Over the years there have been culture phenomena I’ve avoided for various reasons. It could be as fickle as my mood, the presence of Eric Robert’s Ugly Sister (or ERUS, as Justin coined), or the fact that I just missed the entry point before the culture became saturated by the book, TV, or film series. In “Better Late Than Never,” I look past my objections to see if the culture was right or wrong to embrace the phenomenon so strongly.
Title: Fringe, Season One
Airdates: September 9th, 2008 – May 12th, 2009
Objection: Some of you may remember that I had a now-forgotten beef with J.J. Abrams. I wish I could recall just what it was about his early television efforts that enraged me so and kept from giving his overt sci-fi material a chance. Of course, my animosity for the guy disappeared when I found myself enjoying his take on “Star Trek.” More importantly, I learned that his thoughts on storytelling and writing are quite similar to my own. Sadly for “Fringe,” this truce did not happen until its first season ended. Even afterward, I was unwilling to give the show a chance … mainly because it airs on Fox, a network I don’t trust. They have a bad habit of either choking a series while its still in its infancy or keeping it on life support until everything that made the program special withers away.
The Show: “Fringe” appears, on its surface, to be about a joint FBI/Homeland Security task force known as “Fringe Division.” Their job is to mop up the weird and unexplainable crimes the rest of the Bureau used to put in a file-folder marked “X.” Though led by Agent Phillip Broyles, the focus is on Agent Olivia Dunham and her go-to experts on the weird, Dr. Walter Bishop and his son Peter. Together, the three investigate happenings like a plane full of melted passengers, were-porcupines rampaging across the countryside and bank robbers who phase through solid matter. All the while, Dunham has visions of her dead partner, Agent John Scott.
Well, that’s what it initially appeared to be. If you’re wondering why I would waste my time on some warmed-over “X-Files” plots, it’s because “Fringe” abandons this premise pretty quickly in favor of one that is far more exciting. Here’s the real deal: a mad scientist, grief-stricken over the death of his neglected son, opens a hole in the fabric of the universe and kidnaps the version of his son that exists in the nearest convenient parallel dimension. His tampering weakens the boundaries between the two realities and his counterpart on the other side begins a decades long campaign against our world.
To me, that makes for compelling television.
The problem, though, is just how long it takes to get to this wild concept. J.J. Abrams and his collaborators have a “cooked spaghetti” approach to telling long narratives. They throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. In the case of “Lost,” the initial narrative hook kept people around long before The Hatch was discovered. On “Fringe,” we are given the FBI setting and a story-carrot known as “The Pattern.” In the pilot, Broyles explains to Dunham that The Pattern is a series of unexplainable events stretching back twenty years, but it seems to also be a rogue agency inside the FBI and a corporation called Massive Dynamic. In the same episode, we also learn that Scott was involved with the shadowy group. The first baker’s dozen of episodes revolves around The Pattern … but with Scott’s last appearance in the thirteenth episode, the show pivots. The Pattern — as a Cigarette-Smoking Man analogue — is dropped entirely for the first strands of the show’s real premise.
When I mentioned to people I was watching “Fringe” from the beginning, they asked me to note when it gets good. I think I can provide a handy episode guide of essential Season One episodes for those who want to get caught up.
1.) Episode 4: “The Arrival” – Though still firmly in The Pattern era, this episode introduces us to The Observer, a smartly dressed albino-ish figure of mystery. He also brings with him the lens flares that J.J. would later co-opt for Star Trek. I doubt the writing staff knew exactly where they were going when they introduced The Observer, but he’s an early plot strand that will pay off later and present the viewer with plenty of lens flares.
2.) Episode 7: “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones “- David Robert Jones, the character mentioned in the title, is the first to suggest that The Pattern is meaningless and his fascination with Dunham plays into her ultimate role going forward. The show is starting to get its footing here.
3.) Episodes 10 and 11: “Safe” and “Bound” – This loose two-parter sees the return of Mr. Jones and the weird cylinders seen in “The Arrival.” It’s the first story to connect the more interesting dots presented thus far.
