TV Review: Fringe

By: Jonathan Phipps

I have several friends who recently made the bold claim that, “Anyone who liked The X Files will like the new show Fringe”.  This is a rather bold claim indeed as, like it or not, The X Files was a cultural phenomenon in the United States for the better part of a decade.  I was (obviously) a huge fan of that show, and a fan of the two most recent J.J. Abrams televisions ventures (Alias & Lost), so I decided to give this one a go as well.

Having completed the first installment of the series I can say a few things; 1 – it is a quality show worth watching, and 2 – this show compares to The X Files only on the most elementary level.  This show comes from the Sci-fi family and deals with the work of a special division of Homeland Security tasked with countering phenomenon that borders on “fringe science” (hence the name).  For those of you unfamiliar with this particular term, it simply deals with science that a lot of scientists believe is bologna (i.e.: all the things that run through the title of the show – dark matter, teleportation, nanotechnology, telekinesis, etc. etc.).  While the show suffers from the same symptoms that many shows with a U.S. government agency conspiracy theory base run on, it excels in many other areas that tend to overshadow it.  Season one left with me with a very positive overall feeling toward the show, and I am looking forward to season two (which just finished airing recently, but is not out yet on DVD).

Story:

One of the issues faced with this particular type of show from the get-go is the question of whether it would try tying into one continuing story arch, or to simply structure the show as a series of interesting stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes (think Twilight Zone).  The major themes running through this show are obviously of the supernatural and fantastical variety, which bring about “boogey-man” type storyboards that will definitely have you looking at the closet a few times before you go to sleep.  In the past shows of this nature focused on the episode at hand only, trying to deal with the monster and it’s origins rather than the characters charged with discharging it (think Scooby Doo).  It was not readily apparent from the jump in which direction this show would go.  However, as the series goes on it becomes clear that J.J. has created another extremely convoluted story arch series that is going to require watching from the beginning in order to keep up with all the twists and turns.

This has good aspects and bad aspects in my opinion.  The good aspect is that it keeps the story from going static; you feel compelled to watch in order to keep up with what is happening in a constantly evolving world.  The bad aspect?  J.J. Abrams and the team of men he often collaborates with when making a show have admitted to starting projects with no real clear destination – thus sometimes the twists are just that, twists, with no real terminus.  You can feel that from this show as well as it at times grabs at what is assumed to be the goal further down the road.  However, the same can be said for many mainstream television series.  With the way that becoming a major network series is structured (being given a pilot and maybe two or three episodes to draw people in before they pull the plug), many great shows come out the gate vastly different than the show ends up.  It’s like blasting a cannon off at the beginning to get your attention, and then it has to settle into a smoothly evolving and engaging storyline.  This strikes different people different ways because so often shows now come out with a strong in your face story for four or five episodes only to become more subdued as the regularity of presentation sets in.  Fringe deals with this problem rather well as it maintains the fast paced frantic search for answers from the opening of the first episode to the closing of the last.

Now, the problem with creating a convoluted story line such as Fringe attempts to do (one in which you will never know who the bad guy really is, because everyone seems to play them at some point) is that the beginning tends to bumble along until you get a real grasp on the central theme.  I will have to say that of the three major productions Mr. Abrams has put together, this show seems to have the most solid identity from the word go.  However, one can’t help but feel at the beginning that certain things are starting that may never have an end.  A majority of this can be attributed to how shows are written – with a bevy of writers all trying to work out their own ideas and not necessarily agreeing on a central ground at times – but despite all of this Fringe grabs on to it’s core before season’s end, and you can feel that the direction is more defined (albeit convoluted) than in the other television shows that Bad Robot has produced in the last few decades… Felicity included (yes, the man who now produces shows about super agents, mysterious time traveling islands, and multi-verse monster marathons once made Felicity.  I don’t get it either.)

