Monday, September 30, 2013

Fringe (2008-2013)


Fringe takes about two full seasons before it gets really good. Admittedly, it's asking a lot to expect viewers to stick around that long. I can't think of too many shows that run for 30+ mediocre hours before really hitting their stride and becoming awesome. I'd like to say that's because I don't usually stay with mediocre shows that long, but, really, it's because that just doesn't happen. But I honestly do feel Fringe is one of those rare shows where the investment pays off. And, since this is a show that has already concluded its five-season run, you can bear with that first season-and-a-half with my assurance (whether or not that instills you with confidence) that it will improve. I certainly can't make the same guarantee with something current, like Revolution, a mediocre-at-best show that might become good if it makes it to a third season (though it would seriously surprise me if either of those things happened).

Clearly modeled after The X-Files, Fringe is a science fiction show about a division of the FBI dedicated to investigating cases of the paranormal. It is, for the most part, a "case of the week" show, although there are also season-spanning story arcs, and eventually it becomes more serialized. The procedural aspect is what makes the show sometimes a drag for me, as I tend to prefer serialized shows that allow their characters to really grow and change, and where each week's episode feels consequential because it's contributing to the momentum of a larger story. It's that sense of reward for being a loyal week-to-week viewer (which I am), as opposed to a show where I could skip an episode and not feel I had missed anything (or, worse, where I could watch an episode and not feel I had gotten anything out of it). And this is even more so a problem when going through shows at an accelerated pace. I don't know why anyone would ever binge-watch a strictly procedural show devoid of cliffhangers, but Fringe has enough overarching threads running through each season to entice viewers to keep tuning in expectantly for the next development, only to find that standing in the way is another mostly standalone case. Consumed in lengthy multi-episode sessions (which is how I did it), Fringe can feel full of filler, even though, in fact, the "filler" episodes weren't originally filler, because the show was originally conceived of and designed as a procedural. And, indeed, some of the standalone episodes are quite good. In fact, I would say that the very best episode in the series is largely a standalone episode. (I won't even bother specifying which episode, because if you've seen Fringe, then you surely know which episode I'm talking about, and if you haven't, then you will know immediately once you get to that episode.)

There are also, of course, plenty of weak standalone stories in Fringe, and the majority of them are just mediocre television, the only really neat aspect being that most of the cases have some basis in real science and can actually be mildly instructive. I confess, for most of the first two seasons, Fringe was a show I had on in the background while multitasking, rather than something I gave my full attention.

What eventually elevates Fringe to "really good" status is not a single great standalone episode but the longer arcs that, again, pay off in ways that The X-Files, among other shows, never did. A lot of serialized shows center around a single hook, introduced at the outset—a goal or destination for the characters, a fated union or confrontation, or the answer to a mystery—which an entire season or even series then builds toward. I can think of very few shows where that long-awaited moment has ever lived up to all the buildup. Actually, I think most such shows get canceled in the middle of still stringing viewers along with that "raise two new questions with every answer" nonsense. Fringe actually doesn't begin with a central mystery. It presents a few ultimately insignificant mysteries right off the bat, but it's not until near the end of the first season that it teases something potentially really cool, which is—SPOILER—the existence of an alternate universe, complete with alternate versions of most of the main characters. Then, it's not until the end of the second season that the show finally takes viewers into that other universe, but, when it happens, the moment really is, for once, as cool as the teases suggested.

When the third season fully runs with the parallel dimensions premise, that's when Fringe finally becomes more than an X-Files clone and finds it own unique high concept as a story exploring both sides of a spy game waged between mirror universes. Having episodes alternate between universes is clever, but the best part is seeing the actors play alternate versions of their characters. I've mentioned before that one of my favorite aspects of The Vampire Diaries is how Nina Dobrev manages to play two different characters and make each distinctly compelling. It's the same on Fringe, where Anna Torv, after developing one character over the course of two seasons, is given the chance to play an alternate version of that character, and she runs with that opportunity to establish the alternate as a distinct character, with her own personality and mannerisms, who is completely compelling in her own right.

With its third season, Fringe even feels like a show at last made whole by the addition of the alternate universe and alternate characters, as some of the alternates feel like the main characters' latent other halves. Torv, as Agent Olivia Dunham, is a brilliant and relentless detective, but, emotionally guarded, she seems to need her job even more than it needs her. John Noble, as Doctor Walter Bishop, is a mad scientist of considerable genius, but who often trails off into goofy non sequiturs about drugs and sweets. In the early goings, Olivia can come across cold, while Walter's antics can be a little too out there and tiresome. Flip over to their alternates, however, and "Fauxlivia" is freer, more vivacious than Olivia, even carrying herself with a more relaxed and open posture, while "Walternate" is a dignified, even imposing leader of men. Not only do you realize how versatile these actors are but it's an insightful observation on how people are more layered than what we see on the surface and how they present themselves, as the story explores how and why these characters might choose differently which layers of themselves to push to the fore.

