Image Credit: Liane Hentscher/Fox; Jack Rowland/The CWTonight marks the soft launch of one of the TV season’s most intriguing timeslot showdowns: Fox’s sci-fi cult fave Fringe vs. The CW’s fantasy/horror cult fave Supernatural at 9 p.m. I say “soft” because Supernatural airs a repeat tonight; it’ll return with new episodes next week. Fringe — moving into the timeslot after spending over a year on Thursday nights — comes back from the winter break with an original outing entitled “The Firefly,” which plays like a wink to Joss Whedon’s gone-too-soon outer space oater (and Friday-at-9 failure) Firefly.

In its third season, Fringe has been attracting around 5 million viewers in real time. Most pundits expect that Fringe will take a ratings hit in its new home, but no one is certain how big that hit will be. Fans seem alarmed about the long-term prospects of the show; we’ll see if they’re concerned enough to make the commitment to staying home on Friday nights as opposed to making it a watch-on-DVR-over-the-weekend thing. “The Firefly” sounds promising. The Observer returns to the saga, and Back To The Future‘s Christopher Lloyd pops up as a guest star. Back in December, Fringe producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman told me that upcoming episodes would explore the emerging mystery/mythology of The First People; perhaps that storyline will see some nourishing with tonight’s second-half kickoff. (Have you seen the romantic music video Fox has produced for Fringe?)

Now in its sixth season, Supernatural is also a battle-scarred veteran of the Thursday night wars. In fact, it aired opposite Fringe last year. Viewership for Supernatural has floated between 2 million and 3 million viewers for a few seasons now, though recent episodes have been on the lower end of that spectrum. I wonder if Fox execs wondered if Supernatural’s sagging performance = market opportunity. CW prez Dawn Ostroff recently issued a public vote of confidence in Supernatural and even said she’d be “surprised” if the network didn’t renew it for a seventh season. I haven’t watched Supernatural since the beginning of its first season in 2005 — a confession I make with a twinge of regret. I was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, and it appeared to me that Supernatural wasn’t going to offer me anything that I hadn’t seen before. In general, I’m not one of those people enticed by a “If you liked [this kind of thing], then check out [this other thing, which is a lot like the thing you liked]” type of sell. In fact, I’m more likely to be turned off by that kind of sell, because what I want most from television these days is innovation, not derivation. I had a similar resistance to/cynicism about Fringe at the start. But I stuck with it because I admired the previous work of its creators (the Mission: Impossible 3/Star Trek team of J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci), and halfway through the first season, Fringe began to click with me. A lot of people that I trust have told me over the years that I’d probably have that same conversion experience with Supernatural if I just gave it a chance. I believe them. But if I wasn’t inhibited by the fact that it was airing opposite of something else I was already watching (for the past two years, it was either an NBC sitcom or Fringe), then I was inhibited by feeling that I had missed too much and wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate where it was at. I look forward to catching up with it down the road on DVD.

This is all to say that in the matter of Fringe v. Supernatural, I (again) choose Fringe. How about you? Are the Fringe fans among us planning to make the Friday night commitment? For fans of both shows, which series do you plan on watching in real time and which series will you be DVRing?

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