Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, and John Noble are back with a mission to broaden sci-fi's reach

By Jeff Jensen
September 11, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

The air is hot, thick, and humid in the basement of a derelict building on the hilly grounds of a semi-functioning Vancouver mental hospital, but the stars of Fox’s cult creepshow Fringe look as if they just caught a chill.

”I heard this is where they kept dead bodies,” says Anna Torv, giving a shudder that makes her blond ponytail sway. ”Bad vibes in this place.” It’s a recent August morning, and the cast and crew of Fringe are camped out in this all-too-appropriate locale to shoot the fifth episode of its second season, which involves a man who believes his boss is an evil ram-horned creature in disguise. And today it can be a bit unclear who’s in character and who’s just a curious passerby. ”The patients here are known to wander through a shot,” says Joshua Jackson, a.k.a. Pacey-all-grown-up from Dawson’s Creek. ”This has the potential for being a very interesting day.”

Of course, any day in Fringe‘s whacked world is bizarre no matter where it’s spent. Last year’s most heavily hyped new drama, the gory, gonzo, and witty Fringe was engineered by creators J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Transformers) to be a high-impact hybrid of The X-Files and CSI — a serious yet accessible sci-fi series. Here’s the simplest version of Fringe‘s complicated premise: A clandestine FBI unit known as the Fringe Division — composed of diamond-tough agent Olivia Dunham (Torv); eccentric, formerly committed brainiac Walter Bishop (John Noble); and his sardonic son, Peter (Jackson) — investigates an outbreak of sci-fi hoo-ha dubbed the Pattern. This can include teleportation, mutant monsters, heart-chomping parasites — anything weird, and usually very icky.

Though the highly anticipated thriller started shakily, making geeks wonder if Abrams and his reliably mind-bending production company Bad Robot had finally let them down, Fringe ended its first year with a finale filled with insane, chat-room-exploding twists (Leonard Nimoy! Alternate realities! And…Peter’s actually dead?!?) that won over a skeptical fan base. And while Fringe wasn’t as widely watched as fellow rookie The Mentalist (16.3 million viewers), it averaged a solid 8.8 million weekly and won the title of the No. 1 new show among the valuable 18 — 49 demo. Now Fringe will try to maintain its momentum in TV’s most competitive time slot: Thursdays at 9 p.m. ”We’re not looking to take down CSI or Grey’s Anatomy,” says Kevin Reilly, Fox’s president of entertainment. ”But if it can get in there and remain consistent, that’s important. We can make money, even at a more modest rating.” But if Fringe is to thrive, Abrams’ team will have to apply the lessons learned from its rocky first season. Says Abrams: ”It’s going to sound weird, but a show starts talking to you and telling you what it wants to be. It took us a while to hear it.”