Your next box set: Fringe

Classy and inventive supernatural crime drama from the creator of Lost

A high-concept drama created by JJ Abrams that opens with a mysterious air disaster – sound familiar? Well, this isn't Lost. It's the sister series dreamed up by Abrams towards the end of Lost's run. And the aircraft didn't crash on an island. It landed safely on autopilot, but with all its crew and passengers dead – and skinless.

Fringe is often described as The Twilight Zone crossed with The X-Files. Its Mulder and Scully are Peter Bishop, a con artist with a genius-level IQ ( played by Joshua Jackson from Dawson's Creek); and by-the-book FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv, who you might recognise from BBC1's Mistresses). The duo use "fringe science" and old-fashioned detective work to investigate unexplained events, usually grisly deaths. Shapeshifters, super-soldiers, exploding heads, spontaneous combustion ... those sort of everyday cases.

Their scenes are repeatedly stolen, though, by the real star of the show: Peter's father Walter, a textbook mad scientist. Literally so, because when the series starts, he is in a mental institution. Walter's soon back in his Harvard lab, although suspicions grow that it was his Timothy Leary-ish experiments back in the 60s that created all these phenomena in the first place. Played by Australian John Noble (also known as Denethor in Lord of the Rings), eccentric hippy Dr Bishop is wonderfully realised. He keeps a pet cow called Gene in his office, plays prog-rock full-blast on his retro turntable, obsessively recreates his favourite childhood foods, and frequently says "I've just dropped some acid" or "I'm under the influence of strong psychotropics". He has developed his own hybrid of cannabis too. That's another one of the pleasures of Fringe: drugs are treated with a refreshing matter-of-factness.

A parallel universe and alternate timeline become more central as the series progresses. Brilliantly, the Walter doppelganger in the other world is nicknamed Walternate, while the other Olivia is Fauxlivia. The show has benefited from having the bravery to explore its own mythology, and critical acclaim has grown with each passing year. Fringe certainly isn't afraid to take risks: episodes have been set in the past and future, inside characters' dreams – and one was even a cartoon.

Most of the cast play two versions of their character and the acting is top-notch. Jackson's full of twinkly charisma, while Torv fulfils a similar brief to Gillian Anderson in The X-Files – attractive without being conventionally so, kickass enough to be a credible agent, and other-wordly enough to move in the paranormal realm. Culty character actors pop up for chewy cameos, too, notably Leonard "Spock" Nimoy and Jared Harris (Mad Men's Lane Pryce).

Those who felt ultimately short-changed by the marathon that was Lost need not worry. Lower-key but more satisfying, Fringe was always planned as five seasons: the final run begins this autumn on Fox, and it is unlikely to disappoint. You've just about got time to catch up.


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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