5 traits of a JJ Abrams-produced TV show

Feature Rob Kemp 24 Mar 2014 - 07:00

As new drama Believe arrives in the UK, Rob charts the 5 traits shared by JJ Abrams-produced shows, from Lost, to Alias, Fringe & more…

JJ Abrams is arguably one of the most successful TV producers of recent times. A bold statement, maybe, but a rundown of his series feels like a name check of some of the greatest genre TV of the past couple of decades. Success though, can be a funny attribute to understand – after all, if we knew what it took to be successful, we’d all be doing it.

With Abrams it could be one thing, or many. It could be his love of fantasy, the way he casts or just an understanding of what an audience wants – a good, interesting and exciting story. There is something however, that we might agree on and it’s that his shows have something about them that make them inherently Abrams-esque. No, I’m not talking lens flare here, that’s more of an aesthetic than an element fundamental to his work. What I’m talking about are the themes and characteristics heavily featured in the shows he produces, aspects without which the dramas would feel somehow diminished and less, well, Abrams-like.

Family dynamics

There’s a strong dynamic in the majority of Abrams’ shows that revolves around family and team work. Abrams uses team interaction to develop and shape characterisation so that the dynamic is complicated and interesting in its own right. Examples? Alias, Lost, Undercovers, Fringe, Person of Interest, Revolution and even Almost Human all involve a group or groups of people who have to come together in order to defeat whatever challenge lay ahead of them. Newcomer to the Abrams stable, Believe, with its ersatz family of young super-powered Bo and the group seeking to protect her, is no different. Typically it is the strength of that team and their relationship with one another that not only creates the drama but it is also the foundation of their success, whatever the task.

Six Degrees explored this in a more fundamental way, examining coincidence and chance to see the way in which seemingly disparate and non-related people come together. It many ways this was Abrams’ essay on family and team work stripped down to expose the core elements of interaction. What a pity then that it never really found an audience to give it a chance to run its course.

Perhaps Lost is the best example of Abrams examining a team or ‘family’. It is truly an ensemble show, and by spending time working first and foremost on the relationships within the group it made the overall narrative that much more powerful. It was because of those relationships that we cared what happened and is why so many of the shock deaths and twists were so dramatic. Likewise, Fringe wouldn’t have been the success it was if we didn’t appreciate the dynamic between Walter, Olivia, Peter and even Astrid. In fact, Fringe was at times dependent on the strength of that bond as its complicated and non-linear mythology did at times distract from the emotional core of the show. Believe’s central thread of family relationships and a small group fighting a powerful organisation picks up on just these themes.

Strong, motivated women

If we go all the way back to the beginning it’s clear that Abrams likes strong female characters and isn’t afraid of using them to lead shows. Believe’s Bo joins a long line of strong Abrams heroines, as seen in Felicity, Alias, Lost, Alcatraz, Fringe and Revolution, particularly in the case of Felicity and Alias. Tough female leads are not unusual, though when compared like to like in terms of their male counterparts the numbers highlight that TV is most certainly male-dominated, and especially so in the action and adventure genre (Xena and Buffy being notable exceptions).

Where Abrams differs though is in his treatment of these characters. Rarely are they ‘traditional’ in the sense of being wives, girlfriends or mothers, although some do fulfil these roles. In Abrams’ world, his female characters are able to use their femininity as a weapon (Alias is the very clear example here), are also fiercely independent, (see Believe’s Bo, Lost’s Kate, Claire, Sun and Juliet as well as Revolution’s Rachel and Charlie Matheson) but can also be also sensitive and tender (see Fringe’s Olivia). Most, are all three and when you think about them as a collective they represent some of the most fascinating, entertaining and exciting female characters on the small screen.

Power corrupts

Don’t trust people in authority. That message is loud and clear in the majority of Abrams’ shows. In Person Of Interest, Alias, Undercovers and more recently Revolution the government can’t be trusted. In Lost it’s the Dharma Initiative, in Fringe it’s William Bell, the government and our future selves, in Believe it’s Orchestra, and in Alcatraz – well we didn’t get that far, but I’m betting the government probably had something to do with it. The common ground is that people who have any kind of power, be it political, technological and even information or knowledge cannot be trusted and as such are typically the bad guys. As a result, a lot of the narrative in Abrams’ shows consists of fighting conspiracies, bureaucracy   and the unknown.

