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Shows pack spooky punch with exploding heads, demon hunters

Neither can lay claim to the title of the scariest thing on TV — after a couple of minutes of CNBC’s stock ticker, I spent the other day hiding under my bed — but nobody does spooky quite like “Fringe” (9 p.m. Tuesdays, KVVU-TV, Channel 5) and “Supernatural” (9 p.m. Thursdays, KVCW-TV, Channel 33).

And before you say this is all coming a couple of days too late, relax. If “The Simpsons” says Halloween’s not over — its 19th annual “Treehouse of Terror” episode airs today (8 p.m. Channel 5) — it’s not over.

“Fringe” follows the ragtag team of FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his estranged genius son Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) as they investigate strange goings-on connected to fringe science. The series got off to a jaw-dropping start — literally, as something was causing people’s faces to melt and fall to the floor. In the weeks since, audiences have been treated to bleeding eyes, exploding heads and victims literally frozen in terror. Sort of like watching Keith Olbermann watch Sarah Palin.

“Supernatural,” in its fourth season, keeps its premise fairly simple: It’s just two bros — Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) — cruisin’ the country in a ’67 Chevy Impala, listening to Zeppelin and Sabbath, and laying waste to ghosts, demons and other assorted beasties. Or, as recently was observed by one of the ridiculously attractive guest stars — seriously, it’s like the show’s casting director never looks anywhere but Maxim’s Hometown Hotties — “So this is what you do? You and your partner just tramp across the county on your own dime until you find some horrible nightmare to fight? Wow. That must suck.”

Both series are descendants of “The X-Files.” When asked about the comparisons, “Fringe” co-creator J.J. Abrams points out other inspirations, such as Ken Russell’s “Altered States” and the works of David Cronenberg, Michael Crichton and Robin Cook. “Supernatural,” meanwhile, recently played around with the similarities. “So you guys are like Mulder and Scully or something,” the same Hot Blonde of the Week asked, “and the X-Files are real?” “No,” Dean informed her. ” ‘The X-Files’ is a TV show. This is real.”

And each of them has just enough mythology — Sam has some demon blood in him; all of the cases on “Fringe” are connected to something ominous-sounding called “The Pattern” — to keep the fan boys happy without alienating casual viewers. “We’re trying very diligently,” says Abrams, who lists the convoluted “Lost” and “Alias” on his resume, “to do a show that doesn’t require the kind of insane, absolute dedication to a series that, if you miss an episode, you truly have no idea what’s going on.”

Of the two, “Supernatural” generally is more fun, with the boys checking into a series of the most elaborately seedy motels TV has ever seen, posing as anything but demon hunters — thanks to the show’s rock ‘n’ roll sensibility, they’ve been deputies Plant and Page, detectives Bachman and Turner and fathers Simmons and Frehley — and finding new uses for everyday items such as table salt. (Throw down a handful of Morton’s and spirits can’t cross it? Who knew?)

But “Fringe” has its moments, too, mostly thanks to Walter. Part Einstein, part Frankenstein, he lost both a good chunk of his sanity and, as part of a running gag, the control of some of his bodily functions after having been institutionalized for the past 17 years.

“I’ve worked on a project where I’ve seen this before,” Walter tells the team in a cadence and timbre usually reserved for the campy hosts of late-night horror movies. “The government had asked me if it was possible to make a human being trackable by pigeons.”

“Like homing pigeons?” Peter asks dismissively. “What possible use could that serve?”

“Well, I’m sure it had something to do with the Commies. It always did back then.”

OK, so neither one really can compete with “Treehouse of Terror” — this year’s installment includes riffs on “Mad Men,” “Transformers,” “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and the dangers of the McCain campaign — but they’re plenty entertaining for the rest of the year.

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

 

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