Monday, May 30, 2011

Vastly Superior To The First Season, Fringe - Season Two Still Suffers On The Character Front.

The Good: Great plot development, Decent serialization, Good DVD bonus features, Generally good acting.
The Bad: Low on character development, Still clunky acting from Anna Torv
The Basics: In its second season, Fringe finds its own identity as a story about a growing conflict between two universes with FBI Agent Dunham, Peter and Walter Bishop at the center!

When I reviewed the first season of Fringe (check that out here!), I received a lot of feedback that was very negative. The most open-minded of that feedback stated that if I gave the subsequent seasons a chance, I might enjoy the first season more, the least productive feedback being that J.J. Abrams and his team were geniuses and I was a complete idiot for finding the first season of Fringe to be a second-rate knockoff of The X-Files (reviewed here!). Standing on its own, the first season of Fringe is a slow-moving, not-entirely-relevantly-developed story that more closely mirrors The X-Files than it tells a story of its own. That said, I trundled on and picked up the second season of Fringe and it is a vastly better season of television than the first and while the first might seem entirely derivative to genre fans, the second is engaging and (for the most part) original. Even so, Fringe Season Two is still low on character development (high on character revelations) and features some surprisingly stiff acting from the show's lead, Anna Torv.

Following in the tradition of J.J. Abrams' other hugely successful venture, Lost (reviewed here!), Fringe tells a highly serialized story in its second season. But, more like Alias, Abrams and his team dilute the overall narrative with episodic missions which only have a loose connection to "the pattern," the events that link our universe with an alternate universe. While the die-hard fans might claim that each little piece is a part of the larger puzzle, from apparent alien possession, giant parasitic worms that attack humans to shape-shifters and agents from the alternate universe working within our universe, some are simply weird stories that are fit in between the more vital episodes which focus explicitly on the alternate universe. The random episodes are fewer and farther between in the second season, though, and the second season of Fringe is actually quite enjoyable to watch, even if it is pretty low on character development.

Also, it is virtually impossible to discuss season two without some mention of aspects that were only alluded to or kept secret in the first season of Fringe. While I don't recommend watching the first season (outside, perhaps, the last two episodes), those who want the purest experience of watching Fringe ought to read my Season One review, then either watch the season or jump to season two. That's my "spoiler alert."

Olivia Dunham, last seen in the company of William Bell in the alternate universe, is in a car accident where she is thrown from her car and the person in the other car quickly disappears under mysterious circumstances. Coping with her memory loss and her wounded leg, Olivia returns to work at the FBI Fringe Division where she works with Walter Bishop and his son, Peter Bishop, to investigate unexplained events, like explosions that devastate places without any trace of a bomb or the growing threat from shape-shifters who are infiltrating our universe. With the aid of Nina Sharp, Olivia's leg is repaired and with Walter's help, she comes to recall her meeting with William Bell in the alternate universe.

That meeting has Bell providing the ominous prediction that war between the two universes is coming and that time is running out to save both distinct universes. As shape-shifting agents attempt to stymie the Fringe Division, Olivia becomes more and more convinced that Peter is not quite right and Walter finally confesses his big secret to her, which comes out sooner than Walter is comfortable with and sends Peter into the alternate universe in search of answers of his own!

The main problem with Fringe Season Two is that Agent Broyles is wrong when he states that for every answer the Fringe Division comes up with, it inspires two more questions. The Fringe Division uncovers truths about the paranormal and the alternate universe, but in order to keep the show going, more - and more elaborate - plot contrivances must be created. Not all of them actually work. The reason this is problematic is that the show's writers and creators are focused on continuing the story, as opposed to developing the characters. So more often than not, a character revelation that the audience already knows comes to light within the story and the characters react, but the impact on the characters is deadened by a new plot point which pops up an unexplained-phenomenon-of-the-week which lessens the menace.

This is not always the case and the climax of the season works because it is character-oriented. When Peter finally finds out what viewers who were attentive in season one already knew, he is less grateful and more annoyed at Walter. Fortunately, for those tuning in just for this season, we are shown exactly what happened, how Peter became ill as a child and died, so Walter abducted the Peter from the alternate universe and raised him as his own son here for the last twenty-five years. Similarly, the source of Walter's apparent craziness is revealed when it comes to light that part of his brain has been removed, a piece that had experiments that Walter did not want to be able to duplicate. It's a clever concept, but it only retroactively establishes character. In other words, it makes Walter from well-before Fringe began far more interesting.

Fringe in its second season is still fairly clever, with the Bishop family history being fleshed out as scientists spying on the Nazis. When Bishop encounters a genetically-targetted disease, the family history comes to light and pushes Peter and Olivia closer together. This, again, makes the characters more retroactively interesting, especially with Peter's somewhat-contrived excuses for not getting into a relationship with Olivia as the season progresses.

This leads me to the character development section. Usually, I look at the primary characters in a season of television and explore what their major character journeys are throughout the season. Because Fringe is so plot-based in its second season, the lead - Olivia Dunham - has no real character development. She continues to react to the reality of there being two universes and the crossovers between them without significantly growing or developing while she learns more about them or her own past. She continues to learn that she was trained to help fight the alternate universe should warfare develop, but instead of finding her newfound talents useful, she more often than not kvetches about Walter used her (and others) as a child.

Similarly, Walter does not so much develop as aspects of his past are revealed. This does not make him less crazy in the present and he does not change or grow throughout the season. In fact, the one with the most development or growth is Peter Bishop. Peter comes to learn that Walter abducted him from "over there" and he also begins to develop a crush on Olivia. But his anger at Walter seems forced - though it does have massive plot consequences when he flees to the alternate universe, hurt - and his refusal to engage Olivia falls shy of him actually developing.

The acting, though, is generally good. Joshua Jackson makes Peter very watchable and he plays the role of a young man coping with the extraordinary very well. It is still John Noble who rules Fringe as Walter Bishop. Forced to deliver less gross, but equally quirky random lines - like about food cravings for milkshakes - Noble embodies the perfect modern day mad scientist as Walter. He has a great sense of comic timing and enough gravitas to make it believable that he possesses one of the powerhouse minds of our time. In fact, Noble really comes into his own while playing the confident and strong other Walter in scenes in the alternate universe and he sells them as two characters who have the same background, but whose lives have taken very different turns. It's quite extraordinary to watch!

But for an executive producer known for bringing new female talents to the forefront of the American celebrity, J.J. Abrams and his team do little or nothing for Anna Torv. Torv plays Dunham as cold, stiff and largely dull. She is a plot-doll, a character tossed about by the plot more than moving the plot forward based on her own strength or machinations. Torv might not be responsible for the limp characterization of Dunham, but her frequently-stiff portrayal of Dunham is uninteresting to watch. Unlike the mysterious Nina Sharp, who is played with a constant "I know better than you" glint in the eye by Blair Brown, Dunham is straightlaced and without any zest in the hands of Torv.

On DVD, season two of Fringe comes loaded with behind-the-scenes extras as well as commentary tracks and story analysis geared toward making the larger story clear and interesting. These bonus features enhance what is present in the season and work well to give the fans more of what they want (while also making it clear that the show does not have excessively long arcs conceived for it).

In the end, fans of science fiction will find something to enjoy in Fringe Season Two, but it is still not all that it could be.

For other ambitious shows or memorable second seasons, please check out my reviews of:
Star Trek - Season Two
True Blood - Season Two


For other television show reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Well, I might as well tell you now, you will fall under olivia's spell and accuse josh of being dull and lifeless, everyone else has.

  2. We'll see. It hasn't happened yet . .. ;)

    Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!