Straight From the Script: ‘Fringe’ and ‘Dollhouse’

Elizadushku_sidekickparty_240FOX will announce its 2008-09 schedule at its upfront presentation to advertisers on Thursday (May 15), but fans have already been anticipating Dollhouse and Fringe for months.

Created by J.J. Abrams with frequent cohorts Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Fringe is expected to have a place on the fall schedule, launching with a two-hour pilot believed to be budgeted in the $10-million range and directed by Alex Graves (Journeyman). The cast of the X-Files-esque drama is led by relative newcomer Anna Torv — hoping to catch a little of the magic Abrams gave to Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner and Evangeline Lilly — but includes familiar faces including Joshua Jackson (Pacey!!!), John Noble (Denethor!!!) and Lance Reddick. Viewers will likely have to wait a little longer for Dollhouse, which seems destined for midseason. Joss Whedon is writing and directing the pilot, which brings Eliza Dushku back to primetime. I’ve read the script for each pilot. Keeping in mind that between rewrites, casting and directing choices original pilot scripts can be as different from the eventual pilot as night and day, here are a few first impressions:

Jjabrams_smithpr_240Fringe Written by J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
What It’s About: When something disturbing, unexplainable and just a bit icky happens to the passengers on an international flight, FBI Agent Olivia Warren (Torv) begins an investigation that leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop (Noble), a renegade scientist whose unorthodox experiments into fringe phenomena led to arrests and eventually institutionalization. Warren can only get Bishop out with the help of his estranged son Peter (Jackson), a young man with a genius IQ, but questionable morals and motivation. The son isn’t ready to reconcile with his father, the father isn’t ready to be reintegrated into the outside world and Olivia isn’t ready to serve as babysitter, but they form an unlikely team. How does the airplane tragedy relate to The Pattern, a spate of unexplained occurrences sweeping the world? And what does any of this have to do with the mysterious Prometheus Corporation, one of the world’s most forward-thinking companies? And what do we make of Broyles (Reddick), the head of the Homeland Security’s newly formed Fringe Division?
How It Reads: The script I read feels like an early draft. It’s rife with typos and comes in at more than 110 pages, far longer than any two-hour pilot could handle. Once 20 pages of the script are trimmed, I’m assuming the pilot will play far better. The script has an X-Files meets Altered States meets Alias vibe that’s immediately familiar and comfortable. The actual plot of the pilot could probably have fit into a standard hour, but Abrams and Company are making the effort to give the material a global scale and the script plants at least a half-dozen potential running mysteries that will allow Fringe to have both serialized elements and also freak-of-the-week plots. The set-up of these three individuals against a vast corporate/government conspiracy has been fruitful for Abrams in the past and there’s no reason to believe that it won’t work here. While Abrams has always been able to write carefully delineated female characters, Olivia is initially the weakest link in the show’s core trio, another strong, career-minded female whose personal life threatens to undermine her professional prospects. The inevitability of a strained will-they/won’t-they romance between Olivia and Peter already has me rooting for an expanded role for Astrid, the FBI underling to be played by Jasika Nicole.
How It Might Play: For FOX, the best thing about Fringe — other than getting into the J.J. Abrams business, of course — is that the series has the potential to partner with almost any established show on its schedule, depending on how they spin it. It’s the story of two bickering partners solving crimes and flirting? Team it with Bones. It’s the story of a brilliant and eccentric man with limited social skills? Let’s match it with House. It’s about a strong, single woman doing whatever she has to do to save the world? Sounds like a match with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. While I can’t speak for Torv, the other lead roles seem perfectly cast, though Fringe isn’t going to be sold as a star-driven show. It’s going to be sold as FOX’s attempt to reclaim the X-Files demo that the network has jeopardized with the swift cancellation of too many shows from folks like Whedon and Tim Minear. The script lends itself to a large-scale pilot and it should leave viewers knowing exactly what to expect in the episodes to come, which is more than can be said for…

Dollhouse Written by Joss Whedon
What It’s About: Echo (Dushku) is a Doll. She’s a young woman imprinted by a group of shady scientists as a blank-slate-for-hire. Depending on how she’s programmed, she can be a glorified prostitute, the ideal wedding date to make your ex-girlfriend jealous, a butt-kicking bodyguard or a sympathetic confidante. She can be anything you want. And she’s not the only Doll in the Dollhouse, a vast holding facility overseen by Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams). When Echo hasn’t been imprinted by programmer Topher (Fran Kranz), she’s supposed to be a blank slate, but Topher and Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) are beginning to notice signs of learned behavior from Echo, signs of memory. If Echo’s becoming self-aware, that might be the break to help Paul (Tahmoh Penikett), a federal agent trying to get to the bottom of the Dollhouse urban legend.
How It Reads: A good pilot should do one of two things: It should either lay out the blueprint for the rest of the series or it should intrigue you so much that you can’t wait for the second episode. Fringe falls into the first category. It leaves almost nothing to the imagination in terms of what’s coming next. Dollhouse falls into the second category. Whedon’s script builds into a mystery that’s as much philosophical as science fiction. The introduction to the show’s universe is immediately disorienting, but also enthralling, as Whedon mixes elements of the conspiracy thriller with what threatens to become a profound meditation on identity. Dollhouse comes across as darker in tone and slower in pace than anything Whedon has previously attempted and while there’s humor sprinkled throughout, the sensation at the end is one of overarching menace and also sadness. The pilot script concentrates on only three or four main characters, though several others are introduced in passing, and it offers no stand-alone elements. After reading the pilot, I’m ready to go on the journey with Whedon even though I can’t figure out what the week-to-week plot of the show is going to be.
How It Might Play: Since Desperate Housewives and Lost made the major networks want to dive back into the serialized drama business, viewers have made it clear that they’re cautious about starting a show that might get cancelled mid-story. Dollhouse feels like the sort of show that might have been better suited for FX or HBO or Showtime, where Whedon’s devoted audience could make a show a hit. But Dushku had a talent deal at 20th Century Fox TV and with FOX and this is totally her vehicle, the sort of role that most young actresses would kill for. Since Echo is constantly being other people, Dushku is in position to go from action star to sex kitten to child-like innocent in the course of a dozen pages. It’s Dushku’s show, but the pilot suggests potentially meaty roles for Williams, Kranz, Acker, Penikett and Harry Lennix, as Echo’s trainer. While recognizably Whedonesque, Dollhouse finds Joss going in different direction, one that may be less quippy and less plot-driven than some might expect. The fans will still love it, I suspect, but will Dollhouse be able to find an audience beyond the Whedonverse? I’m not sure. So this could be one of those "Enjoy it while you’ve got it" gems.

About Daniel Fienberg