp, while Eleventh Hour (at least in its pilot episode) is preachy and predictable.

Fringe’s plot will feel familiar to any fan of The X-Files or of Abrams’ previous series, Alias and Lost. FBI agent Olivia Dunham (played by Australian actor Anna Torv) joins a top-secret interagency task force investigating a series of bizarre occurrences: a planeload of bodies dissolved by a mysterious virus, a mutant baby that hits Social Security age in under an hour, a bus full of people suffocated by instant Jell-O, a demonic underground torpedo that surfaces every few decades. The government thinks these events are connected: Dunham’s boss refers to the phenomena as the Pattern.

John Noble as Dr. Walter Bishop in FringeTo study the events, Dunham recruits former Harvard scientist Walter Bishop—a mad-scientist type played to the hilt by John Noble, aka The Lord of the Rings‘ Lord Denethor—and his son Peter, a genius-dropout gamely portrayed by Joshua Jackson, the wisecracking actor who single-handedly made Dawson’s Creek tolerable. Walter has a childlike wonder about science, but is haunted by the memory of the defense-related experiments he was forced to perform in the 1970s (experiments that, it is implied, may have given rise to the Pattern). Meanwhile, Peter is on the run from some unpleasant people who loaned him a lot of money (and they’re not mortgage brokers).

Dunham’s investigations frequently lead her back to Massive Dynamic, a Microsoft-Apple-Intel-General Dynamics hybrid where all of the offices look as if they were designed by Ayn Rand protagonists. Her contact there is Nina Sharp, lieutenant to the company’s reclusive founder. Sharp has a bionic arm and is played with creepy gusto by Blair Brown (Altered States, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd).

It’s actually Sharp, in the pilot, who’s given the line that sums up the series’ intellectual premise: “Science and technology have advanced at such an exponential rate for so long… it may be well beyond our ability to regulate and control them.” We’re meant to infer that the Pattern is a global experiment by some dark organization (SD6, perhaps?) that’s bent on transforming society but may be in over its own head. Clearly, Abrams has been reading books like Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity, which posits that genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics are about to give rise to a new species of hyper-intelligent and virtually immortal super-humans. But whereas Kurzweil greets this glorious future with optimism, Abrams sees the potential for boundless mischief.

I would be very surprised if Abrams ever reveals, or even knows, what the Pattern really is—I stopped watching Lost after it became obvious that he had no intention of clarifying who created the island or why the plane-crash survivors were brought there. But I think I may stick with Fringe, because in the end, it isn’t about the conspiracy. It’s really about Walter, who keeps the show moving forward by conceiving the brilliant (if pseudoscientific) experiments that provide the clues to solving each episode’s conundrum. (Hey, if we just hook up a TV to this corpse’s optic nerve, we’ll get a picture of the last thing she ever saw!) Walter is the MacGyver of neurophysics—his genius lies in his willingness to consider how, with the aid of defibrillators, LSD, and aluminum foil, one might approximate fringe phenomena like telepathy. The show’s big question is … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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