'Fringe' creators blend the best of the past

by Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

9 September 2008


BEVERLY HILLS - Ever wonder what inspires the creators of some of TV’s top thrillers? Old TV thrillers, it turns out. Take the case of J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci - the guys who created “Lost,” “Alias” and the coming “Star Trek” movie.

They’re back this season with the hotly awaited sci-fi adventure, “Fringe,” premiering on Fox on Tuesday and slipping into its regular time period on Sept. 16.

cover art


Series Premiere
Cast: Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, John Noble, Lance Reddick, Kirk Acevedo, Blair Brown
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm ET

US: 9 Sep 2008

“We sat in a room and just kind of listed off our shows. And for me, I always wanted to do kind of a real geniuses solving problems (show),” says Orci, who’s been writing with Kurtzman since high school.

“And Alex was a huge fan of ‘Twin Peaks’ ... ‘Fringe’ is kind of a cross of those three things, and then obviously ‘X-Files’ is an inspiration as well, but that’s not where we started.”

It started with the question about what THEY would like to see on TV, says Abrams. “I thought we would get slammed sort of doing the David Cronenberg, ‘Altered States’ stuff because for me that was always something I was obsessed with when I was growing up. ... The Michael Crichton stuff, which for me started with ‘Westworld,’ or even, Robin Cook stuff like ‘Coma’ and certainly all the Cronenberg work which was that weird place where medicine and science meets real life,” says Abrams.

“So that was when Alex and Bob and I started talking. It was: ‘How can we do a show that lives in that universe?’ And certainly ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘X-Files,’ ‘Night Stalker,’ those were shows that I loved.”

“Fringe,” which begins with a two-hour premiere, is about a mysterious syndrome that kills everyone on an international flight to Boston and infects one of the investigators. Part medical puzzle, part sci-fi fantasy it combines both worlds, blending the practical with the practically impossible.

“... In much the way that an episode of ‘ER’ would start with a body or somebody to save, our cases-of-the-week are pretty much something happened in the world,” says executive producer Jeff Pinkner, who steered “Alias” through its final season.

“The standard we’re trying to hold ourselves up to is, when the first commercial hits, ideally people are calling their friends and saying, ‘You can’t believe what just happened on Fox. You have to change the channel and check out this show.’ And ideally that same event which grabs the audience, grabs our characters’ attention, and simultaneously we’re very much telling the stories of these people which will also have sort of a story-of-the-week kind of shape,” he continues.

“Then meanwhile, there’s a much larger overarching, how do these cases connect to these events that we see taking place around the world?”

Unlike “Lost” or “Heroes” audiences don’t have to catch every single episode to manage the convoluted plotlines. “... We can do a show ... that there’s a direction the show is going and there’s an ultimate story that’s being told, but also a show that you don’t have to watch Episodes 1, 2 and 3 to tune in to Episode 4,” says Abrams.

“I feel like, especially with ‘Alias,’ which by the way, had the craziest storyline where she was a good guy working for the bad guy, but the bad guys were pretending they were good guys. The good guys didn’t - literally it was definitely a show that while I so loved working on that show and miss it, I can see how it was difficult,” he concedes.

“This show is going to have a different sort of paradigm. Week to week, there will be stories. So you can tune in and just watch that, but there will be - over the course of seasons and then the series itself - bigger arcs of stories.”

The lead is played by little known Australian actress Anna Torv. “We saw so many people, and it wasn’t just quick clicking,” recalls Kurtzman. “And one day we got a call saying, ‘You really need to look at this tape.’ And we all slipped it in. There’s something that happens when an actor inhabits a part. They’re not trying to be that person. They just ARE that person, and they bring an organic life to the words that you’ve written. The minute we saw Anna, we went, ‘This is who we’ve been writing for this whole time. We just didn’t know it.’ ... We found everyone for ‘Lost’ the night before. Found for ‘Alias’ the night before. And that didn’t help at all.”

“It’s really April Webster who is our casting director, and she cast the pilot for ‘Lost’ and it was the same thing,” says executive producer Bryan Burk, who co-produced “Alias” for five years.

“She sent casting directors around the world. We were really looking all over to find the right person to play Olivia. And just like we found Evangeline Lilly in Canada at the eleventh hour, we found Anna Torv in Australia.”

The audition process was relatively painless, says Torv. “I found in my life that the parts that you’re kind of right for are the parts that you get. It’s usually really quite easy because you’re kind of right. I auditioned, and the guys saw it. I got the call and flew pretty quickly to Toronto and started.”


The new kid on the block at the “American Idol” judges’ table is songwriter Kara DioGuardi, someone who may be known in the industry, but is not exactly a household name. DioGuardi says she makes a worthy judge because she actually works with performers in the recording sessions.

“I think as a writer working with artists and even some of the ‘American Idol’ artists, I sit down with them, I talk to them about their lives, and we try to at times write songs that are authentic for them, that feel real; and then when they go into the booth and record them, I’m actually producing those vocals, so I have a firsthand experience in that part of the industry. So being able to watch somebody sing and evaluate them is sort of what I do every day; but also to not only evaluate their singing but to make sure that what they’re singing and how they’re singing feels true to them and is artistry and not just karaoke.”


Another testosterone-pumped show has hit the air waves in the History Channel’s new “Sandhogs,” a reality series about the macho guys who tunnel beneath the earth to build bridges, excavate tunnels and fabricate underground pipelines. It’s a dark and dangerous job. They lose on average a man for every mile of tunnel they construct. Ryan McGinty is one of them. “For me, like, I work 7 to 3. So there’s times when I went down there in the morning, and it’s dark. That’s why I blink like that. And there’s time, you know, in the winter and you come out at 4 o’clock, and it’s dark again. So there’s times I don’t see daylight until the weekend. . . So when you go down there, you just leave everything else behind you. That’s it. You go down and there’s one way in and one way out, and I got him, and, you know, you got a guy next to you. That’s it. The physical strain, you know, you have it. It’s hard. It wears on you a little bit. But there’s a sense of accomplishment. I know when I come out every day, it just feels like I did something.”


Creator and executive producer of Fox’s “Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles” admits that there’s a little of that ol’ time religion in the subtext of his series. “I think that Sarah is a very, very radicalized Mary figure and John (her son) as sort of a Jesus figure has always been in the franchise, and it’s stuff that, thematically, is interesting to explore,” says Josh Friedman.

“And I’ve kind of become fascinated with it through the Ellison character, and part of it was just because Richard T. Jones (who plays Ellison) is quite religious and I’d spent some time talking to him about it. And I figure it seemed like a really natural place to sort of explore some of those themes. And especially with him, regarding whether or not his faith is either confirmed or challenged by the things he’s seen. I think it’s easy to assume, oh, because there are terminators in the universe that that means that God doesn’t exist or something, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily true.”

//Mixed media