J.J. Abrams: Pop-culture polymath

ewu_logoWelcome back to our EW University course on TV Auteurs — a look at some of the people who have had a major role in shaping the medium over the last 50 years. Today, Prof. Dan Snierson offers his overview of the work of J.J. Abrams.

If you had to sum up J.J. Abrams neatly in just one word, it would be …  kinda hard to do. He’s a cross-genre, multi-medium hyphenate who flies a geek flag of many colors. (The boy who grew up on The Twilight Zone, Mission Impossible, Get Smart, James Bond, and Star Wars has crafted a TV resume that boasts credits as diverse as Felicity and Fringe; his movie credits range from Regarding Henry to Cloverfield.) His projects tend to be smart, layered, splashy, angsty, laced with mystery and/or mythology — plus they just might contain an It Girl in the making (see: Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner). He’s also known for delving into virtually every part of the creative process. Not only does he write, direct, and produce, the guy has penned the theme music and designed the opening credits for some of his shows. (Heck, he’s even popped up a few times in front of the camera. Check out his decent acting chops in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation). Fact is, he’s had Hollywood on the brain for a very long time: The son of TV producer Gerald W. Abrams, he started making little films on a Super 8 camera as a kid; while a student at Sarah Lawrence College, he co-wrote the treatment for what would become the 1990 comedy Taking Care of Business. While these days Abrams is a sought-after talent in the movie world — he recently helmed the critically and commercially successful reboot of Star Trek — we’re going to focus here on his notable television work. Herewith, a look at the four iconic TV creations of J.J. Abrams.
felicity_lFelicity (1998-2002, The WB)
Struck with an idea for a coming-of-age drama with a girl named Felicity, Abrams teamed up with childhood pal Matt Reeves, and the pair fleshed out the concept: Felicity (Russell) passes up enrollment at Stanford to follow her high-school crush Ben (Scott Speedman) to the fictional University of New York, where she learns that … he’s not interested in her. At least not yet. Viewers would be treated to a memorable love triangle involving the inscrutable Ben and Felicity’s earnest R.A. Noel (Scott Foley), along with other heartfelt, heartache-y college-girl-in-the-big-city adventures. But it wasn’t just straight young-adult drama. There was a little mystery (What was in the black box of Felicity’s Wiccan roommate Meghan?), some high-concept gadgetry (a sleep mask/alarm clock, one of the many weird inventions of Ben’s roommate, Sean), a dash of time travel (Felicity relives her senior year, thanks to a Meghan spell!), and even a Twilight Zone homage (Abrams wrote a reverent black-and-white parody episode that was shot with vintage cameras, and he hired Zone’s Lamont Johnson to direct). Abrams would revisit the romantic drama genre in 2006 as the executive producer of ABC’s What About Brian and Six Degrees.

Alias (2001-2006, ABC)
What if Felicity were living a double life as a spy? That was a jokey flash of inspiration that Abrams had one day in the Felicity writers’ room. Next thing he knew, he was brainstorming this premise: Sydney Bristow (Garner) is a grad student secretly recruited to work for SD-6, a covert branch of the CIA. But when she found out that SD-6 were actually the bad guys and had killed her fiance, she signed up as a double agent for the CIA, itching to bring down SD-6. Aiding in her globetrotting missions were her CIA handler/ultimate romantic interest Vaughn (Michael Vartan) and her also-a-double-agent dad Jack (Victor Garber). Oh, did we mention that her mom Irina (Lena Olin) was one of the world’s most dangerous spies? Or that the fate of the planet may indeed rest on some cryptic artifacts left behind by 15th-century artist-engineer-architect-prophet Milo Rambaldi? And that Sydney wears cool wigs on the job? An espionage thriller/twentysomething drama hybrid, Alias proved a whirl of neato gadgets, who’s-double-crossing whom games, and mystery: What’s up with that giant orange ball and 500-year-old flower?

“The thing that excited me was telling a story about the most f—ed-up family of all time,” Abrams told EW in 2002. “It just happens to be told in this weird amalgam of genres. And it truly is an amalgam. I love comedies, I love romantic comedies, I love dramas, I love romantic dramas, I love horror movies, I love science fiction films, I love thrillers. When I wrote Alias, I decided, ‘Screw it, I’m going to write something that has everything I love.'”

