LOS ANGELES - For some fans, sci-fi’s always been as much about the relationships as about the little green men and displaced polar bears.
“The X-Files’” Mulder and Scully. “Lost’s” Kate and Jack. (And, OK, Kate and Sawyer.) “Battlestar Galactica’s” Adama and Roslin.
Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, John Noble, Lance Reddick, Kirk Acevedo, Blair Brown
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm ET
(Fox; US: 9 Sep 2008)
They’re all couples who kept fans coming back even when the truth that was out there seemed really out there.
In Fox’s “Fringe,” their names are Bishop and Bishop.
More than a bromance, the burgeoning connection between mad scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson) has been one of the happier surprises of the season, providing an emotional touchstone for a show whose heroine, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), has taken viewers time to warm up to.
No one’s more surprised than Jackson, the former “Dawson’s Creek” co-star who’s seen his wisecracking “Fringe” character establish an odd-couple relationship with Noble’s daffy Walter, an expert in “fringe science” who’s been sprung by the feds after 17 years in a mental hospital.
“I never thought that the father-son dynamic would be as rich as it’s been so far in the show, to be perfectly honest,” Jackson said last month during a Fox party at a Hollywood Boulevard nightclub.
“I was skeptical of it, because I thought, ‘That could really get into melodrama, go over the top,’ but John Noble’s fantastic ... he’s just great. I mean, he takes what could be a very crazy, over-the-top (situation) and always finds some human center to it,” Jackson said.
“He’s heartbreaking. I can’t give the guy enough credit.”
Noble’s also fun to work with, said the actor who’s frequently cast as his straight man.
“You know, my job should not be that hard,” Jackson said. “It’s not suffering, and I like as much as possible to enjoy myself while I’m at work. And he’s the same guy. So we get to work and we have, you know, this fun stuff to do, and then we just play with it.”
The chemistry that results is from “two actors really enjoying each other. But also we have this really rich but bizarre material to work with.”
“Play” means different things at different times.
“We don’t mess around with the words too much, though sometimes we do. And, you know, we have the leeway sometimes more, sometimes less. And it is television, so it’s running pretty quick,” he said.
“We just talk about a dynamic and it’ll be like, ‘OK, how about this? How about in this one, you’re horny, thinking about your high school girlfriend and you kept me up all night moaning her name, and I’m cranky and sleepy because I didn’t get any sleep, and you’re asking me for chocolate cake and I want to kill you?’ And, action. I mean, it’s quick,” Jackson said.
“You do some (things that are) outlandish, that don’t make any sense and then you find you sort of find your way back into things you can put on television.”
Now that he’s seen it work, Jackson figures “there’s a lot of material there to keep on mining.”
“The relationship with your parents never gets to a fixed place. You go to work, you sort of work your way in, you figure out everybody in your office. You sort of know your place with all of this. It’s never like that with your parents. It’s always shifting, it’s always growing. There’s a lot of water under the bridge for these two guys,” he said.
“At the core of it all is a very simple emotional story going on. Peter is an abandoned child who has a chance all these years later to build some sort of relationship with his father. If you took away all the science fiction, that’s a workable story in and of itself.”
From his work on “Alias” to “Lost,” “Fringe” creator J.J. Abrams said he’s “always been obsessed with sort of the father-son dynamic, or parent-child,” so the relationship between the two Bishops “was always a primary one.”
These days, though his own “Fringe” issue seems to be with helping viewers to connect with Torv and her character, Olivia.
“In a weird way, (Olivia) is just now finding her ... connection to this world. Not just what her job is,” but her emotional connection, “and why this world of fringe science is intrinsically connected to who she is,” Abrams said.
At the beginning of the show, “I think Anna and Olivia were a little adrift,” said the producer.
He started to understand the character, he said, “when I started to think of her as Clint Eastwood ... (a) relentless woman of few words, but driven.”
“She’s pretty great at being closeted and dark,” but in recent episodes, which have shown her with her sister and her sister’s child, Olivia’s had “moments of levity,” he said.
Still, “she’s a very different kind of person to write for than Jennifer Garner (“Alias”), Evangeline Lilly (“Lost”), Keri Russell (“Felicity”). It’s been interesting.”
“Fringe” itself has some differences.
Though Abrams is quick to point out that “Lost” as we know it is largely the work of his co-creator, Damon Lindelof, and Lindelof’s fellow executive producer, Carlton Cuse, the “Mission: Impossible III” director is still associated with its complexity in the public mind, along with the famously complicated “Alias” and the more grounded but perhaps no less tangled “Felicity.”
Fox clearly has little interest in wandering too far into “Lost” territory. It appears to be stressing self-contained stories as much as mythology in both “Fringe” and the Joss Whedon sci-fi entry “Dollhouse,” which premieres Feb. 13, even as it’s set them apart by using them to test “Remote Free TV,” an experiment in which six of the usual 16 minutes per hour of national advertising are eliminated.
(A report last month at MediaPost.com suggests it’s working for “Fringe,” whose DVR viewers are said to be fast-forwarding through a lower percentage of the show’s commercials.)
A little more than halfway through “Fringe’s” first season, Abrams is starting to figure out just what kind of show he’s making.
“I can tell you now what an episode of ‘Fringe’ isn’t. Whereas before, I was like, ‘Well, that could be a show, I don’t know, let’s try it,’ ” he said.
So what isn’t a “Fringe” episode?
“It’s not one that is so mythology-based that you’ve got to go, ‘I don’t understand’ ... Nor is it one that is solely interpersonal.”
Instead, he said, it’s one that takes some aspect of a character’s personal story and sees “how that connects to the weirdness of the week.”