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 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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