Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fringe: This is the Way the World Ends (Again)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on May 9, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.   

David Noble, Joshua Jackson, and Anna Torv star in Fringe

I’ve been watching Fringe for years, even since it premiered on Fox in 2008, but I’ve never written about it. Now – with the fourth season finale set to air this Friday and with the recent surprise announcement of a fifth and final season – seems like an ideal time to weigh in on a show that has grown into the most consistently entertaining science fiction series currently on network television.

Fringe is essentially a sci-fi procedural that follows a small FBI team – Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a civilian consultant Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson, Dawson’s Creek), and his father, research scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) – in their investigation of paranormal occurrences, which often turn out to be science experiments gone awry (the results of so-called “Fringe” science.) When Fringe premiered, the comparisons to X-Files were obvious: a Fox series involving two paranormal investigators working with the FBI tracking monsters or strange diseases every week, with a slowly burgeoning romantic tension between our lead characters. The superficial parallels were self-evident – and likely intentional on the part of Fringe’s creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci (all of whom also worked on Alias) – but it would be several seasons before Fringe would rightly earn the X-Files banner – learning all the right lessons from the earlier series, and even exceeding it in many ways.

In the early days of quality genre television – way back in the 90s, if you can remember that far back – show creators and runners were only just beginning to experiment with long story arcs. Chris Carter’s X-Files was among the first to successfully break the mould of procedural TV, rewarding loyal viewers with a bigger story that slowly developed in the background of otherwise standalone stories. Though not all of those storylines paid off in the end (and some eventually did get caught up in their own convolutions), what X-Files did was a genuine innovation in network television – one that would ultimately find even more fertile ground on cable and especially on HBO, which would shortly begin to develop an amazing body of original programming. But despite the series-long stories, which Carter would sometimes tantalize viewers with for years without revelations, the best episodes of the series were often the self-standing ones. X-Files, and many of the best shows that followed, seemed to know organically how to balance the so-called “mythology arc” with the procedural storytelling, to measure out only as much conspiracy and mystery as the characters themselves could justify. Many shows have tried to mimic it, but few have been as successful. One feature of the X-Files ‘mytharc’ that helped considerably was that more often than not, even the broadest elements of the conspiracy storyline were always also revelations about Fox Mulder’s still-developing story, and would deeply impact his character and self-understanding. This allowed for a natural tether which grounded even the most esoteric pieces of the larger arc in both story and character. It is a lesson which some series have learned better than others. It is ironic that some shows developed by J.J. Abrams fall decidedly in either camp.

A scene from X-Files
Lost – co-created by Abrams, though Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were the primary showrunners for the series – was often guilty of the worst excesses of these ambitions: when the myth takes over the whole series, and everything (story and character) are sacrificed at its altar. In the end, at its worst, Lost was often more puzzle than narrative. When asked why I eventually stopped watching Lost – long before its climactic finale – I would habitually respond that it was because the show “didn’t seem to be about anything but itself.” When its closing revelations finally came, I wasn’t particularly surprised, and partly had suspected something like that all along.

If Lost’s successes and failures can teach us anything (and that they should have is a lesson reinforced this past fall by the justly-cancelled Terra Nova), it is that the best genre TV doesn’t need to rely on millions of dollars in CGI rendering, but is carried by charismatic acting and smart writing. Eureka and Warehouse 13, both SyFy originals, are entering their 5th and 4th years respectively, and their sense of fun and their skill at doing more with less is one of the keys to their success. But as much fun as Eureka and Warehouse 13 may be, both are firmly ensconced in the ‘light sci-fi’ vein. Fringe is something else entirely.

Fox has a poor history of protecting its science fiction shows – Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Dollhouse each suffered widely reported ill treatment on the network even before their untimely cancellations – but it has stood by Fringe for four years now, despite its uneven first season and struggles to find more than a cult following.. After budget concerns moved filming from Brooklyn out to Vancouver for Fringe’s second season, the series took the cuts in stride, and incorporated its funding issues into the show itself. Our heroes would sometimes find themselves meeting in public squares, cleverly avoiding the production costs of rebuilding some of the familiar sets from the first season. But even as the budgets dipped, the quality only improved and it was actually in the second season where Fringe finally hits its stride. (Not coincidentally, the second season was also when Akiva Goldsman, who won the Oscar in 2001 for his screenplay for A Beautiful Mind, came on board as writer, director, and producer for the series.) Possibly even emboldened by its diminishing bottom line, the stories picked up steam and the series often seemed to maintain itself on sheer chutzpah alone – telling more and more ambitious stories, and committing fully to the twin universe plotline that it introduced at the end of Season 1.

