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Fall TV: Fringe takes its crack at sci fi fo fum

FBI-ful Olivia Dunham goes in the tank on premiere of Fox's Fringe.

Premiering: Tuesday, Sept. 9th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox with limited commercials
Starring: Olivia Dunham, Joshua Jackson, John Noble, Lance Reddick, Mark Valley, Blair Brown, Kirk Acevedo
Created by: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci

Fox's mega-promoted Fringe probably still isn't altogether sure what it wants to be. So its success or failure likely will hinge on something co-star Joshua Jackson says in video publicity materials accompanying the drama's premiere episode.

As he sees it, Fringe "goes just slightly into the ridiculous zone" in its otherwise stated intent to "explore the blurring line between the possible and the impossible."

Co-creator J.J. Abrams, main brain behind the oft-impenetrable Alias and the equally dizzying Lost, adds that Fringe seizes on "the Frankenstein idea, but told as legitimately as possible."

So here's a viewer advisory. Tuesday night's 95-minute premiere of Fringe, presented with limited commercial interruptions, makes for a generally effective first chapter. But there's no particular shortage of ridiculousness, particularly involving some LSD-laced mental gymnastics by dogged FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv).

Half-submersed in greenish H2O, she strives to finger a bad guy by communicating with her comatose lover boy, who's been very badly disfigured by a chemical explosion of some sort. She's allowed herself to be a guinea pig in the la-bor-atory of the heretofore long-institutionalized Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble). He's Fringe's designated Dr. Frankenstein, who initially wanted his subject nude but then settled for a broadcast standards-approved black bra and panties.

Frankly, or Frankenstein-ly, this whole story-advancing sequence is ludicrous. And it makes one wonder whether Abrams and his admittedly X-Files-influenced co-creators will ever get a firm enough handle on Fringe to make it worth our weekly time. Hope so.

Most viewers of a mind to tune in are already familiar with the basic premise. International Flight 627 touches down at Boston's Logan Airport with all aboard dead in grisly fashion. Um, the plane was able to land itself through modern technology, we're told. But instead of trying to divine why passengers were spared -- a la Lost -- we're left to ponder why they weren't. And by the way, might be whole planeload of corpses be just a small fragment of a much larger and disturbing truth? In this environment, it makes one wonder if maybe Sarah Palin really is a diabolically programmed Tina Fey, with Dick Cheney as "The Banker."

Father-son Walter and Peter Bishop have bad chemistry at first.

Quickly on the scene in Boston is special agent Olivia. Glowering Homeland Security agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) doesn't like her because of an old grudge. But fellow FBI guy John Scott (Mark Valley) is on her side after first being seen lying side by side with her in bed.

One thing leads to another, not always terribly coherently. A very bad development at a Chelsea, MA storage facility serves to put Olivia on the scent of jerk-ish Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson from Dawson's Creek), son of the seemingly crazed Walter Bishop.

The Bishops haven't spoken for a while, and Peter hasn't been sending the old man any Hallmark cards either. Dad, he tells Olivia, is "without a doubt the most self-absorbed, twisted, abusive . . . " well, you get the picture.

Jackson is good in this role, retaining the smart-ass tendencies of his old Pacey Witter character while also growing nicely into what amounts to a leading man's role. Noble as the elder Bishop looks embalmed in the early going but slowly brings a little color into both the role and his mug. Torv has the Jennifer Garner Alias part, although she so far doesn't have to be nearly as quick with her fists or feet. She does like a good chase, though, and the premiere of Fringe has a couple of well-staged action sequences.

Another character, played by veteran Blair Brown (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd), is little seen until making an imperious impression near episode's end. Every series of this sort has to have an amoral corporate executive, and Brown will try to fill the bill as Massive Dynamic CEO Nina Sharp.

It's certainly worth playing along for at least a few weeks, even if Fringe's scene-setter falls well short of the gripping first look at Lost. Fox will repeat the Fringe pilot on Sunday at 7 p.m. (central) before it's left to do battle on Tuesday nights opposite ABC's Dancing with the Stars results shows.

There's likely not much of an overlapping audience for these two high-profile attractions. But can Fringe similarly string enough viewers along? Or will there be more inherent dark drama in seeing whether 82 year-old Dancing contestant Cloris Leachman can keep everything in reasonable working order as the band plays on?

Grade: B+