Through four seasons of Felicity, five seasons of Alias, the Lost pilot, Mission: Impossible 3, Star Trek, Fringe, tonight’s new show Undercovers, and beyond, J.J. Abrams’s creative output has been dazzlingly diverse and prolific. Yet it doesn’t matter whether he’s dealing with love-addled college students, time travel, or bantering spies — certain archetypes, stylistic notes, creative approaches, and themes recur again and again. After a careful poring through Abrams’ entire body of work, we have spotted the following ten hallmarks of his oeuvre. And when you tune in to Undercovers tonight, you’re bound to see at least five of them in the pilot alone.
1. Daddy Issues. Abrams’s second produced screenplay, Regarding Henry, centered around a husband and father so narcissistic, intimacy-phobic, unethical, and disinterested in his wife and preteen daughter that it took a bullet to the head to make him reassess his position at the head of the dinner table. The parade of Abrams’s rogue dads that followed could make an orphan feel lucky. Alcoholic Andrew Covington (John Ritter) made a toe-curling come-on to his son’s serial squeeze Felicity Porter (Keri Russell) on Felicity, and Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) took an entirely Machiavellian approach to fatherhood in the first season of Alias. But both paled in comparison to Lost’s bad-dad trifecta: Jack’s scornful boozer ghost dad (who may or may not have been boinking his daughter-in-law per the Abrams-co-written season-three opener); Sawyer’s homicidal/suicidal old man; and Locke’s kidney-stealing pop. Fringe centers on a lead character, Olivia, whose defining childhood moment was gunning down her abusive stepfather at the tender age of nine, and every week it acts out the drama between mad son (Joshua Jackson) and mad genius father (John Noble). And when it was J.J.’s turn to reboot Star Trek, he reimagined the franchise as a space opera built around two kids, Kirk and Spock, trapped in the long shadows of a pair of powerful fathers.
2. Fingerprints Everywhere. As if writer-director-producer didn’t already have enough hyphens, the almost-comically productive Abrams also wrote the musical themes to Fringe, Alias, and Felicity, and co-designed the opening titles for Alias, Fringe, and Lost. (That paradigmatic drifting lettering? Abrams tossed that off during sound-mix sessions for the pilot.) Abrams, whose grandfather owned a company that made electronics kits, has always been a multitalented, tech-obsessed, natural-born tinkerer. He even troubleshot visual effects for M:I3, earning a last-listed credit in the end crawl of much-less-famous effects technicians.
3. Pure Torture. Something must have clicked when Abrams wrote a tickle-torture scene for Mel Gibson and his character’s girlfriend in his early spec script, Forever Young. Because things only escalated from there, with him often incorporating far less giggly ways of making his heroes talk. In the first few seconds of the Alias premiere, Jennifer Garner’s head was brutally dunked into a toilet. In M:I3, Tom Cruise took an onscreen shellacking (complete with a climactic temporary suicide and ad-libbed defibrillation) that represents a career high for Cruise character punishment. Given the keys to the Star Trek franchise, Abrams reenacted the Ceti Eel interrogation from Wrath of Khan, though Nero’s Klingon prison-camp torture escape wound up on the cutting-room floor.
4. Crisis Now, Explanation Later. Abrams likes to begin his films (and pilots) by throwing us right in the middle of some chaotic danger, establishing a tense tone, and then backing up to fill in how we got there: Both M:I3 (a nominal remake of the Alias series pilot) and Star Trek begin in full dramatic boil before flashing back (or forward, in the case of Trek) to how it all began. We met Alias’s Sydney mid-waterboarding, then zipped back to her taking an exam at school. The cast of Lost met and mingled for the first time amid the still-exploding wreckage of Oceanic Flight 815. MI:3 kicked off with a torture scene that resolves five reels later. A very different doomed flight erupted into a gooey airborne apocalypse in the first moments of Fringe. An Abrams show begins with a chokehold, not a hand-hold. He grabs the audience’s attention first, and only after does he establish what’s actually happening.
