Now in the middle of its fourth (and possibly last) season, Fringe is the brainchild of JJ Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the men behind Lost and the recent successful ‘reboot’ of the Star Trek franchise. Produced by Fox, a network not known for its long-term commitment to quality science fiction given its cancellation of Firefly and Dollhouse amongst others, Fringe has beaten the odds so far and reached a fourth full-length season despite a change in timeslots and a steady decline in domestic ratings. If web reports are anything to go by, this series may well be its last sci-fi venture, despite its loyal core audience.
The show can be described as a mix of CSI (lab-based forensics porn), The X-Files (a will they/won’t they pair of attractive young investigators check out strange phenomena) and Doomwatch (government department investigates mysterious phenomena resulting from misuse of fringe science) with a splash of Sliders thrown in for good measure (a whole parallel universe plot) and even Sherlock (maverick drug-addicted genius with limited social skills as resident expert), though the latest interpretation of that character debuted after Fringe. As you would expect from its creators, it also features complex enigmatic plotting and a slow-burn reveal of the background arc story. Unfortunately, the first season also lacks a strong sense of coherence throughout with scattershot plotting and absurd dramatic and logical inconsistencies, though by the end of the second season things begin to pull together and it becomes something approaching a satisfying continuing story.
The story begins in a reasonably straighforward fashion: the narrative focus centres around FBI agent Olivia Dunham (played beautifully by the Estonian-Australian Anna Torv) who is assigned to investigate a bizarre mass death aboard an aeroplane. The only person who has the knowledge to help her is maverick scientific genius Dr Walter Bishop (John Noble) who has been incarcerated in a grim mental institution for the past seventeen years following a fatal lab accident. In order to gain access to him she enlists the unwilling aid of his long-estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson), another troubled genius who is squandering his talents on cheating casinos and brokering dubious deals. These three form the core of the dramatis personae. Orbiting them we have Astrid, Walter’s FBI-assigned lab assistant/minder/surrogate daughter, Broyles (Olivia’s boss) and Nina Sharp, enigmatic CEO of shady mega-corporation Massive Dynamic, possible Big Bad and old friend of Walter’s.
Needless to say, Olivia succeeds in getting Walter out of the looneybin and blackmailing Peter into looking after him and they then form a motley crew heading up a new FBI team investigating weird phenomena. The format is very much that of a story-of-the-week mystery played out against the bigger background of the repercussions of Walter’s experiments in the eighties and Olivia and Peter’s separate-although-connected childhoods. You also have the machinations of Massive Dynamic (a contributor to some of the said phenomena) and a parallel universe thrown in for good measure which doesn’t really become significant until the end of the second season.
The plotting is high concept stuff. In the eighites, Walter, along with Massive Dynamic founder William Bell, played on his occasional appearances by Leonard Nimoy, had been investigating the possibility of finding parallel universes by means of mind-expanding pharmaceuticals. To that end, they had administered experimental psychotropic drugs to a group of young children, amongst whom was an eight-year-old Olivia, their star pupil; this also triggered latent psi abilities in the children, something now conveniently forgotten by the adult Olivia.
Walter’s subsequent incursion into the parallel universe in the eighties set off a chain reaction which has immense repercussions in that universe and is behind many of the phenomena being investigated in this one. If you also throw in the mysterious Observers, the shapeshifters and the shady goings-on in Massive Dynamic, you have a fairly complex backstory. Unfortunately the balancing act between monster-of-the-week thrills and arc story is clumsily handled in the first season and doesn’t begin to settle down until far into the second season, and in the blu-ray extras for season two, even the producers admit the show was all over the place and couldn’t decide what genre it belonged to.
However no matter which genre prevails at any one time, there is an obsession with body horror throughout – various people are subjected to grotesque forms of physical alteration of every conceivable type, most of which are extremely well realised by the make-up and effects department. This also ties in with the series’ overriding theme of personal identity – are we really who we believe ourselves to be? And the answer to that, is No. All three of the principal characters discover traumatic long-buried truths about their pasts which profoundly alter their lives and inter-relationships. However they manage to overcome these and what this show celebrates is the resilience of the human spirit.
But we do also have to put up with the inescapable problems. The first season is riddled with preposterous pseudoscience and gaping logic holes: we are expected to believe that a small canister of gas can expand into a solid gel sufficient to fill a bus? Or that an adult human being can grow from a single ovum in just a few hours without taking in any sustenance? We are also reminded in every single episode that Walter Bishop has spent seventeen years in the grimmest loony bin this side of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, yet his lab at Harvard has been mothballed and left untouched for all that time, conveniently ready for him to walk back into.
