5 traits of a JJ Abrams-produced TV show

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.

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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

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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.

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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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