Not only does this make for great drama but it also highlights another fundamental Abrams theme: that of the underdog. What is Believe’s Tate, a wrongfully convicted death row inmate, if not an underdog? In Person Of Interest it’s John and Harold against the entire government, (true, one is a billionaire, the other an unstopping fighting machine), Revolution speaks for itself, and the final season of Fringe sees the team fighting against an entire invasion from the future. Abrams truly likes sticking it to the ‘man’, and if the odds are ridiculously high, the more the merrier.

Fantastical high concept

Despite their sometimes complex and labyrinthine plots, the typical Abrams show can be summed up in only a few words. Mysterious Island. Woman goes to college. Strange events at Alcatraz. Intelligent Surveillance. Abrams has become synonymous with high concept TV, but there’s something else he’s also becoming equally well known for, and that’s his fascination with the fantastical. I don’t mean dwarves and elves, I take fantasy in this sense to mean simply something far removed from the norm. Again, go back to the beginning and even when he started with what appeared to be a very simple concept of following Felicity through college, soon there were Twilight Zone-like episodes exploring love and loss and the series even ended with time travel (and no – it wasn’t a dream).

What About Brian seems to be the only one of Abrams’ shows that doesn’t use the fantastic in some sense of another, (I’m arguing that Six Degrees’ examination of coincidence and chance is his exploring the natural fantastic – alright, I might be pushing it with that one…).

Just as Nolan grounded the Batman series to increase its believability, Abrams’ sense of the fantastic is equally nuanced. Lost and Fringe are probably the most ‘out there’ of his shows, but each comes with a heavy dollop of maths and science. What’s that I hear you say… he didn’t explain it – well, yes, I suppose he didn’t but then if you want everything explained to you, you end up with Midi-chlorians. There are occasions when he did introduce elements that were not easily explained by science, like Lost’s Jacob and the Smoke Monster which are either philosophical or religious representations depending on your stance, but these were arguably the weaker elements of the show.  

One of his greatest achievements was that he never allowed whatever fantastical elements there were to overshadow his characters or their relationships. The audience were just as interested in finding out if Jack and Kate were ever going to get it on or was Linus ever going to get his comeuppance as they were to explain what the Island was – and it is that balance that makes his shows so absorbing and appealing to a wider audience than normal genre fare. 

What’s in the box?

Forced to summarise what the most important Abrams’ quality is, the choice isn’t a hard one. It’s mystery. It’s not knowing what’s around the corner. It’s about starting a journey but not knowing how it’s going to end. It’s about what’s in the box.

For those who’ve seen Abrams’ 2008 Ted lecture they’ll know the importance of the ‘box’. For those who haven’t – hunt it down because it really is the most important aspect of Abrams’ work. The box represents an object whose contents are not known and for Abrams the excitement is in working out what’s in that box. In theatrical terms, the journey is far more interesting than the destination.

We’ve seen Abrams’ fascination with this in many of his shows, and you could say it’s the most criticised aspect of his work. I’ve already mentioned his interest with the fantastic, but it’s largely just that – fantastic, because we don’t know or understand what it is. Many people expect the ‘destination’ to be where the fantastic is explained, but when it isn’t or not fully, then therein lies disappointment and even anger at what has gone before. Fringe is a good example in that the journey it took us on was inventive, exciting and unusual however the ending failed to deliver on that journey in many ways. Alcatraz is an example of when there’s too much journey, as its one and only season was seemingly solely designed with setting up the mystery with no payoff until the last episode – at which point it was too late.

It’s also about secrets, and we all know that Abrams likes those. By purposefully withholding information he instantly makes the journey more interesting. Yes, there’s a risk in that by freeing our imaginations to work out what’s in the ‘box’, we could come up with something more interesting. However, this is the very essence of what an Abrams show is about, and what drives the audience to commit. Lost was a phenomenon largely because the audience felt compelled to find out about the Island. They wanted answers to some expertly asked questions – like what do the numbers mean, who is Jacob, where is the Island and probably the most direct manifestation of Abram’s box fetish – what’s under the hatch? Look at Fringe, Revolution, Alcatraz, Alias, Six Degrees, Person Of Interest and soon Believe; all have narratives driven by secrecy and the unknown.  They also ask the same thematic question – what’s in the box?