4.) Episode 14: “Ability” – Here, we first see that Dunham is no ordinary FBI agent and it’s with this episode that the show really gets a toe-hold. The John Scott thread ended in the previous episode (never to be mentioned again) and Jones suggests the existence of an alternate world. From here on, the show has momentum and a generally interesting direction. With the exception of one clunker that feels like an early story idea from the initial writing meetings, “Fringe” cooks for the remaining episodes of the season.
If there was one thing that got me through the episodes not listed in the guide, it was Walter. Pretty much from his first line in the pilot, Walter is an exciting and unexpected TV personality. He is a mad scientist and the length and breadth of his mad science propels his scenes. More importantly, he’s all id, so his dialogue and behavior is composed of nothing but every crazy impulse you’ve ever had.
In fact, the show does a pretty good job of endearing all the main characters (except one) rather quickly. Broyles, for instance, is the angry teddy bear. Bringing all the gravitas from “The Wire” with him, actor Lance Reddick always comes off as stern, severe, and dignified … but the character is totally a pushover. Despite leading the task force, he always takes his cues from Dunham. More than once, she comes into his office expecting him to say no, but she gets a charming capitulation instead. It’s kind of like Captain Cragen’s well-known “get-out-of-jail-free” card except with a much better actor.
Astrid, played by Jasika Nicole, seems like she wasn’t originally meant to be there, but I think the show would be poorer without her. She’s a Bureau agent, but spends all of her time helping Walter. She also does whatever research Dunham might need done in a given episode. She’s a really great assistant type character with her own little quiet dignity. For the majority of the first season, Walter cannot remember her name and when he finally asks her about where she lives, you can really see how happy she is to be recognized as a living entity.
My girlfriend pointed out that Astrid has no personal life that we know of. She has no home, family, boyfriend, girlfriend, cat, or existence outside the lab. It’s actually kind of thrilling because she’s so essential to making this show work and it speaks a lot to the charm Nicole brings to the role. I’d almost argue that Astrid came into being because the producers wanted to keep the actress on after the pilot.
While I enjoy Peter in relation to Walter, any time they try to play up his bad boy past, it makes me laugh. First, he’s played by Joshua Jackson, who will always be stuck as Pacey. It’s impossible to buy that Pacey worked in Iraq for years and has a bunch of thugs tracking his whereabouts.
Oh, never mind about that … the plotline got dropped.
When he is with Walter, he’s indispensable. At times, he’s there to decipher his father’s rantings. At others, he’s there to hiss out resentment. Yet still at other times, he stands as the practical voice of reason amongst a group of people living in a wacky reality. He fills a lot of functions in the dynamic and I have to give it to Jackson for meeting the challenge … even if he’s still Pacey.
Also, there’s Charlie.
At this point, we’ve got a great set of characters, but at the center of everything is Olivia Dunham and her quest to be awesome. She’s rarely successful at this endeavor and I think this is what makes the show difficult to watch at times. Actress Anna Torv is Australian and fights an occasionally losing battle against her natural accent. This leads to performances that are often stiff and monotone. The writing staff also forgets to let her smile or have a light moment, so she can go for stretches of episode in a glum state. While this makes sense toward the end of the season, I think they can afford to give her a few happy moments.
Verdict: I was wrong to miss “Fringe.” I don’t know if I could tolerate the show in weekly doses, but it’s quite enjoyable in the home video format. It features one of my favorite science fiction ideas: parallel worlds. I never thought network TV would be bold enough to air a series that not only considers the concept, but actually puts it center stage. I always figured network execs would find the idea confusing and, by extension, assume viewers would switch off.
Which, they have to some extent. “Fringe” is never a ratings winner, but I think that has more to do with the bevy of dropped plots and “cooked spaghetti” storytelling than the core concept. Cutting through the mess of Season One, I found a pretty compelling and ambitious sci-fi tale that, hopefully, will continue to be rewarding as we move forward into Season 2 and the truth of Leonard Nimoy’s presence on the show.
Oh, did I forget to mention that he plays a character? Consider it a cliffhanger.