Debuts 8 p.m. Sept. 9 on Fox TV
At any given time, J.J. Abrams has an awful lot on his mind: He's the producer, writer and co-creator of ABC's hit series “Lost,” and the writer and director of the return of “Star Trek” to the big screen.
But apparently Abrams was not busy enough.
Even before “Trek” went before the cameras last year, he was at work creating his new Fox sci-fi series, “Fringe,” which debuts Sept. 9.
“I'm naturally more comfortable working on multiple things,” says Abrams on a break from editing “Star Trek” on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. “For better or worse – and it's not always for better – it is my natural state. I can't help it.”
While Abrams is juggling post-production on “Trek” and writing “Fringe” episodes, his assistants are continually at him about all manner of things: meeting schedules, publicity requests, wardrobe decisions and the time he's to pick up a child from school.
Meantime, his “Fringe” cast and crew are 3,000 miles away, busy making New York City look like whatever dank, urban world is necessary to creep out their audience.
“J.J. is like Oz,” notes actor Joshua Jackson on the New York set. “He's manipulating all his little kingdoms and empires from afar.”
Jackson plays Peter Bishop, the son of crazed scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble), who with FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), investigates the secretive goings-on behind the doors of industrial giant Massive Dynamics, as well as other phenomena.
It's bright and sunny in New York, a stark contrast to the dimly lit set of Bishop's basement lab, which is cluttered with test tubes, devices, cages, a headless “human body” on a table covered with a sheet, and a stall that occasionally hosts a live cow (don't ask). It's a scene of carefully crafted chaos, with a smoke machine whirring away to enhance the mood.
“They're fighting against technology and science out of control,” Abrams explains back in Hollywood. “They have to solve crimes each week that are happening due to experiments being executed by people who are using the whole world as guinea pigs.”
Olivia draws Bishop out of an asylum where he has spent the last 17 years, having previously worked in the government's so-called “fringe” science. “Spending all that time being pumped full of drugs and having electric shock therapy has made him ‘a little bit' unstable,” Noble laughs while taking a break. “Not to say he wasn't when he went in there.”
The fringe science, he notes, isn't just science fiction. “Most of this fringe stuff is actually possible – which makes it interesting and scary at the same time.”
A rogue and a doubter
Peter Bishop is “a rogue, a brilliant nomad who doesn't really know what his purpose is,” Abrams explains. Peter resentfully accepts the fringe assignment – mostly translating for and wrangling his estranged, deranged father. “He's essentially the bridge between Walter's techno-babble and English,” says Abrams.
“He's a doubter,” adds Jackson between one of the half-dozen takes per scene demanded by exacting director Paul Edwards. “He serves to say, ‘OK, those are the four things that make sense, and then these are the 16 things that don't make sense. So let's go with the four that make sense.'”
Olivia's job, says Torv, is to keep the others on track. “She's straight down-the-line FBI who has been exposed to this other world and is reeling from trying to comprehend it,” she says. “She wrangles Peter and Walter in and maintains the focus of the trio.”
The concept for the series arose while Abrams was at work with “Trek” writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, with whom he had collaborated on “Alias.”
“We were talking about how much we missed working on a TV show together,” recalls Abrams.
They all were inspired by their favorites – “The Twilight Zone,” “The X-Files” and David Cronenberg's “Altered States.” Cronenberg had, in fact, once played a mad scientist type in an episode of “Alias.”
“Though that character was very different from Walter Bishop, we thought, ‘There's a series about a guy like this.'”
Living up to the billboard
Although most anything Abrams touches turns to gold (“Lost” continues to be one of television's highest-rated series), he still considers himself just a lucky genre fan who made it, never forgetting who it is he's working for.
“The truth is that the fans of ‘Lost' or ‘Alias' are the people we are beholden to,” he says. “I actually don't think of them as ‘fans' – the people who are into those shows are also fans of the shows that I am interested in.”
Seeing “Fringe” billboards around town, or for any of his projects for that matter, still tends to be a shocking awakening for Abrams.
“I can't tell you how surreal a dream that is for me,” he says. “I think of all the headaches and fires that I have to put out and the problems that I have, which are all the necessary steps to acquire a billboard – and the pressure of making sure this show better live up to that billboard. … But it's the thing you wish for. So how can you really ever complain?”