5. Girl Power. In the eighties, James Cameron was the champion of the female action hero, but in Avatar he manned up with Sam Worthington. Now Abrams (along with Joss Whedon) remains the distaff ass-kicker’s best friend. Women took care of business in Alias, Lost, MI:3, Fringe, and Undercovers, though unlike other exponents of the tough-girl act, Abrams doesn’t need to strap a gun or a badge onto his heroines to give them strength. Whether coed (Felicity) or fugitive (Kate), J.J.’s girls have power and character nuance to spare.
6. Time Means Nothing. In an Abrams saga, a character’s past is not only imperfect, it’s impermanent. In last year’s Star Trek reboot, Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman so ingeniously braided character backstory with a time-travel revenge plot that they completely restarted a franchise, wiping clean a story Bible that had become hopelessly convoluted. Lost’s flashes forward, back, and sideways created a subgenre of competing network rip-off vehicles (The Nine, Daybreak, Flash Forward) that ran on slippery time rails. Even Felicity wound up with a bizarre time-travel conceit in which she came back from the future via a spell cast by her Goth roommate. Hey, you have to start somewhere …
7. The McGuffin Ever since Hitchcock, the “mystery box” has been a cinema staple, whether it’s the hissing atomic Pandora’s box in Kiss Me Deadly, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Pulp Fiction’s glowing briefcase. And, as Abrams explained in his TED Talk master class on storytelling, the concept has always fascinated him. Along with clips and PowerPoint slides, Abrams showed the TED audience the wreckage of a Kleenex box he’d dissembled in his hotel room and a magic-shop Mystery Box usually on display in his office that has remained intact since he bought it in childhood. And the Abrams filmography is stocked with plot-charging mystery boxes, totems, and grails, whether they are opened intentionally (Lost’s hatch, Star Trek’s red matter), accidentally (the airstream body freezer in Forever Young, the Area 51 box car in the Super 8 trailer), or not at all (Mae’s mystery trove on Six Degrees, Felicity’s roommate Megan’s magic box, and, seriously, what was the “rabbit’s foot” in M:I3?). Of course, his obsession with riddles and reveals goes beyond the films and shows themselves; his viral campaigns and mysterious teasers have established him as one of Hollywood’s most dramatic showmen. In Abrams’s hands, secrecy-shrouded projects like Cloverfield and Super 8 become fan-titillating mystery boxes that are only unwrapped on opening day.
8. The Big Conspiracy Abrams’s dogged paranoia about governments, corporations, and shadowy institutions would make Franz Kafka proud, and he anchors his many conspiracies in the weight of ominous myth and the gravity of fact. Milo Rambaldi in Alias combined Da Vinci’s genius with Nostradamus’s impenetrable pseudo-mysticism. Lost’s Hanso Foundation and Dharma Initiative stirred up a baffling stew of scientific-magical-spiritual double-crossing. Fringe’s dimension-spanning governmental secret war owes as much to Joseph Campbell as to The Parallax View. Next year Super 8 will unpack a scenario that combines the U.S. Army’s disturbing real-life practice of moving potentially deadly cargo by train with rumors about Area 51’s alien hardware collection.
9. Talk to the Camera. Abrams and others in his Bad Robot stable have successfully traded on the mock-doc trope for years, even to the point where Abrams guest-directed an episode of The Office. Though Felicity’s film-school video cam “docuvent” plot device could strain viewer patience as much as it got on the nerves of Sean Blumberg’s put-upon friends, Cloverfield’s use of lo-fi video was a master class in etching small realism and immediacy into a Godzilla-size plot — all while helping keep the budget small.
10. Greg Grunberg, Perpetual Co-star Over the course of his two-decade upward career trajectory, Abrams has made sure to keep familiar faces along for the ride, most notably childhood friend Grunberg, a regular on Alias and Felicity who has popped up in some capacity (from large supporting role to voice-over) in a slew of Bad Robot productions. Like other Abrams regulars (such as actress Amanda Foreman, composer Michael Giacchino, and editor Mary Jo Markey), he seems to have good-luck-charm status, and will undoubtedly continue to shape the Abrams universe, in any number of dimensions and space-time continuums.