Believe starts on Thursday 27th March 9pm on UKTV’s Watch (Sky 109, Virgin 124)

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He nay be into 'high concept', but it never loads to anything other than the next 'high concept' MacGuffin. He has no understanding of science and should stay well away from that genre (science fiction).

For me, whenever I see his name associated with a production, I know it will be disappointing (kind of like Spielberg these days). He's basically an over-hyped hack.

He likes his backlights...

Strong female characters.... I guess that doesn't get carried over into his movies.... <cough> Carol Marcus <cough></cough></cough>

Half the shows on this roll aren't JJ Abrams shows! A JJ Abrams show is a show created by JJ Abrams so in other words: Felicity, Alias, Lost, Undercovers and Fringe. All the other shows mentioned are NOT JJ Abrams shows. They might be good shows but JJ Abrams had nothing to do with the content of them. He just executive produced them. To say that Believe is a JJ Abrams show is to say that Black Sails is a Michael Bay show. Executive Producer is a fairly meaningless term mostly used to link important names to new projects without actually having those important names do anything for the show.

you forgot totally pulled out of the bag nonscencical ending just to wrap it up quickly

The Mrs and I saw the trailer to this the other day and both agreed that it looks very similar to the programme Touch starring Kiefer Sutherland that was cancelled last year.

The problem with Carol is not that she wasn't strong (which BTW I am starting to kind of hate too... They just throw us a stock premade "strong female character" now and then which lacks any real complexity or personality to keep us happy). The problem with Carol is that she was so absolutely unnecessary for the plot that she came out as useless fanservice. I keep trying to picture the movie without her, and it works perfectly well. I can't believe that Spock and Scotty together cannot work those torpedoes out.
It was almost painful to watch.

You forgot that the strong women tend to be far more bland and less interesting than all of the side characters, who usually steal their scenes.

Not sure if I want to put the effort in for Believe. It looks like Touch meets Firestarter which doesn't sound bad but the ratings in the US haven't been so hot and it's uncertain if it will get a renewal.

Trait Number 6. JJ Abrams shows get too convoluted and disappear up their own arses after Season 3.

I agree, she was just there to take her clothes off. I'm sure any woman would at least complain or put in a complaint with the police that their boss is watching them change clothes.

I knew JJ was behind Lost and Alias, but not the other shows mentioned here. What I personally found interesting is that each and every one of them is a show I may have watched one or a couple of episodes of but have never kept watching. Guess I'm not a fan of whatever makes a show "Abrams-like".

Person of interest is Jonathon Nolans baby.

You're right! 'Person of Interest' for example is actually Jonathan Nolan's show. Same goes for those Steven Spielberg shows. Executive producer mostely comes from that, like J.J. Abrams with his Bad Robot, the gut is the head of the production studio. For example, when Wonderland Sound & Vision quit 'Supernatural' for some reason, McG isn't credited as executive producer anymore.

I agree, i find myself watching these shows but soon end up losing interest and moving onto something else. That might be a personal trait rather than anything to do with JJ though.

I wouldn't feel uncomfortable about that scene if the rest was worth it. I mean, in the first movie, I enjoyed that scene with Chris Pine shirtless for no reason whatsoever hiding under Uhura's roomate's bed. I can allow a bit of eye candy for the guys too. It is only fair.
The problem was with the way in which the scene is done and the fact that her character is so underdeveloped that THAT is the most remarkable and memorable moment she has...

I agree she brought nothing to the table in the film except to take her clothes off. But can I ask you would you be happy if you got changed at work and your boss perved on you?

As the article states it's usually "fantasy" high concept, where the science goes into the metaphysical and thus can be considered fictional and/or a philosophical "think peace".

Bad Robt's shows are empirical in nature with highly comparative narratives and never ending juxtapositions. The shows then are about IDENTITY (please also see "Ship of Theseus") and what is to be human, as every work seems to be an idea or mixed idea barely touched on from another work.

Fringe = Alias (3.09 origin)
Almost Human = Fringe + Person of Interest
Revolution = Lost (look) + Fringe + dash of Alias
Believe = Fringe (cortexiphan subjects) + Lost (James Sawyer Ford) + Alias/Person of Interest (globe trotting/prophecy/debate of world saving verses world threat)

They use unusual circumstances and fate-orientated universes to show us beautifully flawed characters in interesting hyper-real conspiracy like environments that have to come together in order to learn the true nature of said reality (or realities) in order to come to terms with themselves, as all works so far end with a non secular pro humanism theme about hope, better futures, and redemption.

