An Appreciation of Fringe Before It Blinks Out of Existence
Update (4/26/12): Fringe has been renewed for a 13-episode final season!
Fringe has been one of my favorite shows for the last couple of years.
I didn’t get into it right away; I definitely remember watching the premiere and thinking it was kind of good, but not continuing with it because it aired on Tuesdays and I had class on Tuesdays that semester (Fall ‘08). When I came home I didn’t always want to jump into a show that regularly has unimaginable creatures crawling out of people’s orifices. (P.S. Fringe is a sci-fi show.)
Later, I heard it got really good, so I watched the first two seasons on DVD. I was hooked, but I was part of a minimal television audience. I have never visited Fox’s Renewal-Cancellation Index at TV By the Numbers without seeing Fringe at the very top of the list (lowest rated primetime show on that network for the entire week). This is not unusual for a Friday show, but Fox would not be a very smart network if it didn’t continually try to produce shows that were going to perform better. Last spring, the show got renewed at the end of its third season by the skin of its teeth. Such luck is not expected to strike twice.
Anyway, with this show probably getting erased out of existence (just like Peter Bishop! But with fewer temporal reverberations, amirite? Inside jokes!) I want to eulogize it properly before getting all caught up in lamentation.
This could probably go without saying, but I am about to spoil four seasons’ worth of Fringe plots. Click ahead at your own risk.
Here is a show that in its first season presented itself as a fairly conventional sci-fi procedural, not unlike its ancestor, The X-Files. Each episode was a crime with weirdness, solved through the combined efforts of Olivia Dunham, FBI agent; Dr. Walter Bishop, dotty and disgraced scientist genius; and Peter Bishop, his smartass son. Peter’s character wasn’t super-developed in those days, he was just kind of there to facilitate plot and fill the show’s handsome quotient.
And then, here and there through the first season, and then like a barreling freight train in its second, the show began developing this intense mythology. Peter became absolutely important. Olivia turned out to have hidden connections to the Bishops going back to her childhood. And, instead of (or in addition to) weird creatures and supernaturally-assisted killers to be investigated and dispatched of one episode at a time, a literal cold war between two alternate universes cropped up. There has been sabotage, espionage, conspiracies, a doomsday machine. The construction of this mythology has been pleasingly intricate; they’ve built on it in a way that may very well have robbed the show of its accessibility to drop-in viewers, but has rewarded regular viewers over and over again.
The show has got some wonderful nuts and bolts amid its larger machinery. Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv) is one of the toughest chicks on TV.
Watch her escape a whole slew of kidnappers in season 1 by tricking them into loosening her restraints and then just knocking the shit out of all them. Or escape a whole different group of kidnappers in season 3. And again in season 4. OK, she gets kidnapped a lot. But she never—or rarely—needs saving, because she is a military-trained FBI agent and the show does not forget that. They also let her walk around in sensible black and gray pantsuits, flat-bottomed shoes, ponytailed and mostly unmakeupped. It was season 3 before she had to go undercover at a fancy party
and even then she undercut her own hotness by shooting the bad guy through the neck in front of everybody. But the BOMB DID NOT GO OFF, y’all.
See, I wasn’t kidding about the shoes.
She fights like a firecracker, but in her day-to-day dealings she is a bit grim and flat. She got criticized a LOT in the first couple seasons for being so undynamic; then two things happened. One, the show unloaded all these canonic reasons for Olivia to be the way she is (the dark clothes, the reserve with people). Two, the show introduced Alternate Olivia, sometimes called Bolivia or Fauxlivia. Faux has got bright red hair, she wears cargo pants, she medalled in sharpshooting at the Alternate Olympics.
Torv’s way of playing this new character was so bold and charming and different, that everyone kind of realized together: oh, the way she plays Original Recipe Olivia is a choice.
And Fringe has got the Bishop boys: Joshua Jackson as Peter and John Noble as Walter.
The father-son relationship at the center of the show is so complicated and enjoyable. When it starts, they haven’t spoken to each other for approximately half of Peter’s life and have serious unfinished business. They start off in an unconventional place; Peter is basically Walter’s adult caretaker (at least before the Season 4 reset), helping him do what he does and get where he’s going. Walter has the unfettered imagination of a scientist and a mental patient, of which he is both. Peter sets boundaries for Walter and admonishes him when he speaks or acts inappropriately for the situation. He has always called him “Walter.” (He only called Walter “Dad” once that I can recall.)
The two had great chemistry together pretty much from the start; they fought like people who had been having the same fights for years and years. They fell into a workable rhythm very quickly, each making themselves useful in Walter’s basement Harvard lab, and as they grew to be more forgiving of each other’s past wrongs, they became a very reliable comedy team. Especially because most of their witty exchanges take place over microscopes and mangled bodies.
