Being derivative isn’t necessarily a condemnation in television, but given the auspices and hype, “Fringe” disappoints — mixing a bit of “The X-Files” here and a dollop of “Alias” there, flecks of deeply embedded conspiracies and imperiled humanity. The 90-minute, limited-interruption premiere certainly has ample opportunity to set up the show’s elaborate chessboard, but barring major improvements — or the inevitable warming glow of an “American Idol” lead-in — the title should do a reasonably good job of describing the show’s audience.
A name that could be confused with another Bravo design-program actually refers to fringe science, which is what’s apparently at work in the opener when a plane lands with a decimated roster of passengers victimized by an unknown toxin. The mystery leads FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) to seek out a literally mad scientist (“Lord of the Rings'” John Noble), who was involved in cutting-edge research before being tossed into the loony bin. Getting to him requires enlisting aid from said scientist’s rebellious son Peter (Joshua Jackson), a genius/maverick/gambler/ne’er-do-well who insists on calling Olivia “sweetheart.”
Created by J.J. Abrams and the “Transformers” team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the series promises to be a procedural, after using the pilot to establish that Olivia will investigate strange threats each week — alluding to such fringe areas (“F-Files,” maybe?) as mind control, astral projection, teleportation and reanimation. Cryptic symbols punctuate each of the commercial breaks — a frog, a hand, a leaf — offering a too-cute hint, perhaps, of something larger at work, like that confounding numerical sequence on “Lost.”
At first glance, it’s all a little too familiar, including an “Altered States” riff in which Torv strips down and enters a sensory-deprivation module. Nothing here really pops, even with Torv holding her own as the tough femme protagonist, the welcome presence of “The Wire’s” Lance Reddick as her hostile boss and Noble exhibiting alternating strains of brilliance and psychosis. To be fair, it’s hard to discern what to make of Jackson’s character just yet, but between the unrelenting lame wisecracks and his above-it-all demeanor, he seems to be attempting to channel Cary Grant from the 1940s and falling well short.
Both “Fringe” and the upcoming “Dollhouse” come to Fox with highly pedigreed producers among the genre set — Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias”) and Joss Whedon (“Buffy”), respectively — as well as lofty expectations. In a strike-disrupted development year, that represented a logical bet — arming the network with big, promotable concepts from established talent.
The gamble could still pay off. After all, the show is handsomely produced, and the premise provides access to a potentially fertile vein of modern paranoia; still, for a series that will need to tap into an avid core of viewers to succeed, the formula appears lacking in the necessary chemistry to conjure a fanatical “Fringe” element.