Each fall season we TV writers like to try to lump shows into categories: procedurals, sci-fi serials, remakes, imports. This year, we have all of the above but the category that’s getting the most buzz incorporates the idea that a) science is taking us to some really wacky places and b) we’re happy about going there. Science-based stories can give writers lots of fodder for inspired plotlines, but handled poorly, they can also make it tough for viewers to connect emotionally with characters. For me, the show that manages to stay connected is the show that returns for season two.
There are at least three shows premiering this season trying to blend science and story, and a few other shows that already make a habit of it. The one that does it the most blatantly is J.J. Abrams’ Fringe, short for “fringe science.” When I chatted with the show’s affable producers, they noted that they read stories in the news every day about science on the edge: the Chinese changed the weather via cloud-seeding during the Olympics, and an invisibility cloak, a la Harry Potter, could be on the way. The science in Fringe will likely venture even further out on the ledge, but the show’s core concepts might not be as far off as everyone thinks.
Abrams, who’s an old hand at this sort of thing, thinks viewers can handle whatever he throws at them: “The truth is when we did the pilot for Lost we had the monster appear at the end of the first act. We did that consciously because we wanted to say to the audience ‘we’re jumping the shark now.’ We’re doing crazy shit from the beginning. On Fringe, we consciously did a preposterous, out there, far-fetched story point to say to the audience ‘this is what you are going to be getting on this show.’”
Still, Abrams knows the challenge that awaits him: “We want to tell stories that are compelling and emotional and funny and weird as possible but not have it be exploiting that aspect of the show. We would rather delve into who these people are and what makes them tick rather than doing something for shock value.”
For me, Fringe’s success or failure will hinge on whether the show’s producers, writers and actors can create and maintain that connection. Fringe’s pilot was compelling and stunningly shot, but I didn’t feel any warm fuzzies for anyone, even Josh Jackson of whom I am an avid fan. That’s the challenge with science-based stories: they give the writers lots of material to work with, but can they keep viewers engaged? Lost has gone back and forth on that point, but the show clearly works best (examples: Desmond reunites with Penny or the love triangle between Kate, Jack and Sawyer) when its characters are connecting with each other and thus the audience.
Over on CBS, Eleventh Hour, starring Rufus Sewell, is a retelling of a hit mini-series on the BBC. From what I’ve seen so far, Eleventh Hour has that typical CBS feel, which to me means CSI: Bio Terrorism. While Fringe has hints of the X-Files, its look and tone is like nothing we’ve previously seen on TV. Eleventh Hour felt more like same old same old with two things going for it: Sewell and the fact that lots of people really like to watch the same old. Because pure procedurals come with a caveat — they aren’t about connecting at all, they are about plot – Eleventh Hour is less obligated to create emotional relationships between its characters and its viewers, although for me that would be a welcome change in CBS’ drama formula.
Finally, HBO’s True Blood isn’t about science at all. Its story is a sort of allegory in which vampires stand in for the real-life disaffected and disavowed. In True Blood’s world, the vampires’ big PR problem – they kill people and suck their blood in order to live –has been solved by science. “Tru Blood” is a synthetic version of human blood on which vampires can live, although it does nothing to resolve vampires’ true nature. Extending the allegory to real problems of racism and homophobia leads one to wonder whether science can solve those problems too. Is there something science can do to make us, as a society, less narrow-minded, judgmental and fearful? Since science plays second fiddle in True Blood, the show has less problem getting audiences to connect. And Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), the telepathic waitress at the show’s core, has empathy to spare, giving the show a beating heart around which to center itself.
These shows didn’t just arrive on television in a vacuum. Two of TV’s most popular returning shows — Lost and Heroes – make a big deal of infusing their storylines with strange science. The results aren’t realistic (islands moving? Mutant superpowers?), but the stories are compelling. It’s no wonder TV producers are going back to that well to create new shows.
But both shows faltered when they focused too much on story and not enough on character. Heroes’ second season sent us running all over time and space in pursuit of plot, and we lost much of what first attracted us. Lost got lost when it tried to introduce too many characters and too many storylines and didn’t just focus on the already complicated plot at hand. May this year’s crop of shows learn from these shows’ mistakes.
This isn’t a new concept. The ability to emotionally connect to the audience is the secret sauce for any genre of television. Oprah and Judge Judy work year after year in syndication because viewers feel like Oprah Winfrey and Judy Sheindlin are their best friends. Reality shows from Project Runway to American Idol create crazy-loyal connections with fans. And the best sitcoms – think Friends, The Office, Two and a Half Men – are less about pure laughs and more about the shows’ underlying relationships. Science may keep us alive and thriving but if we’re alive and alone, what’s the point?