Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Not The Rip-Off Of The X-Files It Initially Appeared To Be: Why Fringe Succeeded!

The Good: Great long plot arc, Most of the acting, Quirky lines, Most of the characters
The Bad: Anna Torv is not the strongest lead, Some of the bottle episodes are less compelling/requires a lot of trust for the investment
The Basics: With one hundred episodes, Fringe The Complete Series builds up to a conflict between our universe and an alternate and becomes embroiled in plots to save the world from invaders from parallel realities . . . and malicious, future, humans!

I have been starting out 2014 by finishing off some television series’ that were long-running or that had my attention, lost it, and I found again to finish off. One of those shows was Fringe and, to date, it represents the best investment of time and attention for my returning to. Fringe, now available in a compact full series bundle pack, was the fourth major television series J.J. Abrams was affiliated with (though, unlike Felicity, Alias, and Lost, Abrams neither wrote, nor directed a single episode of the series) and it represents one of the few television series’s in recent memory that requires a tremendous amount of patience and attention. Fringe, which initially seemed like a second-rate rip off of The X-Files, takes a long arc and while the five seasons each have fairly distinctive concepts, the entire series is actually one long story. To wit, one of the apparent throwaway episodes in the middle of the first season is not paid off until the last few episodes of season five!

Fringe is a series that is greater than the sum of its parts and works better when one sits down and binges on the hundred episodes, as opposed to meandering through the series with weeks between each episode. Fortunately, the new 20-disc Blu-Ray set allows viewers to do just that. Fringe The Complete Series us basically a compilation set of:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
and Season 5

Fringe opens with a plane setting down, its entire crew killed by a mysterious flesh-eating virus. The multi-organization task force includes the FBI, Homeland Security, CIA and others. One of the investigators is Olivia Dunham, another is her lover from a different intelligence organization, John Scott. While investigating the plane and the virus, Dunham learns that the virus bears a similarity to one created years prior by a scientist who has been institutionalized for seventeen years. Enlisting his next of kin, Peter Bishop, Olivia and Peter spring the apparently insane scientist Walter Bishop. When John Scott is struck down by the virus, Olivia allows Walter to give her an untraditional therapy that allows her to enter his mind.

The cases that follow have Olivia investigating strange biological occurrences and physics anomalies that are forming an intricate pattern of destruction, all of which seems centered around Walter Bishop and his old scientific partner William Bell (and the company that sprouted up after Bishop was institutionalized, Massive Dynamic). Olivia’s history with Walter Bishop is soon revealed as she uncovers a painful truth; Olivia was one of the subjects of Walter’s experiments – in her childhood she was part of a clinical drug trial for a drug called Cortexiphan. Cortexiphan was designed to allow children to develop incredible powers and Olivia’s soon manifests – she can perform limited operations using thought alone and she was trained to be a solider in a war that seems inevitable with an alternate universe. The source of Walter’s social awkwardness is also quickly revealed; he suffered a tremendous loss in his past and to try to save the world from himself, he had part of his brain removed. Walter’s history with the alternate universe is deeply entwined with the alternate universe and his son, Peter, which Olivia slowly uncovers and has to accept as they work intimately together.

Fringe is a clever series in that it tells a story, steeped in consequences of events from long before the series began (which, fortunately, we get to see!). The extensive backstory of Walter, Peter, and Olivia comes together in a compelling way and then develops into a story for a very intense struggle that is very compelling. As Peter and Olivia wrestle with consequences of Walter’s scientific explorations in the past, Walter is tormented by the man he was . . . and an alternate version of himself from another universe whom he wronged years prior. The series is filled with strange creatures (like worms that gestate in people and burst out a la Alien), bizarre medical anomalies (like spontaneous scar tissue forming over people’s eyes and mouth), and physical aberrations (such as a bus’s occupants suddenly being caught in amber, freezing everyone inside in a form of suspended animation) and character drama that have surprising realism to them. The contrast of things like Olivia wrestling with Peter unwittingly developing a relationship with her alternate version plays off the fringe science freak of the week stories well.