The strong points of the story presentation come from their ability to weave together a world where all things that people consider to be impossible are simply believed to be so due to a lack of imagination.  So the world of the fantastic and the ordinary are blurred together by way of complex science.  I have no doubt that a real scientist watching this show would shake his head and say, “give me a break”, but for the layman it does wonders for the imagination.  Imagining that one could actually stream into the consciousness of another person.  Imagining that science could make a way to transfer the thoughts of a dead man into the mind of another person in order to extract information.  The ideas that come out of this show are very creative and well thought out, but they do require the ability to suspend your disbelief.

The weak points of the story are where it merges together with proverbial dead horse material.  What I mean by this is the tired theme of “If you put all the U.S. Governmental agencies in one room together, they couldn’t spell cooperation with a dictionary, a speak and spell, and the entire nation wide 5th grade spelling bee championship panel” theme.  I think everyone gets it now – The FBI, CIA, NSA, Secret Service, Homeland Security, Police Department, and Bob the Rent-A-Cop from the neighborhood mall do not like each other ONE bit.  They don’t want to help each other, and at all times need to be apposed to each other’s movements, goals, and ideals.  We all get it.

One final weakness that this show has had to counter in its story presentation is the close proximity that some of their ‘monsters’ come to with The X Files.  At the outset I said that this show and X have only an elementary connection, and that is true, but when you use a description like this: A particular unit within one branch of the U.S. Government’s special investigations groups that is hidden from the main stream media and tasked with investigating and evaluating the circumstances surrounding apparently supernatural phenomenon – you realize that this could describe either show perfectly.  That puts their groundwork on the same exact premise, and because of this Fringe sometimes revisits things that X already did – only with a new dash of spice put on it (that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t).  In twenty episodes I would say this may have happened only four or five times at the most, but it is there nonetheless.

Having said that, I think it’s only fair to say that X Files did much the same in ripping off The Twilight Zone, and they were all inevitably ripping off H.P. Lovecraft – the master of supernatural mystery mayhem.  When you base your story in something almost identical to something that has already been done, points of intersection are inevitable.  Nevertheless, the amazing thing is how infrequent these moments are considering how close the plots of both Fringe and X seem at first glance.

The story of Fringe overall is well thought out and original.  It does a great job of engaging the audience from the first episode and continuing to hold on through to the end.  There are lulls in certain more stand-alone ‘monster’ episodes, but they do a wonderful job of weaving together an interesting and well-structured plot.

Characters:

fringecastSadly for me the characters of this show in an overall scope are not quite what I would hope for in a show like this.  There are a few very strong central characters that do a wonderful job of carrying the weight, but there are a few that seem so simply move from one scene to the next without doing much for the story.

The character of Walter Bishop, played by John Noble (who is also known for his turn as Denethor in Lord of the Rings), is by far the strongest character in the show.  He is constantly interesting and amusing while also presenting depth and dimensions that leave the viewer craving more.  He is a certifiable genius who worked with the government years ago on black bag science experiments that later had him locked up in a mental hospital.  He has extensive knowledge of fringe science and is the main component in making this central theme move from episode to episode.  The actor portrays the character wonderfully and he is by far the best flushed out element of the story.

The other main characters are Walter’s son Peter Bishop, played by Joshua Jackson (of Dawson’s Creek fame) and Aussie actress Anna Torv who plays Olivia Dunham.

Joshua Jackson’s character serves as the mouthpiece that has to translate Walter’s supposedly incomprehensible science babble, and also as the gritty “I spent my life being a rover, I’ve been bad places and done bad things… grrrr” character.  They also throw on the added element of ‘he’s also a super genious like his dad’, yet despite all this he remains essentially without depth and purpose in many situations through the story.  The moments where he supposedly becomes ‘useful’ is when he drags in his own dead horse and becomes the guy with ‘connections’.  This borders on the ridiculousness of the ‘The Lone Gunman’ in X Files without the charm and idiocy of the three men who made that element work.  So you have Jackson run off somewhere every few episodes to have his supposedly underground hook-ups (which always seem to work out of some crap hole in the middle of nowhere) dig up some information that the seemingly inept U.S. government can’t do with their apparently limitless resources and fathomless well of knowledge.  This never makes logical sense in the telling of these stories, and often contradicts the image they try to depict of the powerful government agency; it is just a lame attempt to make Jackson’s character relevant when he really is not.  The story itself makes Peter Bishop interesting in that he apparently died as a child and the person present in the show is another version of him from another time – but none of that depth makes Joshua Jackson anymore enjoyable to watch.

