Review: Weird-science thriller livens up fall TV

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NEW YORK (AP) -- The new TV season's official start date -- September 21 -- is almost two weeks away, but one of the most anticipated shows, "90210," has already arrived.

Based on its opener, "Fringe" does action, intrigue, mind-blowing science and horror-film ick.

Now comes the other: Fox's weird-science thriller "Fringe," which premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. EDT.

So what's left this fall?

Well, CW's sunny youth drama "Privileged," debuting Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT, offers evidence there are pleasant surprises ahead.

But Fox's sitcom "Do Not Disturb," on tap for Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. EDT, isn't one of them.

Before we let ourselves get too excited about "Fringe," let's remember the cardinal rule for a first episode: It is no predictor of how good or bad the series may be.

That said, "Fringe" looks like a pretty good bet to give us the willies, creep us out -- and pull us into each episode as if by mind control.

The premise packs a punch: In today's world, areas of "fringe science" (like mind control, teleportation, astral projection and genetic engineering) aren't just wild ideas, but may actually be happening, practiced by a sinister, billion-dollar corporation called Massive Dynamic (slogan: "What do we do? What DON'T we do!").

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Befitting a series that counts J.J. Abrams ("Lost") among the creators, "Fringe" begins with a commercial airliner in distress. But these passengers should be so lucky as to crash on a whacked-out tropical island.

Instead, Flight 627 from Hamburg makes a perfect landing at Boston's Logan Airport.

By then, questions are flying. FBI special agent Olivia Dunham is among those summoned to investigate the plane parked on the tarmac, along with her partner (and lover), special agent John Scott.

Then Scott is injured terribly. He seems near death.

The rest of the episode occupies itself with Olivia's intrepid efforts to save John's life, which involve a trip to Baghdad, a dangerous intake of drugs and the acquisition of a cow. (What does she do? What DOESN'T she do!)

Along the way, she enlists two helpmates: Dr. Walter Bishop, a scientist of Einsteinian proportions who was deemed insane 17 years ago and, since then, has been institutionalized. And Bishop's estranged son, Peter, a sarcastic gadabout who reluctantly agrees to provide the supervision his father requires.

Peter is startled to learn from Olivia that his father's research specialty years ago wasn't toothpaste, as he had always been told, but far-flung frontiers of fringe science, even including reanimation.

"So you're telling me my father was Dr. Frankenstein," Peter marvels.

In a tidy coincidence, Bishop's lab partner in those days was William Bell, who later became the ethically dubious founder of Massive Dynamic.

Are Bell and his company the driving force behind The Pattern -- a string of catastrophic events that threaten national security and, beyond that, the human race?

By the episode's end, haunting questions have been posed, pieces of the narrative are put in place, and the cast has proved itself.

As Olivia, newcomer Anna Torv is suitably authoritative or vulnerable, as the situation requires. Joshua Jackson ("Dawson's Creek") establishes Peter as cocky but caring. And John Noble ("The Lord of the Rings") is perfect as Dr. Bishop, the not-so-mad but scattered genius.

Meanwhile, viewers are treated to a couple of sly twists that should bring them back for the second episode.

Based on its opener, "Fringe" does action, intrigue, mind-blowing science and horror-film ick. It even does humor and romance. What DOESN'T it do?


"Privileged" protagonist Megan Smith is smart (she's a Yale grad who dreams of a meaningful career in journalism). She's also lovely (after all, she's the central character on a CW youth drama). And she's goodhearted, idealistic and a little bit dorky (so she'll strike a fitting contrast with the Palm Beach society in which she's just landed).

She has accepted a job to be a live-in tutor for cosmetics mogul Laurel Limoges' twin granddaughters, one of whom greets her with the sneering observation: "I puke cuter than that outfit you're wearing."

For Megan no less than the defiant teens, this is going to be a learning experience.

"I can help them live up to their full potential," Megan tells herself. But what about her efforts to live up to her own full potential, as she navigates the fabulous distractions of Palm Beach?

As Megan, JoAnna Garcia ("Reba") has fresh-scrubbed good looks that suggest immunity to wealth's corrosive influence (which should make Megan's occasional stumbles all the more affecting).

"Privileged" is a bright, bouncy fairy tale of power and extravagance, tempered by reminders that money can't buy happiness. How hard will that lesson be for Megan and her students?

'Do Not Disturb'

It would be easy to toss off "Do Not Disturb" with a dismissive crack like "Do Not Watch" or "disturbingly unfunny."

But that would be too easy. Even unfair.

Starring Jerry O'Connell ("Crossing Jordan") and Niecy Nash ("Reno 911!"), this Fox sitcom is set in a tony Manhattan hotel. Hijinks and hanky-panky ensue among its zany, mostly over-sexed staff, which, as usual on workplace comedies, doesn't much bother with work.

The "Do Not Disturb" crew doesn't much bother being funny, either. But this is far from the worst sitcom on the air. It's fast-paced, non-demanding, a suitable default mode as background noise while you're doing something else.

It succeeds as a comedy crash pad.