Every show/film is asking what the truth is and who could any of us possibly be in the name of human purpose and creation.

First of all all of the characters are both strong and weak in the sense that they are beauifly flawed..

Carol Marcus has brains about weapons knowledge, but her innocence is somehow not corrupted and thus has a childlike personality. It's this UNIQUE dichotomy that drives the themes of second film in Bad Robot's time line...the line/choice between duty and family. She then also is an interesting contrast to Ahura providing the audience two different kinds of women and thus a variety.

Some can't get over the objectising scene, which honestly doesn't end up meaning anything because Carol Marcus and Kirk never even kiss let alone have sex, which is the point of Marcus undressing in the first place, as this is a test to see who Kirk is....and never does he take advantage of her in the entire film! --However it's also an interesting choice if one has knowledge of the previous time line...as in that time line she is the mother of Kirk's son, which she doesn't tell him to way way later in that series...IMO even though the films come off a mostly stand-alones I think they are building to something in between the lines and much like the second film is can be seen a bridging film, could certain things be introductory and thus I think we will see Marcus in the next film and maybe Khan too...

Abrahams, People fighting a monster or case of the week wille the fighting an evil American Goverment and 6 year long mystery thrown in for good measure and lens flare, And that's why we love him

Totally agree... it did just seem like fan service. If we assume she was in the film so they can progress to her and Kirk romancing in future films, then her taking her top off was probably the most significant 'romantic development' in their relationship so far. Probably not the best grounds to start a relationship on!

The reviews I've seen for this show have been brutal.

It's a Bad Robot Production with some Bad Robot writers and directors too!. 4 of it's cast are former Bad Robot alumni (Michael Emerson - LOST, Kevin Chapman -LOST, Amy Acker -Alias, Sarah Shahi -Alias, and former Taraji P. Henson -pre-Bad Robot Felicity). It references Alias and Lost often, but occasionally Fringe too, as referencing themselves is another Bad Robot staple note. Person of Interest, Revolution, and Almost Human all deal with different kinds of artificial intelligence and Nolan must get along well with Bad Robot since he and his wife along with Abrams have a Pilot commitment with HBO for a TV adaptation from Michael Crichton's sci-fi western film, Westworld.

Where it stands apart is that it is more politically driven and less metaphysical than the other works, which allow it's narrative to be more contemporary and grounded in [a realist] reality, although "Root Path" and the season 3 finale title (which is also a LOST title) may suggest that we may go a little bit more in the fiction part of science fiction...

I watch Person of Interest as religiously as I can, but I'm afraid I have missed all of the Alias, Lost and Fringe references.

Are there a couple specific references to any of those aforementioned shows that stand out to you?

I need to go back and re-watch some episodes as I love stuff like that.

No, of course not. I wouldn't have changed in front of my boss either, but if I were a female captain and my fellow scientist was as hot as most women find Pine, I would probably stare too if he suddenly got his shirt off. I would try not to, but I'd probably do it for at least a second.
I think that the whole thing is wrong. You don't get half-naked in the middle of a conversation and turn around to face your boss to demand him not to watch, and you don't stare at an employee with pervy eyes even though she/he is hot (you try to avoid it, even you don't succeed you try). I think it just come out all wrong from beginning to end. I felt uncomfortable on both ends.
I think that maybe they were trying to hint to a future attraction between them, considering what we know from past canon, but I don't know. It was just badly written in too many levels.

Keep in mind that executive producer means different things in the TV and movie worlds. With movies, yes, it usually means they shunted some money into the project and did little else. With TV shows, however, it can be a showrunner or someone who has genuine clout over the season arcs.
(I have no idea what the situation is specifically with JJ, just wanted to make that point.)

You forgot disappointing conclusions

JJ's movies are one step up from Bay's.
But only the one.

It was weird. I thought about the romantic thing too (I just wrote that in answer to another comment before reading yours!) but I don't think it worked.
Maybe I am still getting my mind around the whole Uhura/Spock thing, which made much more sense without watching TOS and its movies. Now it feels strange. I am not ready to get another relationship in the crew.

Once burnt... Lost was probably the worst ending to a TV series ever for me.

