The Good: Concept is fun/sense of serialization, DVD bonus features, Moments of charm
The Bad: Entirely derivative, Bland characters, Often bad acting
The Basics: A second-rate remake of The X-Files, J.J. Abrams's Fringe is largely charmless and derivative on DVD.
While others eagerly appear to have fallen in love with Fringe, I have not. In fact, I am one of the few people still surprised Fringe is returned for a third season. And before the inevitable wave of complaints start coming in, J.J. Abrams had me from the first episode of Alias. If anything, I've been biased toward works by J.J. Abrams in the past, especially when he wowed me with his last film. But, honestly, Abrams was due for a genre failure and with Fringe he has it.
Fringe is essentially a second-rate rewrite of The X-Files populated with far less interesting characters and much poorer acting. This is not to say that The X-Files did not have its shaky moments its first season, but there were some things that the show had and one was originality. Unfortunately, Fringe does not have that and outside a few moments where Walter Bishop says something ridiculous or Joshua Jackson carries a moment as Peter, the show falls remarkably flat. On DVD, Fringe has all twenty episodes from the first season and they are as unremarkable and unoriginal as when they originally aired on television.
When a plane lands with its entire crew dead, every intelligence agency in the United States converges on the scene trying to get jurisdiction. Among them are the FBI, represented by Olivia Dunham and her lover, John Scott, the NSA, and Homeland Security, which is represented by the mysterious Phillip Broyles. The investigation turns toward the weird when it appears everyone on the flight was crystallized. When Scott is critically wounded by a chemical explosion while chasing a suspect, he is feared lost and the investigation comes to a standstill. Scott’s body is almost completely destroyed but it is put into a coma and the progression of the infection is slowed. Trying to cure him, Olivia blackmails Peter Bishop to gain access to his deranged scientist father, Walter. As they work to cure John and keep Dr. Bishop focused, it becomes clear that the attack on the plane was only the beginning of something much larger.
Following the loss of John Scott, Olivia joins the Fringe Division with Peter and Dr. Bishop to investigate all sorts of unexplained phenomenon from Boston (where they are centered) to alternate universes (or at least one). Along the way, they encounter genetically-engineered organisms, matter-altering devices and phenomenon outside the mainstream. As well, Olivia begins to piece together a larger set of circumstances that seem to be indicative of “The Pattern.” As the mysterious company, Massive Dynamic (which has Scott’s body) continues to influence the Fringe Divisions work, Olivia begins to learn that she is a part of the entire equation and that Dr. Bishop knows a lot more about her apparent psychic abilities than he initially lets on.
Fringe is basically The X-Files, but with three leads, one of whom actually is in on the massive conspiracy (he just isn’t quite sane enough to relate all he knows). Olivia is a rational psychic, Peter is a ridiculously smart, very talented young man who is not a member of the FBI, but acts as a translator for the scientific jargon Dr. Bishop shoots out regularly and Dr. Bishop is a crazed man whose past work is now coming to fruition. “The Pattern” involves all manner of strange phenomenon, from exploding people and teleportation devices to parasites engineered to wrap around a human heart and killers who kill exactly as Olivia witnesses in her dreams.
What Fringe does have working for it is a pretty tight sense of serialization. On DVD, the show fares better than on the network because the flow from episode to episode and the sense that something is being built upon is much more evident. Unfortunately, the sense of what is being built upon is made more murky by the obsession with dealing with the minutiae; the bottle elements of each episode. So, while there is a point to, say, the exploding man or the creature which devours people and lays its larvae in them, they are more tangent to the overall mystery than they are actually creating the Pattern. The result is episodes where the show goes a long way to make the peripheral incident relevant to the actual Conspiracy.
