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

10/10/08Follow @wroush

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whether Walter, who’s too eccentric to be wholly credible, will ever get Olivia and Peter to think as imaginatively as he does. And that’s enough to carry it for a while. (Hey, this exact formula worked for Mulder and Scully for nine seasons.)

Fringe boils down to good old-fashioned sci-fi fun, in the same tongue-in-cheek spirit as early horror classics like Bride of Frankenstein. I particularly enjoyed a moment in the third episode when Walter, treating a man whose brain implants allow him to listen in on the conspirators’ radio communications, bursts out “My God! With a few modifications, I think you could get satellite TV for free!”

My only beef with the series, and it’s a minor one, is that it makes such a ham-handed attempt at representing Boston, where the series is ostensibly set. The show’s outdoor scenes are shot in Toronto, and while that works for a few car-chase scenes—one North American city’s double-decker expressways are pretty much like the next’s—real New Englanders may balk at the blatant misrepresentations of specific locations like South Station (which wasn’t a one-story brick building, last time I checked) and Harvard (whose neo-Georgian brick campus bears absolutely no resemblance to the University of Toronto’s Gothic stone).

Marley Shelton as Special Agent Rachel Young and Rufus Sewell as Dr. Jacob Hood and in CBS\'s Eleventh HourLast night’s pilot episode of Eleventh Hour was set, ironically enough, in one of Xconomy’s other home cities, Seattle. (Though again, it was actually filmed in Canada—Vancouver this time.) The show’s hero is biophysicist Jacob Hood, played by British actor Rufus Sewell—you might remember him as the villain in The Legend of Zorro or as Will Ladislaw in the 1994 BBC production of Middlemarch. Hood is a “special science advisor” to the FBI who seems to be on a personal mission to save people from unethical applications of science and technology.

In the pilot, he’s searching for “Gepetto,” a mysterious scientist hired by a Seattle billionaire to clone his deceased child. (Get it?…Gepetto…Pinocchio’s father? Such is this show’s heavy-handed symbolism.) Guilt-tripping the Catholic security guard who disposed of all the failed, aborted clones puts Hood on the trail of Gepetto’s underlings, who are paying a young woman to carry the latest clone to term. Hood has to find the woman before she delivers, or she’ll die.

Along the way, Hood gets to make lots of bombastic pronouncements like “in science, a negative result is as important as a positive one,” demonstrate somatic cell nuclear transfer using tweezers and grapes, and lecture the grieving billionaire on why cloning his dead son won’t bring him back. Hood saves the young woman, of course, but is forced to let Gepetto get away (the better to reappear as his nemesis in future episodes). And we’re left feeling like science is really…yukky—as if it might be better just to stop those darned researchers from messing around with embryos and stem cells at all.

If CBS is going to spend so much money on a series about science—$30 million for the first 13 episodes, according to the New York Post—it would be nice to see Hood using a bit of real science to track down his quarry, the way the CSIs do, or at least to hear him acknowledge science’s positive uses: a nod to the therapeutic or agricultural uses of cloning wouldn’t have hurt. My fear is that in order to keep the show going, the writers will have to manufacture a string of implausibly villainous scientists—people who say things like “great rewards bring great risks” as they strap their next test subject to the gurney. I also fear that in portraying Hood as such a heavy, the show equates a scientific mindset with humorlessness.

Fringe blows past the boundaries of science and gets away with it by taking nothing seriously. Eleventh Hour explores the potential misuses of real science but takes itself so seriously that it becomes overbearing. I know which one I’m going to watch—and this time the “reality” show loses.

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

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