To better understand Fringe, it helps to know who the characters are. For the bulk of the series, the principle characters are:

Walter Bishop – A classic mad scientist, he is shaken and socially awkward. Having spent seventeen years in St. Claire’s mental facility, he returns to his Harvard laboratory where he is legally under Peter’s care and assisted by Astrid. He has a brilliant mind, but one that is scattered and leaves him socially awkward. He slowly comes to understand that his experiments on people and (especially) children in the past has immense consequences on both our universe and another universe he invaded years prior,

Olivia Dunham – A by-the-book FBI investigator (her illicit relationship with John Scott notwithstanding), she opens up to extreme possibilities when she sees the evidence of Walter’s work carried on by Massive Dynamic in his absence. She has a sister and niece whom she is very protective of and she develops a relationship with Peter. Horrified to realize that Walter used to experiment on her, she slowly remembers the nature of those experiments and uses them to empower her,

Astrid – She is the straight-laced assistant of Walter who puts up with having to milk his cow and the fact that Walter cannot remember her name. She is a competent agent, but is largely used to question Walter’s theories so he can explain them, but she is an invaluable member of the Fringe team,

Nina Sharp – The power behind Massive Dynamic, she is the only person who knows where the reclusive William Bell has disappeared to. She tries to recruit Olivia and acts as both antagonist and aid to the Fringe Team,

Philip Broyles – The leader of the Fringe Team, he is an FBI bureaucrat who slowly opens to the extreme possibilities under consistent attacks by followers of a document written by William Bell. Trying to stop the terrorist David Robert Jones, Broyles encounters more strange phenomenon that lead him to fight for funding for the Fringe Team,

Charlie Francis – Olivia’s partner at the FBI, he is attacked by one of the creatures the Fringe Team discovers and tries to help Olivia through her loss after John Scott dies (and subsequently appears to Olivia),

and Peter Bishop – A swindler and con man, he faked his way into classes at M.I.T. Found by Olivia in Iraq, he reluctantly comes back to the United States and he holds Walter together. Made a consultant with the FBI, he quickly develops feelings for Olivia and slowly comes to accept that Walter is not the root of all evil. He is shaken when he learns the truth of his past, but makes a conscious choice to live in our universe, even when it causes him to be erased from time.

Amid the main characters are Observers, bald men who have an inhuman understanding of time and space. One of the Observers saved Peter’s life as a child and events now seem to be building to Walter being forced to repay that debt.

The performances in Fringe are, unfortunately, erratic. Anna Torv, who plays Olivia Dunham, is a painfully weak lead for the series. She starts the series stiff and it takes quite a while for her to come into her own. In fact, it is arguably not until the alternate universe version of Olivia is introduced that Torv manages to show off her acting chops. Given a very different way to play the character, Torv slowly warms up to be a decent protagonist.

At the other end of the spectrum are Joshua Jackson and John Noble. Jackson plays Peter and he plays the character wonderfully. Jackson plays a credible con man and he does so with the charisma needed to land the role entirely realistically. Noble is incredible as Walter Bishop. John Noble is funny and able to get through the technobabble expertly. As he plays Walter slowly coming back into reality, John Noble illustrates more depth and talent than almost anyone else working on network television. Noble emotes with his eyes deep sadness that plays perfectly to the character’s sense of remorse for the past. As the series goes on, he is able to play Walternate and his past self with a range that is great.

On DVD and Blu-Ray, Fringe The Complete Series 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 over the seasons. The Complete Series Blu-Ray set does not include any exclusives that were not in the prior season sets.

In the end, Fringe is actually the effective embodiment of what J. Michael Straczynski sought to do with Babylon 5 (reviewed here!); it is a novel for television that develops over the course of its hundred episodes to tell a deep, transformative story that puts the characters at the beginning in a completely different place by the end.

For other shows that originally aired on FOX, please check out my reviews of:
Family Guy - Volume 10
Glee - Season Three
House, M.D. - Season 4
Arrested Development
Kitchen Confidential
The Lone Gunmen
Ally McBeal
The X-Files
Ned And Stacey - Season 1
Friday The Thirteenth: The Series
The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr.
War Of The Worlds - Season 1


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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