Lost (2004-2010, ABC)
Co-created with Damon Lindelof, Lost chronicles the adventures of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, which crashed on a weird tropical island. One of the show’s clever twists was to enhance the characters’ story lines with globe-spanning flashbacks (and in later seasons, enticing flashforwards). Teeming with nuanced characters (many with daddy issues, like Matthew Fox’s Dr. Jack Shephard) and mysteries (polar bears in this heat?), Lost proved to be Abrams’ biggest TV hit, averaging 16 million weekly viewers in season 1. Though he turned his attention away from Lost during the first season to focus on his feature-film directorial debut (2006’s Mission Impossible III), he laid the groundwork for one of the most intriguing dramas in TV history: Everywhere you turn lurks possibility or a puzzle. An ominous, looped transmission in French? A man-killing smoke monster? A walking, talking dead dad? A cultish group of island inhabitants? A hatch? Gilligan’s Island this ain’t.

Fringe (2008-present, Fox)
Abrams teamed up with his Star Trek writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, to concoct a drama that chronicles the adventures of an FBI division that is investigating an outbreak of freaky, horrific events known as “The Pattern.” (Orafices are closing up! Ahhhhh!) Starring Anna Torv as FBI agent/genetic experiment Olivia Dunham, John Noble as the clinically mad scientist Walter Bishop, and Joshua Jackson as his savvy-yet-rebellious son Peter, the X-Files-like Fringe is part enigma-of-the-week procedural, part mythological mindblow. Why does the twisty trail keep leading back to Massive Dynamic, an ominous super-corporation that researches new technologies … and just happens to be headed by Walter’s old research buddy, William Bell? What is the end game of terrifying terrorist organization ZFT (meaning “Destruction through technological progress”)? Surely that parallel universe that was exposed in the season finale will provide some answers. And (if we know Abrams) a lot more questions….

Extra Credit Viewing: Abrams’ big-screen work, which includes Joy Ride, Mission Impossible III, Cloverfield, and Star Trek

Watch as Abrams explains his love of mystery at the 2006 TED conference

Extra Credit Reading: Doc Jensen’s introductory tutorial on Lost.

This EW feature on Alias/Abrams.

And this EW feature on the creation of Felicity.

More on TV Auteurs in EW University:
Aaron Spelling: The king of guilty-pleasure TV

Aaron Sorkin: Talker, walk with me

Joss Whedon: Master of cult TV

TV industry brass: Why so white?

Photo gallery: From Love Boat to Lost, great shows by four TV titans

Final Exam: Test your knowledge of these auteurs’ best shows

Comments (8 total) Add your comment
  • DW

    Great article. I’ve loved pretty much everything Abrams has done, from Joy Ride to Fringe to everything in between. (Well, aside from Six Degrees and What About Brian) Star Trek easily stands as one of the best movies of the year, in my humble opinion.

  • Emmy

    J.J. Abrams is great because he understands how to tell emotionally compelling stories within huge blockbuster movies (Star Trek) or TV shows (ALIAS, LOST).

  • Sian

    Big JJ fan much like Joss Whedon I jump on anything with his name attatched. loved Felicity and Alias. and absolutely adore Fringe one of my new favourite shows. and Star Trek was pretty awesome loved that. Lost was good first season but hell who knows what went wrong there. i imagine that even if they manage to end this show in some way or another. there’s going to still be too many questions left unanswered because they have so many.

  • Matt

    I used to really dig JJ Abrams… until I realized that the true genius was actually Damon Lindelof. JJ’s the flashy wunderkind, Damon’s the Man Behind The Curtain.

    Alias? MI:3? Cloverfield (as a producer)? All can be considered disappointments — not to say that they were bad, of course. They were quite good… but didn’t quite meet their lofty potential.

    But Lost? Star Trek? Great hooks AND great finishes, massive critical and commercial successes. And what did they have that the others didn’t, I ask you?

    Just saying…

  • Matt

    Also, you forgot to assign “Armageddon” as extra credit.

  • Paul Rose Jr

    Hey, you guys also missed that JJ Abrams gave Orci and Kurtzman a chance to shine on his TV ventures – especially Alias, before they established themselves as writing juggernauts.

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