Monday, March 5, 2012

Fringe Season Three Works Up Well To The End Of The World In A Great Season Of Television!

The Good: Engaging stories, Decent character work, Good acting, Decent DVD bonus features, Good special effects.
The Bad: Some disappointing moments/repetition
The Basics: Fringe works its way up to being truly great television in its third season, finally living up to the J.J. Abrams legacy!

I have been a latecomer to Fringe. The truth is, I was not at all grabbed by the first season (reviewed here!) and while the second season (reviewed here!) showed real improvement, it was not quite enough to sell me on the show. All of that changed with the third season, which I just finished watching. I did a marathon viewing of the third season last weekend and the truth is, I was largely impressed by the season. It also pretty much cemented my dislike for the first season of the show as the vast number of callbacks and references in the third season reference the second season. It is almost like the first season did not truly happen (or that there were only about five worthwhile episodes in it).

That said, the third season of Fringe stands apart as an engaging, intelligent season of television with all the character and decent acting moments that had been lacking from the prior seasons of the show. This is THE season to watch, though it is aided by seeing the second season. Fringe is highly serialized and that is especially true of the third season. Just because Fringe is serialized, though, does not mean it is linear and in the third season, Fringe explains some of the outstanding mysteries from the prior seasons while advancing the story of two universes moving ever closer to all-out war with one another.

Picking up where the prior season left off, Olivia Dunham from the alternate universe has crossed over to our universe to replace her. Having infiltrated the Fringe Science Division, she gains the confidence of Peter Bishop and sets him, Walter and the rest of the team on the path to discovering a massive machine which Peter alone seems uniquely able to operate. In the alternate universe, Walter Bishop experiments upon our universe’s Olivia. Implanting his universe’s Olivia’s memories into her, Olivia rejoins the Fringe Division team over there and investigates issues on their side. Walternate, as the alternate universe Walter Bishop comes to be known by the Fringe team on our side, wants to understand how Olivia is able to cross between universes, a prospect that makes the alternate universe Broyles uneasy.

But keeping up the double lives is hardly an easy task and our universe’s Olivia soon starts seeing Peter Bishop who intimates that she is out of place and must get back to our universe before she is killed. When Peter uncovers the switch, faux-livia (as the alternate universe Olivia is known on our side) makes a daring escape. That escape, however, is only the start of even more cataclysmic events as faux-livia finds herself pregnant and Olivia struggles with the events she missed during her absence.

What makes Fringe so worthwhile in its third season is not just the engaging plots. Many of the prior episodes of Fringe had interesting plots (whether they were rehashes of The X-Files or not!). In the third season of Fringe, though, the characters truly come alive and the acting actually becomes something worth writing about. With almost every main cast member performing two roles, Fringe takes on a real life of its own whereby the characters and actors all have something to do and have real moments of growth, change and development.

To better understand why the third season of Fringe is so compelling, it helps to know who the characters are. In the third season, the principle characters are:

Walter Bishop – plagued by his actions twenty-five years prior, Walter sees that abducting Peter from the alternate universe has massive consequences. Dealing with the loss of William Bell, Walter slowly gets strong enough to get to the point where he might be able to let Peter go should the circumstances warrant it. Working on growing back a portion of his brain that he and William Bell removed many years before, Walter is terrified of what the mysterious machine may be,

Olivia Dunham – Trapped in the alternate universe, she is brainwashed to believe she is faux-livia. Joining her old partner, she resumes her role on the other side’s Fringe Division until Walternate begins experimenting upon her. Manifesting her ability to cross over between universes, she hallucinates Peter, who helps her to instinctively know who she is. When she helps track a serial kidnapper, she gains an unlikely ally who helps her to return home. Unfortunately, once back in our universe with her memories restored, she finds herself emotionally adrift, knowing that Peter and faux-livia had an intimate relationship while she was gone,

Astrid – The heart of the Fringe Science Team on our side, she assists Walter and is highly compassionate,

Nina – Absent much of the first half of the season, she deals with the loss of William Bell by running Massive Dynamic (which Walter now owns) as best she is able to. She takes on the task of learning about the First People and the author of a mysterious series of books that has intimate details about the machines,

