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Fringe exec producer plays “What If”

Whether it’s “Fringe,” “Lost,” “Alias” or “Early Edition,” the concept of “What If…” has been a signature in any “Jeff Pinkner Show” — now, he’s applying this love of theorizing to the wonderful world of sports.

In a series of original pieces currently running in ESPN The Magazine, Jeff finds a jumping off point — MLB chooses George W. Bush as commissioner in 1992, Brett Farve is never traded to the Packers, Monica Seles evades attack — and takes us on a twisty “what if” ride that results in entirely different versions of Dennis Rodman, Gisele Bundchen and Alex Rodriguez.

But you know I couldn’t let Jeff off the phone without picking his brain a bit about the sensational third season of “Fringe” that’s currently unfolding. In addition to talking about the appearance of more alt-universe personalities, I learned if The Doomsday Machine will be flipped on and why the concept of “What if…” has always transfixed him.

PopWrap: Why do you think the idea of “What If…” has permeated much of your TV work?
Jeff Pinkner: I’ve always been lightly obsessed with the cascading effects different choices we make have on our lives. So when ESPN called to see if I would be interested in contributing to their Fiction Issue, I loved the idea of showing how famous moments or decisions could have farflung outcomes that are seemingly unrelated to the initial trigger event.

PW: Any particular favorite of the five?
Jeff: I love the idea that somehow if Monica Seles hadn’t gotten stabbed, Denis Rodman would have stayed on The Spurs.

PW: It certainly made me start thinking of other theoretical “if this person hadn’t won the Oscar, then…” scenarios.
Jeff: I think one of the reasons that Facebook has so permeated society is because there’s a certain age for which Facebook is a direct means of accessing “what if my life had gone a different way? I’m going to reconnect with that person from high school because in another world where I made choices differently, we could be business partners.”

PW: Are you breaking the news of an upcoming “Fringe meets Social Network” episode?
Jeff: [laughs] Exactly!

PW: On that note, I have to tell you, this season has been absolutely astounding from a fan point of view. How do you feel about the direction its gone in?
Jeff: I think we’ve found a groove where everybody is pulling in the same direction – challenging eachother. We’ve tapped into a reality creative vein this season and I would argue, we have the single best cast on television, several of whom are playing two roles.

PW: But you had to know what a tremendous cast you had from the jump, right?
Jeff: Yes, we found very early on that there was nothing we could throw at them that they wouldn’t just crush. Then, the more they crush it, the more you want to challenge them and write more stuff for them because it’s so rewarding. Early on, Anna [Torv] was taking knocks for being unsettled as an actress which was hard to watch because the truth is we were writing a character who was unsettled. The more Olivia grew, the more it became clear that Anna was really playing a role. And as soon as we gave her a mirror character, someone who is doing something different, it threw into light what she was really doing. Then you’ve got John [Noble], who is a genius, Seth [Gabel] has been spectacular and it’s a shame that by design Josh [Jackson] only gets to play one version of himself because that guy is phenomenal.

PW: Is that desire to continually challenge the actors behind the March 18 return of William Bell through Olivia?
Jeff: The idea came from still having story to tell for the character. One of the themes of our show is balance and harmony and the idea that there are two sides to everything. That’s a seed we planted in season one – William & Walter are Lennon & McCartney. They bring out the best in one another and are not complete without the other.

PW: In the same episode we meet another version of Lincoln, right?
Jeff: Yes, and introducing the alt-Lincoln is insanely fun — the characterization Seth has created just makes you smile. It’s really fun but the stories are going to get heavier and graver as the season progresses. The pacing is going to accelerate and suggest what season four will look like.

PW: You had previously teased the idea of a six season plan — are you still working off of that?
Jeff: Absolutely. We have six to eight seasons worth of material. We see it as having certain chapters that would enrich the overall story, but aren’t necessary to tell the overall story. God willing the network allows us the time to tell our complete story.

PW: Does any portion of those eight seasons include additional universes?
Jeff: Well, science has acknowledged that there are a zillion of them – a multiverse. Thus far, our story has only taken place in two but that’s not to suggest there won’t be more down the line.

PW: What are some things we’ll see as the season winds down? The Doomsday Machine being activated?
Jeff: We absolutely will.

PW: Another version of Nina Sharp?
Jeff: We talk about it all the time, and we have a plan for her it just hasn’t gotten there yet.

PW: One universe winning out?
Jeff: Without spoiling anything, I will say that things unfurl in a very unexpected way for the characters and the audience. I can say that with confidence.

PW: Lastly, what are you excited about with the final string of season three episodes?
Jeff: With as much humility as I can muster, I will tell you that I feel like this season started in a really strong place and it continues to delight us – some of the stories coming up are really fun and exciting. We’re still finding different ways to push at the envelope of storytelling. To me, surprise is a good means of storytelling, but sometimes giving the audience what they expect in an unexpected way is more satisfying. As an audience member, I love guessing ahead on stories I care about. That’s how our minds indicate they’re really engaged.

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