The J.J. Abrams procedural pattern


Fox recently released a trailer for an upcoming cop show called Almost Human. The show is about a time in the future where human police officers are partnered with cyborgs. Like Will Smith’s character in the movie I, Robot, the main character of Almost Human doesn’t trust the machines and will do anything to avoid working with them. His disdain for the mandated electronic sidekicks eventually leads to his being partnered with an outdated model who was decommissioned “for a reason” and can apparently feel emotion (compare this to the story of Sonny in I, Robot).

The show was created by J.J. Abrams, the same guy who gave us Alias, Lost, Fringe, the Star Trek reboot, the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII, and a lot more. You’ve almost certainly seen something he created.

The interesting thing about Almost Human is that it’s the third procedural drama created by Abrams, and I think there’s a lot we can look at in his previous two entries into the genre that will give us some hints as to what lies in store in Almost Human.

Alias, the older of the two shows, is about a CIA agent named Sydney Bristow show learns that she has been duped. She doesn’t work for the CIA. Instead, she works for an evil organization called SD-6 that was created by rogue CIA agents. When she learns the truth about her job, she turns herself in to the CIA and offers to act as a double agent and help take down SD-6.

Fringe, which was cancelled earlier this year, is about an FBI agent named Olivia Dunham who is recruited to work for a special division of the Bureau called Fringe Division. The team uses “fringe science” techniques to solve unusual or seemingly-supernatural crimes.

Let’s examine some of the common motifs found in Alias and Fringe–two extraordinarily different shows on the surface that have more than you might realize in common.

Spoilers! If you haven’t watched these shows yet and you think you might at some point, you may not want to keep reading. Big plot points and the finales will be spoiled below.

Strong female lead who works for federal law enforcement
OK, we already know Almost Human doesn’t have this, but it was worth noting. Moving right along.

Basic cases that lead into a highly-serialized story and then completely disappear
Both shows start out with standard procedural format with the heroes solving a new case each week. As these individual cases begin to become interconnected, they eventually lead to the revelation of a much larger, more insidious plot that explains most of the questions from the beginning of the series, but creates a host of new questions that can only be answered by further pursuing the overarching conspiracy. At this point the show stops with individual weekly cases and moves to a highly-serialized story in which every episode and every detail revolves solely around the broader unknown plot of an ever-expanding web of mysterious villains.

This can actually be easily explained not by the fact that J.J. Abrams likes to do these types of stories (though I’m sure he does), but by the fact that TV networks use the basic procedural episodes to attract new viewers, then keep them locked into the show with a heavy focus on serialized content that makes viewers want to watch week after week for answers and explanations.

An ancient doomsday device that must be reassembled
Both Fringe and Alias feature incredibly powerful and dangerous devices that originate from a time in which such technology would have been impossible to construct. These devices are constructed from parts that are found scattered across the globe. Heroes and villains in both shows seek to acquire and understand the device.

People close to the main character are killed and replaced with identical doubles
In Alias, Sydney’s roommate is killed and replaced with a double created using a form of genome therapy that allows the recipient to take on another person’s form.

In Fringe, multiple characters, most notably Olivia’s partner Charlie Francis, are killed and replaced by evil shapeshifters who use advanced technology to assume the form of their victims. Also note the similarity of the names (Francie and Francis), and that both of the switches occurred in season two of their respective series.

Fringe also features an alternate universe in which most of the main characters have counterparts. Occasionally these doubles are used to infiltrate the opposite side as spies.

Everybody’s a double agent
By the very nature of the show, Alias basically opens the door for just about anyone to be accused of espionage (and sometimes be guilty of it). As noted above, doubles from the alternative universe in Fringe swap places with their counterparts in the other universe to serve as spies. There is also a double agent right in the pilot of Fringe, and additional characters are later revealed to be double agents working for the main villain in their own universe rather than spying on the opposite world.

The story gets so convoluted that they just give up and reset by jumping around in time, but that just makes it worse
This is actually a trademark of J.J. Abrams himself, more than just of his procedurals. In the case of Fringe, the story becomes so corrupted that the only thing left for the writers to do is erase Peter from the timeline, thus resetting everything and putting the story back on a more stable footing. When Peter is reintroduced to the story, Olivia’s memories of him slowly return in order to escape the growing complications of the entire world being oblivious of his existence. The story is reset again at the beginning of the fifth season when the show skips several decades into the future and all previous cases are now moot.

In Alias, when the search for Sloane becomes more and more complex, Sydney is finally knocked out, kidnapped for almost two years, and then left in an alley in Tokyo, where she wakes up with no memory of the past two years.

Every evil organization just leads to a bigger, more evil organization
In Fringe, the basic cases lead to Jones, which lead to the alternate universe, which lead back to Jones, and finally to the Observers.

In Alias, SD-6 is revealed to be part of The Alliance, which is almost completely eliminated, save for Sloane. Sloane then starts his own organization which becomes even more powerful than The Alliance. Before Sloane’s organization is defeated, Sydney disappears for two years, only to find herself awakened in a world where a group called The Covenant is the biggest threat to peace. After the Covenant is wiped out, a new alliance of twelve rises to power, this time called Prophet 5.

Parental problems
At the beginning of Fringe, Walter and Peter have a rocky relationship because they have been separated for nearly twenty years while Walter was in a mental institution. After they finally repair their relationship, Walter reveals that Peter is not technically his son, but an alternate version of him that Walter kidnapped after his own son died. This just makes things worse.

In Alias, Sydney and Jack work together at SD-6 from the beginning, and soon learn that they are both serving as double agents for the CIA. However, when Sydney’s mother is discovered to still be alive after being believed dead since Sydney’s childhood, she interferes with the father-daughter relationship and causes trust issues throughout the entire family. Her loyalties are constantly in question. She shoots Sydney, Sydney shoots her, and she betrays Sydney and Jack on more than one occasion.

Fathers from both shows sacrifice themselves to take down the enemy in the series finals.

Ancient prophesies include accurate drawings of the main characters
Drawings of both Peter and Olivia appear in the instructions for operating the machine that creates the Bridge. Sydney’s face is discovered drawn in invisible ink on an ancient manuscript. In both cases, the pages in question foretell of immense power wielded by the heroes that can be used for good or evil.

Five seasons
I don’t think I need to elaborate on this one.

The main character forgets an important part of her life and has to recover her memories
In Fringe, Olivia (and everyone, really) forgets about Peter when he is erased from the timeline. She slowly regains her memories by being around Peter, who somehow changes her brain to match the version of her from the timeline in which he existed. Other character don’t seem to remember like she did, but the plot is eventually reset again anyway when season five rolls around and skips to the future, so whether those characters ever recover their memories doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that Olivia does and in the fifth season she remembers everything that has happened in the show so far.

In Alias, when Sydney wakes up in an alley after being missing for two years, she finds that she was apparently turned into an agent for whoever was controlling her at the time and carried out missions on their behalf.

The Puzzle
The Puzzle plays a significant role in Sydney’s past on Alias. It was also included as an easter egg in Fringe as part of Olivia’s childhood.