That's very true indeed. However JJ Abrams is not a showrunner on these shows either. He was creator and showrunner on Alias for the first three seasons. And co-creator and showrunner on Lost for the first three episodes (or so) and on Fringe throughout the first season. In fact I'm not even sure how big his producing duties are on most of the shows mentioned here. To me it sounds like the kind of "executive producer" title you get a lot in movies. Don't forget that tv is a more popular medium these days than cinema so you can expect the same antics with tv nowadays as you had with movies before.

It was a series that never was. They blatantly lied about it in season three to bring us all back, given that we figured out it was just mystery box theater. "It's not purgatory." "It is an alternate dimension where you wait to pass onto the afterlife". I really came close to filing false advertising on both that and the lie that JJ sent (in this order) Cumberbatch, Pegg, and Mendez to claim that Benedict was not playing Khan. After the first denial, if Abrams/Bad Robot did not approve of the lie they would have notified everyone that their back-end of the contracts are null and void if they say it again. There is no way three would share the same lie without the approval of JJ.

To add three *important* items to the list: Plot holes, scientific guffaws, and flash backs that are far too topical. A cold fusing bomb makes things cold and fuses them together. Almost as good as being able to slap a cork into a eruption capable of destroying the planet (as if it would not just pick another route for the magma). But the best so far in his career is a ship being subtended by a Black Hole, but waiting until the Enterprise shoots it before collapsing into the strongest force in the Universe. Or we have him disconnecting the warp engines which were required to keep the ship out of the Black Hole, so they would be sucked into it (at the speed of light after all) before they could even exit the ship. Ah, so many plot holes to choose from, so little text space. Khan blood making everyone immortal, or personal inter-galactic teleporters invalidating the need for ships (or Starfleet). Damn JJ, you really know how to make an exit from a series. Can't wait to see how you screw-up Star Wars.

As long as JJ is an EP on any show, he is a creative lead and everyone working with Bad Robot is patterning themselves off of him. He publicly admits to such acts as pausing the set of Into Darkness so that he can take a call from Kripke to help out with Revolution. Personally I would not be surprised if he has A.D.D. - as that would explain a lot (especially the back lighting & lens flares) as more in needed to keep *his* attention. He got lucky with LOST, and maintained it with lies of answers. His characterizations are pretty good, but little else.

But he is on speed dial, and gives a metric tonne of creative advice, even helping craft the major premise of the show. He did this for Revolution, and likely does it for all of them, which is why they all have so much in common.

Mystery boxes only work if there is something awesome in the box.

>> 5 traits of a JJ Abrams-produced TV show

Ummmm . . . it suffers from Orci-Kurtzman syndrome?

So what was the lie?

Very well stated, thank you! I find it so frustrating how so many people fail to realize that JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Carleton Cuse, Jeff Pinkner, Joel Wyman, and Jon Nolan are actually NOT the same person.

There was a priceless White Tulip inside the box. I treasure it with all my heart.

What you mean JJ Abrams didn't write The Dark Knight? Just kidding. Also can I say I love your avatar. I'm a huge fan of TLJ and Dreamfall. Can't wait for the next installment. Off topic I know but I had to say it.

Oh my! This may be the first time someone on Disqus has recognized her. =)

I know. That game series gets far too little attention. Maybe we can persuade DoG to review Chapters when it comes out. Still off topic I know but I don't think anyone's actually reading this comment section anymore besides us.

Yeah, it would be sweet if DoG reviewed it. Say, are you on Steam?


Cool, I'm Ashok if you ever want to add me, if not that's fine. Same avatar.

Just send you an invite. Dobbs is the name. Not my real name. Just something that made sense at the time. Love your signature line btw. Cortez is awesome. Hope he returns in Chapters.

Felicity had "the box" too... remember?! megan's crazy box that she always wanted to make sure felicity wasn't looking in. "DID YOU TOUCH MY BOX?!" "NO!!! GOD!" it always made me laugh... and then in the twilight episode - THEY WERE IN THE BOX.... i haven't watched the last season in a long time, but i'm guessing the time travel was wrapped into the box somehow as well... sidenote: jj is just the best ever <3 felicity and lost both broke me into a million pieces... as well as the mission impossible he did, and the star treks. i can just never get enough of his beautiful questionable heart in his work <3

this was so beautiful <3

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