It's also around this point that the show becomes considerably more serialized, although the breakdown is not as clean as "this number of standalone episodes versus that number of mythology episodes per season." Rather, the "case of the week" episodes come to include more and more time devoted to advancing the characters' relationships, which, in concert with the really cool alternate universe angle, provide the hook that eventually elevates Fringe far beyond its initial procedural trappings.

On The X-Files, the Mulder-and-Scully romance was really of tertiary importance, and yet it always loomed awkwardly as a threat to the integrity of that show's formula. Fringe is, from the outset, more direct and honest about where it wants to take its characters. The story is surprisingly high on romance and sentimentality, and it works because, even when the writing skates the line between heartfelt and manipulative, the actors perform with sincerity and always hit the right notes. As with the show as a whole, the characters take some time to grow on you, but the leads eventually prove themselves worth rooting for. By the end, I had an atypically strong emotional investment in their fates, not just tuning in to see cool twists but in hopes of a well-earned happy ending. Part of that probably does have to do with the fact that nothing ever comes easy for these characters, as the story only gets progressively darker and heavier.

No, it's not high art. Fringe was created by J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman—the same creative team behind the rebooted Star Trek film series. Abrams was probably more involved with Fringe than he was with Lost, as he was still writing Fringe episodes as late as the second season premiere. Orci and Kurtzman were minimally involved past the conception, with Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman being the day-to-day showrunners. But Fringe certainly feels of a breed with the new Star Trek, as here too we get the sense that this is a team of yayhoos that can churn out a cool scene or a neat twist but who aren't exactly aspiring to craft literature. As fun as the story becomes, it's also consistently sketchy, in the sense that questions are constantly being raised that the writers simply never address. These aren't mysteries, but rather instances, where, if you really care to question a given premise, you'll realize that it simply doesn't make sense. For example, the alternate universe is decades more technologically advanced than ours, but why is that the case? Where was the divergence, and, given the butterfly effect, why didn't the divergence yield two universes even more disparate than they are? But, no, there never is a reason given. We're asked to just accept it as part of the premise and then enjoy the ride from there. The ride is enjoyable, but, even so, there are tons of unanswered questions just like this throughout the course of the show, and they do bug me. On top of that, there are also the intended mysteries that aren't satisfactorily resolved, either because of production issues (e.g. guest actors' schedules) or because they're clearly just making things up as they go along. Even in the near-miraculous instances when things do come together quite intricately, these guys are not afraid to push the reset button a la Star Trek (2009) and callously wipe out tons of history from a series, which is kind of really irritating to me (not to mention it raises serious existential and moral questions that seem to have sailed right over the writers' heads).

But the mythology, however sketchy, is interesting to explore, and the show is executed with a wealth of inventive ideas. Composer Chris Tilton, who, like Michael Giacchino, paid his dues doing video game music, also bestows the score with an emotional depth that adds a lot of weight to this entertaining ride. And the plot twists are both cool and quite ballsy. The half-length final season, a go-for-broke sprint, even seems to take a page from the darkest chapter of Dollhouse, of all shows. (Speaking of which, it's hard to believe, but, with Fringe being contemporaneous with, albeit longer-lived than, both Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fox actually had three of the more cult science fiction shows of recent years running at the same time.) Fringe is flawed, but, once it finds its rhythm, it becomes a captivating, unique, and unexpectedly affecting show that is well worth spending 100 episodes with (or at least 70).

Oh, one warning, if you're planning to watch the whole series for the first time: On Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, there is a "bonus" episode, "Unearthed," that plays after the first season finale. On Netflix, I believe it is positioned right after the season finale, and, on Amazon Instant Video, it is found in the middle of the second season. Aside from being the worst episode in the entire series, it actually takes place in the middle of the first season, and placing it in season 2 presents glaring continuity errors. There's a weird story behind the production of this episode—basically, Fox ordered 23 episodes to fill 22 slots in the season 1 schedule, so the production team filmed "Unearthed" as an extra episode and left it to Fox to air whenever—and it originally aired on TV as a special during the second season, but if you plan to watch it at all, I would recommend you schedule it after episode 18, "Midnight." It's a bad episode to begin with, but if you watch it in the Netflix order, it will more than likely not only confuse you but royally piss you off. At least, that was my unfortunate experience.

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