There are great secondary characters, too: Astrid, the perky and faithful lab assistant who longs to be an agent on the outside. The closest this show has to a normal, nondysfunctional person. The past few episodes she’s had a not-so-great haircut that is aging her quite a bit. I hope somebody is getting on that. Then there’s Agent Broyles, the deep-voiced authority machine who is head of the Fringe division of the FBI. He butted heads with Olivia at first, but quickly grew to see her value, so much so that the first season had this great scene where she yelled at him about all the reasons he needed to listen to her about XYZ whatever the case was that week, and he yelled back to “Stop drilling, because she’s struck oil” and he agrees with her. Broyles is such a hardass that he didn’t smile until season 3, and then it was under the effects of accidently-ingested LSD.
Charlie, who in the first season was Olivia’s partner, and who was killed by a shape shifter early in the second, but who lives on in the alternate universe! Or did, until that actor was cast in Prime Suspect, and then his character married the Bug Girl and went on what is apparently a six-month honeymoon. (Also, the Bug Girl is an entomologist, not a bug-human hybrid, which this show has also featured.) I miss Charlie. Both Dead Charlie and Alternate Universe Alive Charlie. I hope one comes back before the show is gone.
Nina Sharp, the red-haired, robotic-armed head of operations at Massive Dynamic (a technology conglomerate within the show that is almost always behind what’s going on), whose motives are almost always a mystery. She actually got more to do after the season 4 reset, and that’s been a bonus.
Also, there’s Lincoln Lee, who was an active agent on the Alt side for a long time before his Our side agent appeared, enough time that they publicized the episode as The One Where We Finally Meet Our Lincoln! I prefer vaguely nerdy A-side Lincoln although B-side Lincoln has some heartbreaking moments in the season 3 episode “Bloodline” (he is desperately in love with Fauxlivia, with no real hope) the remembrance of which made me very sad when Alt Lincoln died two weeks ago.
The show even has a sense of humor. Not just amid Walter’s absent-minded professor flutterings or Peter’s one-liners, but as an overriding principle. The weirdnesses of this show always continue to be weird; the characters are never afraid to crack wise about the fact that their suspect is a humanoid bat monster.
Look at Astrid’s face.
They manage to do all this without being the least bit campy, for which I am grateful.
They did an episode in the style of 1940s film noir:
They did an LSD episode where half of it was animated:
And the jokes we have had about the alternate universe! Their Back to the Future starred Eric Stoltz; their Maltese Falcon starred Cary Grant. They don’t have Batman, they have Mantis. Their comics are the Red Lantern and Opus the Peahen. Their long-running Broadway show is called Dogs. I think I can pinpoint the moment I fell in love with this show to the moment they revealed Dogs.
The show is not a guilty pleasure; it’s better than that. It’s routinely well-acted and deeply felt, and sometimes ingeniously plotted. It’s well-made, well-shot, and the effects are usually totally convincing. This show is not comparable to what you’ll see on the Syfy network. (And, internet commenters who keep saying “Syfy should just pick up Fringe if Fox cancels it!”: Syfy cannot afford Fringe. You do not want to see the version of Fringe that Syfy would make.)
It would look like this, but way worse.
Fringe is not perfect. It can get weighed down with its own ponderousness (The X-Files did that, and worse). It struggles to keep its secondary characters relevant sometimes. (Get used to saying things like, “No Astrid this week?” “All Broyles gets to do this week is make that one phone call, huh?”) It has, in the past, made ballsy moves (such as infecting its lead actress with the spirit of Leonard Nimoy’s character William Bell for three episodes, or completely clearing the slate and rewriting its own history in season 4) that don’t entirely pay off. For the record, I loved when Olivia was being Bell, but I missed the original timeline this year. Even as much as the show has managed to rejigger things to return everybody to as close as they can get to a status quo, I miss the original ties between characters. Also, the show has got villain characters who are continually trying to destroy entire universes, but the show has an extremely small, limited view of each universe. All Fringe events happen in the Northeast United States. Literally:
Finally, probably my biggest pet peeve: the show has gone to great great great great GREAT lengths to get Peter and Olivia together, but when they are finally hooking up, the characters are sort of dour and charmless with each other. There’s no flirtation, little palpable affection. (Which is dumb because the characters as friends had good chemistry.) Example: in the season 3 episode “6:02AM,” in which the world is basically ending, Olivia has to run off to try to fix things and she and Peter don’t kiss goodbye. They just got together! They should be kissing goodbye when one of them departs for the bathroom.
But there is no perfect TV show. Maybe Breaking Bad. But Fringe is the one I watch on a lazy Saturday, or at the end of a long day. I do not fault it for not being perfect; I love it like a friend.