Hollywood producer J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) says, "We live in a time of insane terrorism."
And Fringe, a new Fox series about an off-beat team of federal investigators, is his steeped-in-global-conspiracies response to that climate of angst.
As has been the case with so many network dramas since Sept. 11, that 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can be felt in virtually every frame of this new series. Think of Fringe as a post-9/11 version of The X-Files, with lots of pseudo-science from NBC's Heroes, and you will have a pretty good fix on the pilot for this wildly uneven but most-promising series from one of TV's most in-touch-with-the-culture creators.
At the center of the Fringe universe is FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a harder-edged version of Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) of The X-Files. In the two-hour pilot at least, almost nothing happens that she doesn't make happen.
There are two Sept. 11-like events that kick the drama into high gear. First, an attack on a commercial flight from Germany kills everyone onboard in a particularly chilling and ghoulish manner.
Then, there is an explosion that rocks Dunham's world at a most personal level. It's set off by a terrorist, and sets her off on a hunt to solve the crime and try to save someone she loves.
Her journey brings her into the world of fringe science: astral projection, mind control, re-animation, telepathy. In short, all the stuff of Heroes.
And this is where the ride gets decidedly uneven as Dunham teams up with a once-famous scientist who has been institutionalized for the past 17 years, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), and his brilliant but emotionally troubled son, Peter (Joshua Jackson). As weird as each is in his own way, she needs them.
Surrogate family? Sure, but Fringe often feels more like a Saturday morning kids show than a postmodern, prime-time drama when the three of them are in Bishop's laboratory. If you don't believe me, wait until you see the cow that lives there. Yes, the cow!
Still, this is Abrams running at full throttle, and from Alias to Lost, he has seemed to understood these dark and scary times better than almost anyone else in Hollywood.
Furthermore, from Felicity (Keri Russell) to Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), he has also shown a real knack for finding great leading ladies. Torv, a relatively unknown, Australian actress, is enormously appealing in the lead.
Lose the cow, and he might just have a winner.
A FAIRY TALE FROM CW: Remember the opening of the 1990s NBC sitcom, Fresh Prince of Bel Air?
One minutes, Will Smith is standing on a gritty, urban playground in Philadelphia, and the next, he is living in the lap of luxury in sunny L.A.?
The same kind of fairy-tale transformation takes place in the opening minutes of the new CW drama Privileged. The series is all about high hopes and wish-fulfillment fantasy as 23-year-old Yale graduate Megan Smith (JoAnna Garcia) is fired from a Manhattan magzine job and suddenly finds herself in a Palm Beach, Fla., mansion as tutor to a couple of teen brats.
Despite the glam and froth, there is a lot going on with social class, upward mobility and the fears of young adults in the face of an economic downturn that has greatly reduced job expectations and hope. ** 1/2
LATE NIGHT GUESTS: Actress Annette Bening visits the Tonight Show with Jay Leno; actress Jada Pinett Smith visits the Late Show with David Letterman.