Broyles – He sees the real threats represented by the alternate universe and works hard to protect the greatest number of people,

Peter Bishop – Back from the alternate universe, he dives right into a relationship with Olivia, ignorant to the fact that she is faux-livia. Very protective of her, he tries to convince her his love for her is real and not based upon feelings for faux-livia. When it becomes clear that the machine is specifically tailored to him, he begins to fear that he is the instrument of universal Armageddon, a prospect he desperately wants to avoid,

Broyles (alternate) – Working closely with Walternate as his right hand man, he fights to protect his universe, more often than not with the stopgap amber. Aware of how faux-livia is being used, he starts to question Walternate’s plans when faux-livia helps his family,

Astrid (alternate) – The mind of Fringe Division. She is a taciturn tactician who helps Broyles and faux-livia on missions by quoting statistics and giving the alternate universe Fringe Division the best possible tools for success on their missions,

Faux-livia – Cold and dangerous, she softens while around Peter on our side. As his hopefulness rubs off on her, she works to get the Fringe Division hunting the pieces of an ancient machine which will allow Walternate to destroy the universe. When she is extracted, she finds that she is pregnant with Peter’s baby, which puts her in more danger than before,

and Walternate – the alternate universe Walter Bishop coldly and methodically prepares for war with our side. As he manipulates circumstances to get the machine built in both universes, he struggles to get Peter to return to his universe on his own volition. When faux-livia gets pregnant with his grandson, he devises a monstrous scheme to end our universe even faster.

In the third season, those characters have worthwhile and interesting adventures to protect their own universe. Fringe becomes a political thriller with a science fiction twist and it works out wonderfully for that. A big reason it is so engaging in this season is the acting. The third season of Fringe has some truly powerful performances. Lance Reddick gets the chance to stretch his acting wings as Broyles on both sides of the universal divide. When our Broyles trips on LSD for the first time, Reddick illustrates a comedic talent he had not revealed to viewers before! Similarly, with more to do in the alternate universe, Jasika Nicole makes Astrid more than just a whispy-voiced scientist/health care worker. Joshua Jackson continues to gain screen presence as Peter Bishop and he uses that very well.

John Noble, similarly, is wonderful as Walter Bishop and Walternate. As Walternate, he has a more consistence presence where he is intellectual, in charge and smart. He also has a surprisingly human side that is revealed in the third season of Fringe and when Noble as Walternate declares that he will not experiment on children, the delivery is chilling and powerful. As Walter Bishop, Noble slowly progresses the character past the simple craziness that defined his early performances. Instead, in this season, Walter is hurt emotionally, adrift without William Bell in his life. The real crime of the season is that the final exchanges between the characters occur during an animated LSD-trip sequence, robbing Noble of the chance to perform with his amazing physical posture and expressive eyes for one of the big character moments of the season.

The big winner of the season on the acting front – and I never thought that I would say this! – is Anna Torv. Far from the stiff, listless actress that characterized her seasons one and two performances, in the third season, Torv creates two distinctive characters with Olivia and faux-livia. Making both versions more emotive makes both characters more interesting and Torv lands it, especially with playing Olivia hurt by Peter’s relationship with faux-livia upon her return. The real genius performance from Torv, though, comes from a multi-episode arc where William Bell’s consciousness is implanted in Olivia. During that time, Torv takes on the voice patterns and physical posture of Leonard Nimoy and the result is as disturbing as it is uncanny! Torv proves her worth as an actress in this season of Fringe!

On DVD and Blu-Ray, Fringe The Complete Third Season is loaded with bonus features from deleted and extended scenes to featurettes that both illustrate the making of the show and how various elements are tied together. This can be a real useful asset for those coming in just for this season. And the third season of Fringe is highly worthwhile, not just to watch, but to own. Hopefully, this will not be like the second season of Millennium (reviewed here!) and not have set the bar too high to return well!

For other works J.J. Abrams is associated with, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Super 8
Star Trek
Mission: Impossible III


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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