Avid TV watchers are usually dooming themselves to disappointment if they make the mistake of trying to invest in a new show on the Fox network. As fans of Firefly, Drive and countless other promising series can tell you, Fox is absolutely notorious for smothering their babies in their cradles. Many fledgling shows have had to deal with preemptions, schedule changes and episodes shown out of order before the ensuing spotty ratings are cited as reason to unceremoniously cancel the whole production. With the recent announcement, however, that the paranormal investigation show Fringe has been picked up for a full season, I can discuss the show without fear that my review will be rendered obsolete the moment I post it.
In all the prepublicity leading up to the premiere of Fringe, the folks behind the show almost went out of their way to distance themselves from the X-Files, insisting that while the paranormal theme is the same, they are actually quite different. It’s curious that they seem to want to deny any similarity, since X-Files was such a cult hit in its time and did very well for Fox for nearly a decade. Possibly the show’s luster dims in retrospect because it went on too long after the original co-stars no longer wanted to even be there. Perhaps like me, many viewers got fed up when we realized that X-Files’ much discussed and dissected “mythology” was a meaningless mess that the creators were making up as they went along. I know that I, for one, tuned out after season 6.
Fringe is not like X-Files in that it none of its characters in any way approach the crackling yin and yang relationship of Mulder and Scully: the believer vs. skeptic, wiseass vs. straight arrow, always with an undercurrent of sexual frission. Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish are fine actors but really there was no way the show was going to be remotely the same without its emotional core.
Rather than revolve around a core partnership, Fringe uses an ensemble cast, which is de rigueur for primetime dramas these days. If it were on CBS, it could be called CSI: Weirdsville. Rather than be disrespected outsiders, the investigators on this show have the full backing of the government, including manpower and appropriate budget. It’s the kind of scenario Mulder could only dream about, since he could never seem to scrape together the kind of proof necessary to convince his superiors that he wasn’t just chasing shadows.
The series’ lead, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), is an earnest FBI agent who unwittingly stumbles into a mysterious world of paranormal phenomenon after her lover and co-worker John is critically injured in a chemical explosion, cured of a bizarre transformative disease, revealed to be in cahoots with the bad guys, dies in a car crash, and now has apparently been resurrected through as-yet-unrevealed means. As character motivation “I need to find out what my snakey ex-boyfriend has been lying to me about” is not as geeky-cool as “my sister was abducted by aliens”, but it’ll do.
John Noble, who was wonderfully awful as Denethor in The Return of the King, plays Walter Bishop , the uber-eccentric mad scientist whose expertise is needed to crack the various bizarro mysteries encountered from week to week. A cross between Victor Frankenstein and Rain Man, Bishop exhibits all manner of ridiculous behavior, from talking to himself incessantly to sitting in the closet to announcing in the middle of a mission that he’s wet himself. But while these antics almost make him oddly endearing, at least once an episode Bishop shows his sociopathic side as he demonstrates again and again that his theories and experimentation take precedence over other people’s feelings and safety. Is Bishop merely misunderstood by conventional thinkers, or is there something much more sinister going on behind those hooded eyes?
Bishop’s estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson) comes from a shady background and appears to be involved in criminal dealings as the series opens, but he is pulled over to the side of the angels initially as Walter’s wrangler, but as the show progresses has become more invested in the work the crew is doing. Peter makes a nice contrast to the FBI characters, because he doesn’t feel hemmed in by the rules and doesn’t always feel the need to do things by the book. However, it seems his past will come back to bite him on the ass; already we have seen a mystery tail taking photos of him for unexplained reasons…
There are a few other actors to round out the cast, but so far they haven’t been given a terrible lot to do. Lance Reddick is essentially this show’s “Skinner”, the boss man who hands out the assignments, but at least there is the hint that he may be playing both sides of the fence, which is intriguing. Kirk Acevedo’s character mostly just executes arrest and search warrants, and Jasika Nicole’s character is a glorified gopher. It’s pretty sad when the only notable scene involving Nicole’s Astrid Farnsworth is to be snuck up on and stabbed in the neck with a hypodermic needle of tranquilizer by Walter.
In terms of content, after watching 5 episodes it seems to me that Fringe follows the X-Files paradigm pretty closely in terms of the “freak of the week” structure. Each show begins with a creepy teaser setting up the puzzle or mystery of the episode, followed by eerie New-Agey opening credits. The heroes show up after the commercial break to investigate, and things seem to be wrapped up pretty well by the end of each week. But then there is often a coda which indicates things are not as settled as the good guys might’ve been fooled into believing.
So as the X-Files had its conspiracy “mythology”, Fringe has “The Pattern”, an overarching connection between all these seemingly isolated paranormal events that suggests they might be orchestrated towards a single unguessable goal. Instead of a Cigarette Smoking Man, there is The Observer, a hairless man in a suit and fedora who is present at every catastrophe to takes notes in a pictographic writing. The recent episode “The Arrival” has a black ops baddie that is reminiscent of Krycek. Since Fringe is executive produced by JJ Abrams, I can’t help but to look to his previous series to get some idea as to whether the Pattern storyline will be executed any better than the X-Files’ slapdash mythology. On the one hand, I truly do get the sense when I watch Lost that the creators know all the answers and are slowly working towards those big reveals at the end of the series. On the other, the ongoing Rimbaldi thread in Alias was loaded with potential that went absolutely nowhere, and the whole thing was dropped halfway through the show’s run. So really this show could go either way, but I’m hopeful.
I’m not the world’s biggest horror fan, but I’m sticking with Fringe. Few new series get past that crucial 3-episode trail period with me, but I’ve decided to take the ride with this one in the hopes that it takes me to some cool stops along the way. Right now I would rate Fringe at a 7.5, although that could certainly rise with time as the characters develop and the Pattern mystery unfolds.