David Noble and Joshua Jackson
Fringe did admittedly have a rocky start quality-wise. When it first aired, the charms of Peter and Dr. Bishop were immediately apparent to me (Dr. Bishop begins the series in an insane asylum, and never quite finds his equilibrium, sanity-wise), but I recall a lot of ambivalence over Anna Torv’s portrayal of Olivia. For much of the first season, Olivia came off as cold, and even robotic. I suspected at the time that the fault lay in the acting, but as the show changed direction, Torv has more than proven her talents. Since Season 2, Torv has successfully portrayed four different versions of Olivia on the series, each subtly and effectively distinct from each other.

Since its signature WTF final shot of Season 1, Fringe has become one of the more consistent shows on television. (I will restrain myself from describing those stunning 5 seconds here, so that the uninitiated can experience it themselves.) Unlike Abrams’ perennially-tinkered-with Alias – which suffered reboot after reboot to its detriment (a different kind of victim of the Fox Network’s mercurial tendencies) – Fringe has dared to keep the complications coming, season after season. They have introduced parallel universes, alternate timelines, overlapping and multiple versions of its characters, global and local histories layered on top of histories, and they have maintained a commitment to continuity even across universes.

More than any other season, the current one (which concludes this Friday) has told tight standalone stories while simultaneously building – often imperceptibly – towards a dramatic and potentially literally earth-shattering conclusion. This whole season has even more of experiment than previous seasons, as the closing events of the third season left the show’s entire universe changed – and almost every one of our familiar characters changed with it. After 3 years of story and character continuity, Season 4 opens in a completely different Fringe reality, a conceit which might have alienated even the most diehard fans, but it turned out to provide rich opportunities to refine and rework the series’ most basic elements – both in themes and characters. This season alone gave us three entirely new universes, and dared the audience to keep up. This season not only allowed them to telescope established themes into new storylines, it also allowed them bring back characters long dead. This brought us back not only this season’s villain, David Robert Jones (Jared Harris), but also William Bell, memorably portrayed by Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek), who has returned despite his very decisive, albeit animated, death in the third season.

Leonard Nimoy's final third season appearance on Fringe
It has long been a credit to the actors – Joshua Jackson and John Noble in particular – that even the most potentially melodramatic plot devices are combined with lightness and intimacy. As often as the evolving relationship between Peter and Olivia has been touching and, more recently, adorable, the core relationship of the series has always been the one between Walter and Peter as the distant father-son learn to appreciate each other as adults, despite some unique metaphysical baggage. The reboot universe of this fourth season, rather than undermine and erase three long years of character development, has somehow strengthened and confirmed all that has come before all the more. (It has been like a season-long parallel to the unexpectedly effective mindwipe plot of the final episodes of Chuck which concluded in January, which initially felt like a betrayal of Sarah and Chuck’s relationship, but ultimately served as a poignant tribute to all that came before.)

The show seems to take a kind of giddy delight in pulling the rug out of under the viewers – and it continually surprises me how this disregard for the normal rules of continuity keeps pulling me back, instead of pushing me away. To be fair, Fringe didn’t invent this painterly application of alternative timelines and overlapping continuities – but it remains a unique narrative experience which, before Fringe, was largely the exclusive realm of comic books. Last month, as once again the network kept the show agonizingly on the bubble and a fifth season seemed less and less likely, the show’s producers promised that the story would actually continue in comics if necessary, in the model of Joss Whedon’s recent Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel comic series. With Fringe’s fifth season now confirmed, there is more than enough reason to celebrate.

The fourth season finale of Fringe airs on Fox and CityTV this Friday. A 13-episode fifth season will air in the fall. And if you haven’t seen it yet, use the summer to catch up on one of the smartest and most enjoyable science-fiction series that network television has seen in decades.