Torv’s character is much the same.  There is nothing to hate about Olivia Dunham, but there also is nothing to love.  She carries her part of the story well enough, but she doesn’t have the chops or depth to really create an interesting character.  She is just the ‘I bring my emotions to the table’ female cop that we have seen in every other law enforcement based television show, and she has no other levels to her.  They also took a story arch with wonderful potential (where the fellow agent she was in love with turned out to be a traitor) and really rammed it into the ground for me.  To me, this is the third Abrams project without a real strong female lead.  He, or the casting directors he hires, seems to be incapable of finding an actress that can create an interesting character on screen.

Again, there is nothing to dislike about Olivia or Peter, but one has to ask if either of these characters were removed from the show would if continue to be interesting?  Yes, because Walter Bishop is what makes the show interesting and intense.  What this means in the end is that neither of these characters add a significant enough impact to really be worthwhile.

Ironically the plethora of supporting cast adds enough depth to the show to make up for how often Torv and Jackson seem to just take up screen space.  From Dunham’s superior at Homeland Security, to the people they have brought in to play the various bad guys, you get enough interesting character interaction to really see the show come to life in a lot of ways.  The woman who plays the second in command at Massive Dynamic, a superpower company built by the man that Walter used to work with also does a more than sufficient job adding depth and dynamics to the story in the few times she is on screen.  I am not alone in saying this, but I really feel that this show would do well to re-think the main supporting cast around Walter Bishop because if they did they could have a hold of one of the gold mines of present day prime time television.

Cinematic and Sound:

Fringe has spent a truckload of money on the presentation of this show, and it shines from the opening sequence to the final moments of the show.  The art direction, sound effects, visual effects, and presentation are second to none.  They spared no expense making this show into a visual masterpiece.  There are small elements that I can appreciate as a viewer, from their creative idea of presenting the various city/state names denoting where the characters are at the time with huge block letters that seem to blend into the environment – to constantly varied shots of areas they have to use over and over again (Harvard University for example – which isn’t a very big campus to begin with, so finding the amount of varied shots they have is a small miracle in and of itself).  The sound is also wonderful without being overdone.  So many times now shows overuse music to manipulate the audience because they know the actors cannot carry the emotion that a moment is supposed to portray, but this show does a wonderful job allowing the actors to create their characters with minimal musical overplay.  This really helps the viewer glean all the depths of a Walter Bishop without needing a soundtrack that corresponds to his emotions.

>Overall this show is a wonderful ride that will keep the audience engaged from the first episode to the last.  The strong points come from the creativity of the project and it’s presentation, and the ability of John Noble to really carry so much of the burden in a wonderfully thought out and developed character in Walter Bishop.  I feel if they could find a way to add an equally engaging female lead and perhaps a more developed third tier character I think this show would rival Abrams more recent venture Lost in it’s ability to seize the allegiances of audiences world wide – willing or not.  That is the magic that Abrams has found in the past at times in the creativity of his creations, to make something so utterly fantastic and bending that despite whatever hesitations may try and steer you away, you can’t stop watching.  This show is 90% of the way to that destination, and with only a small tweaking I feel it could easily become that.  Only time will tell if this show will meet the expectations of an X Files, or even The Twilight Zone before it, but I truly feel that with the groundwork they have laid that upper level is within their grasp.

Overall Star Rating: 4 and ¼  Stars

Story: ¾ of 1

Characters: ¾ of 1

Cinematic: 1 of 1

Sound: 1 of 1

Overall: ¾ of 1

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