David’s Favorite TV Series, #24: FRINGE

A brainy science-fiction show with romantic’s heart, a procedural with fully-formed characters, a crazy action series with a brilliant cast — FRINGE was many things, and always great.

There is little that makes me happier than taking drugs. Perhaps administering them…

-Walter Bishop

Debuting in 2006 to much fanfare, Fringe was the first new series under the J.J. Abrams/Bad Robot banner created after the explosion of LOST, and it was immediately clear it was never exactly going to capture the zeitgeist in the same way. While LOST was a four-quadrant smash, Fringe was a smaller, darker, and altogether stranger show.

Furthermore, it was initially designed as more of a “freak-of-the-week”-type of experience, akin to The X-Files, and was supposed to avoid the weedy mythology that (already in Season 2) was starting to drive viewers away from LOST.  Abrams, along with co-creators and Star Trek writers Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, wanted a more self-contained series where the investigators of Fringe Division would deal with weighty moral themes in weekly encounters with the bizarre and unexplainable — and for the first couple seasons, that’s pretty much what it was.

The set up was simple: a series of near-supernatural events known as “The Pattern” leads to the formation of an FBI task force comprised of three: icy agent Olivia Dunham (Australian actress Anna Torv, who displays incredible range over five seasons), brilliant-but-cracked scientist Walter Bishop (the incomparable John Noble, better known at the time for Lord of the Rings), and Walter’s estranged son-turned-guardian Peter (Joshua Jackson, Dawson’s Creek).

As the team investigates flesh-dissolving toxins, telepathic signals, genetically-engineered monsters, and more under the stern eye of Lt. Broyles (Lance Reddick, The Wire), there are multiple tensions already in place: Olivia, thrust into a world beyond her immediate comprehension; Peter, forced to be around the father who isn’t emotionally capable of being one; and Walter, trying to put back together the shattered pieces of his brain. Ultimately, they discover the meaning behind “The Pattern,” and what — as well as who — is responsible.

All throughout, the beating heart of the show was Noble’s Walter Bishop. His mad, darkly funny, and often soulful performance provided the series with many of its best moments (I’m thinking in particular of his standout episode White Tulip in season 2, the best hour the show ever produced). His yearning to reconcile with his son and atone for his many sins was always in balance with his sometimes childlike demeanor, always asking for a particular kind of candy or record album, or making his own batch of LSD…because, you know, he’s a better scientist on that.

Spoilers follow!

We come to learn his full responsibility for these strange events: he did illegal drug testing on Olivia when she was a child, giving her telekinetic powers she must learn to control; he, along with William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, always a welcome sight), invented and experimented with unfathomable technologies; most importantly, he created a portal to an alternate universe, from which he stole the doppelgänger of his son when the original Peter fell into a frozen lake and died. That our Peter isn’t even from this world bears great significance on the show moving forward, particularly in his growing relationship with Olivia.*

When the “parallel world” gambit was first introduced, it was cute to see Torv and Noble play polar opposite characters: Alt-Olivia was free-spirited and tough, while “Walternate” was in full possession of his mental faculties but scheming and ruthless (having your son taken into a parallel universe would do that.) What we didn’t expect, however, was coming to feel and care for these “new” characters almost as much as the others. Along with Broyles, adorable lab assistant Astrid (whose name Walt can never remember, in one of the show’s best running gags), and others, the entire world was re-populated in a fascinating way, and the amount of technical tricks employed in having all these actors interacting with themselves was never not impressive.

*The show conspired to keep Peter & Olivia apart in ways only it could. Whether it was Olivia being held prisoner in the alt-world and surreptitiously replaced by “Fauxlivia,” or Peter simply winking out of existence when the two worlds were merged together at the end of Season 3, their romance was often heartbreaking, but the fans’ patience was eventually rewarded.

Fringe wasn’t supposed to last five seasons. It was eternally on the brink of cancellation, but FOX (having burned a lot of bridges with their careless handling of Firefly) was determined to keep the show around, and as the audience got smaller and smaller the producers felt more and more free to experiment and make the show THEY wanted to make. The result was a gift to sci-fi fans, as they were able to provide a wide range of thrills, chills, and dark humor over the course of its 100 episodes (one of them animated, another a musical!)  As the storytelling got more serialized and “weird,” its loyal fans clung to it even tighter.

This was most exemplified through the Observers, who are first introduced in Season 1 but really come to the forefront as part of the show’s endgame, where they turn from passive, objective scientists of the human race to a fascist regime seeking dominion over it. Their iconic look — grey suit and fedora, like they stepped off the set of Mad Men except for their pale bald heads — and demeanor always excited the Fringe faithful whenever they appeared. The move to make them into villains was bold, but paid off with a rewarding final season, set over 20 years in the future: Olivia, Peter, Walter, and Astrid are brought out of suspended animation by Olivia & Peter’s daughter, Etta, and enlisted to bring the Observers down.  That they will ultimately do so is never in question for this hopeful show, but the cost is devastating.

I’ll admit it took a couple seasons for Fringe to really grow on me, but I’m so glad I stuck with it as it came into its own as one of the most self-assured sci-fi series on television. Walter Bishop is such a distinct and memorable character, and he alone managed to crack the public consciousness in ways none of the other elements could.  I’d lament the lack of attention paid to the show, but it was allowed to do what too many shows of its kind were not–end on its own terms. For that, at least, we can be grateful.

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