And when the prime elements of the Pattern are revealed, the idea is remarkably simple and it seems to set up a second season where it would be hard to keep the same annoying pattern of semi-bottle, semi-serialized elements. And all of this would be fascinating (it reads better than watching the show entertains) were it not for the characters. Fringe fails because the characters are not as interesting as Mulder, Scully and Skinner were on The X-Files. Outside the occasional random outburst from Dr. Bishop (in “Pilot,” for example, he acknowledges that his fart just came out as a poop, so it’s that caliber oftentimes) the characters are less interesting than on virtually any other science fiction show I’ve seen in recent years.
I blame some of this on the acting. Anna Torv is one of the least-interesting actresses I’ve seen in recent years, a departure from J.J. Abrams usually making great casting decisions. The Australian actress is pretty much the archetypal Hollywood beauty, save she almost always carries a bland, somnambular expression on her face. She carries very few scenes in Fringe and this is the death knell for a show where she is the lead. Virtually every other character and actor on the show is more interesting than she or her character are.
But to better understand Fringe, it helps to know who the characters are. In the first season, the primary characters are:
Olivia Dunham – An FBI agent who has an enhanced mental ability based, in part on experiments done to her as a child. Smart and surprisingly fearless, when she loses her lover John, she joins the Fringe Division to try to figure out what the Pattern is and she finds herself occasionally aided by visions of John. She seems to have pretty powerful telekinetic abilities and a willingness to accept fringe science theories as real and viable,
Peter Bishop – A very smart guy with a lousy gambling problem, he kept his father locked in the asylum for seventeen years. He is incredibly smart and despite an initial reluctance to mind his father, begins to appreciate the scientist. As the season goes on, it appears that he was occasionally the subject of his father’s work,
Dr. Walter Bishop – A fringe scientist whose work has arguably driven him quite mad. He worked with the mysterious William Bell at Massive Dynamics before being institutionalized. He is very reclusive and is only released from the asylum because Peter agrees to keep an eye on him and Olivia needs him to make sense of all the Fringe Divisions work,
Phillip Broyles – The mysterious head of Fringe Division, he has a personal grudge against Olivia which he sets aside so he may make use of her talents at the Fringe Division. He is very by-the-book, save when it comes to Pattern-related phenomenon,
Astrid – Olivia’s assistant, she assists Walter with some of his scientific work,
Charlie – The second in command of the Fringe Division, he was a friend to both Olivia and John and is therefore able to help Olivia when new information about her lover comes to light. He acts as her partner on most missions and is attacked by some of the creatures the pair invesitgate,
and Nina Sharp – A Massive Dynamic employee who is attached to the Fringe Division, her loyalties are frequently split. She has a bionic arm (compliments of Massive Dynamic) and had cancer, which the company cured. She provides information to Olivia when it is convenient.
J.J. Abrams bucks his own trend of hiring the best female talents with Fringe by having a far more interesting male cast. While Anna Torv is boring, Jasika Nicole (Astrid) is nondescript and Blair Brown is arguably there to give Dr. Bishop a chance of getting some in the future, the male leads are all stunning. Lance Reddick plays Broyles with a cool efficiency honed from his similar role on Lost and even Joshua Jackson is surprisingly dynamic as Peter.
But the one who steals the show – when it can be stolen – is John Noble as Dr. Bishop. Noble is best known for playing the crazed Denethor in Return Of The King (click here for that review!) and here he plays crazy in an entirely different way. Funny and credibly intelligent, Noble makes the “mad scientist” routine work and seem like a real, living person. Having met him in person, he is such a funny guy who almost never stops smiling, so this role is exceptional acting on his part.
On DVD, Fringe arrives as a seven-disc set loaded with bonus features. There are featurettes on the casting, the nature of the Pattern, and the special effects. As well, there are a slew of deleted scenes and a production diary as well as a pretty standard gag reel.
But the bonus features are not enough to save the show from being a cheap knockoff of a vastly better series, making it quite easy to recommend people pass this one by.
For other works J.J. Abrams has been involved in or contemporary television works, please check out my reviews of:
V- Season 1
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© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.