The extreme redundancy in the early scripts doesn’t help much either with every plot point hammered thoroughly home. I got it the first and even second time but after that it’s counter-productive. I also pity poor Astrid who, by her own admission, lives in Walter’s lab. It must be one of the least appealling environments on the planet – dead corpses are just left lying around in various stages of decay without any kind of refrigeration, noxious chemicals abound and to cap it all, it has a resident cow which appears to be incredibly low maintenance and never sees daylight.
The saving grace though is in the casting and the production values; the cinematography and lighting are both superb and the blu-ray transfers are uniformly excellent. There is a particularly wobbly sewer set in Unleashed but that’s a rare drop in quality; for the most part, the visuals are seamlessly executed and completely convincing – check out the people disintegrating into dust in Earthling – fantastic.
Of the principals, Anna Torv is a real find and is more than capable of carrying the show. Some bloggers have criticised her performance but I find her a subtle, fascinating actress, one of those people who appear to be doing very little but in fact are conveying a great deal. She is deliberately un-glamorous but effortlessly stylish with a beguiling voice, and possesses an unconventional Eastern European beauty that goes against the grain of mainstream American television these days.
As for John Noble, let’s just say that without him the show would be much, much less than it is. His performance is highly theatrical, intelligent, unpredictable and completely fearless. His technique is so assured that in the gag-reel you can see him drop instantly out of character when he fluffs a line and then jump back in within a heartbeat. He is clearly having a fantastic time and comes across offscreen as a nice, down-to-earth Aussie, and he really does lift the show to another level.
Initially, the weakest of the three leads was Joshua Jackson, who has to be one of the laziest actors in American television. Throughout season one and the start of season two he sends in the same performance every episode on the back of a postcard (no stamp, of course) and yet the writers still give Peter lines like – ‘You’re a tough guy, I’m a tough guy’ which are delivered in a disinterested monotone. He just isn’t Peter as written, however he has a quality on screen that you can’t deny and, if you ignore the persona-as-written, his relationship with Walter becomes quite touching and they become believable as an estranged-but-still-love-each-other-deep-down father and son, just not the father and son the scriptwriters were initially thinking of. To be fair, he was cast at the very last minute and it’s clear from the behind-the-scenes stuff that he didn’t think much of the scripts or the show for the first year. As the quality of writing improved and Peter was given more to do he responded with some real acting, and by the end of the second season he does so in spades.
It’s only at that point that I found myself fully engaging with the characters. The last six episodes of season two are excellent, compelling drama. The relationship between Peter and Walter is beautifully conveyed by both actors and both deliver their best performances in the show up to that point. John Noble’s performances in White Tulip and The Man From The Other Side are a series highlight and the off-format Twin Peaks style episode Northwest Passage also benefits from a change of focus (Peter on the run) and a fantastic guest turn from Martha Plimpton as the local smalltown sherriff. She has a relaxed presence and the rare talent that gives you a rounded sympathetic character in just a couple of scenes and her chemistry with Jackson is superb. I really wanted to see more of the two of them and though it was suggested this could have been a backdoor pilot for a spinoff, it is a pity it never came to anything.
The casting department seems to have a policy of casting its net wider (no pun intended) and picking some unlikely performers to play generic characters. It’s rare to see a show of this kind that foregrounds mature women, but Blair Brown portrays a superbly manipulative puppet-mistress and clearly relishes the character. What also sets her apart is her physical frailty: although Nina is a glamorous power-bitch, Brown’s hands are visibly distorted by arthritis and it’s clear she has difficulty walking – most of her scenes are played sitting down – but no mention is ever made of this, and Brown’s performance makes us forget these irrelevancies.
But there are so many little niggles of the kind that blight modern US drama – everyone drives around in their gleaming showroom-fresh product placement vehicles which never get dirty even in the countryside, the early episodes beset by tonal inconsistency, there are too many monster-of-the-week episodes and characters act in different ways in different episodes dependent upon the exigencies of the script. Intriguing ideas are introduced early on (Nina’s cybernetic arm for example) that are then conveniently forgotten about until the arc story starts kicking in in the final episodes, but when the show plays to its strengths – the relationship between the three principals – it takes off and gives its talented cast the chance to show their stuff.
Seasons one to three of Fringe are now available on DVD and blu-ray