Performance Review – Fringe

by

Around 8 months ago I heard tell of a wonderful thing: A Science Fiction show that would be a veritable mishmash of the X-Files and other past greats of the genre! It’s co-created by J.J. Abrams, you say? That’s a guaranteed recipe for mystery and craziness if I’ve ever heard one! It’s going to be on FOX, huh?

At this point my response was, “So, has it been canceled yet?”

However, FOX’s general ineptitude with (good) shows these days is not what I am here to discuss. I’m here to talk about Fringe – the previously alluded to sci-fi show co-created by Abrams that evokes the X-Files as well as other past hits (and/or misses) – which has just wrapped up its first season. So is it everything it was hyped to be? Is it the new Lost? Are various orifices explored in the name of science!? Read on and just maybe you will find out.

The answer to that last one was yes, by the way.

So what exactly is Fringe about? The title itself is an allusion to the basic premise: Fringe Science. To be more specific, the show is about fringe science being used in the development of biological/psychic/whatever-the-fuck weapons and the like, and their effect on the most diverse test subject there is: The WHOLE World! And by ‘whole world’ I mean in and around Boston, Massachusetts; because that’s where our intrepid heroes are based and also where an alarming amount of crazy shit happens.

We’re introduced to a phenomenon known as the Pattern during the (overly long) Pilot, and while this name is used sparingly later on (since it’s kinda silly), it is the main focus of the show: a series of incidents that are loosely connected and seem to indicate an unknown group(s) is testing their wacky experiments on the world at large. Where as the X-Files had two distinct types of stories that episodes conformed to – Mythology and Monster of the Week episodes – Fringe’s main storyline is broad enough that the Monster-style episodes can tie back into the overall plot, either in subtle ways or more blatantly.

The overall visual style of the show is fairly subdued. When it does rely on visual effects, it tends to skew more toward the realistic side. There’s very rarely anything that screams “sci-fi just for the sake of it”. The first half of the season does have a recurring effect of note: a lens glare that usually shows up when there are strange happenings afoot. This becomes less and less prevalent by the second half; Why exactly? I’m not entirely sure, but maybe Abrams pulled it so he could put more of it in Star Trek (where it shows up a whole lot!)

The show also uses 3D floating text in the environment – which first showed up in Panic Room I believe – to inform the audience of the current location. It gets the job done in an interesting way, but every once in awhile it does result in something bordering on the surreal.

The shows musical score is similarly subdued, provided by Michael Giacchino, who’s worked on Abrams’ past projects. I’m not very fond of his work on Lost myself, but his score here feels very different. Mora – who is more knowledgeable on Giacchino than myself – insisted I say good things; thankfully this doesn’t go against my own feelings on the matter. The memorable opening and ending themes give off just enough of a sense of mystery, and the incidental score is subtle but effective. A few stand out moments shine some light on why Mora is a fan; in particular, the ending scenes of ‘Inner Child’ really show the strengths of his compositions. He’s no Bear, but I don’t hold that against him.

Before I get into the few problems I have with the show, I should introduce you to some of the surprisingly great characters of Fringe. What fun!

Olivia Dunham (played by the lovely Nariko..err Anna Torv) is our intrepid heroine of the series, an FBI agent who pretty much gets thrust into this pattern situation unwillingly when her partner (in both the professional and sexual sense) – John Scott – is exposed to a flesh-dissolving agent. Her search for a cure leads to an eccentric scientist that specializes in the field of strange things – Walter Bishop (played by John Noble) – that may be able to help. Unfortunately, he happens to be confined to a mental institution and the only way to get him out is by having a family member sign for him; in this case, his estranged son Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson). And thus the adventuring party is formed, so to speak. In the end a cure is found, John turns out to be involved in the pattern business, and Olivia is left even more distraught than at the start of this whole mess.

In the first half of the season, Olivia is essentially a female Mulder minus the conspiracy theories; a loner with an extremely poor social and love life, mainly due to her job. There are faint glimmers of a deeper side to her from the start, but it’s not until the 2nd half of the season that she really comes into her own. It’s at this point that her sister Rachel – who’s going through a bit of a rough patch with her husband – comes to stay with her, bringing her precocious daughter Ella along. The interactions between Olivia, Rachel and Ella range from delightful to goddamn heartwarming. There’s a chemistry there that makes Liv and Rach feel like real sisters, and watching them makes me glad I stuck with the show after the mid-point.

Peter Bishop serves as the Scully to Olivia’s Mulder. He’s smart, cynical, and regularly brushes off the strange happenings in Fringe Division as having a more rational explanation, for the first few episodes at least; he soon changes his tune and becomes a bit more open minded. He acts as a Civilian Consultant for Homeland Security, and his main purpose on the show is to keep Walter in line and translate any of his psycho-babble, as well as use connections from his unscrupulous past to help out the gang when necessary. Oh, his other job is to just be handsome. It’s not too long into the season that some sparks fly between Peter and Olivia, and soon after Rachel comes into the picture there’s a bit of a love triangle that starts to brew. This is just something you come to expect when dealing with syphilitic spine-eaters I suppose.

Rounding out the main characters is Walter Bishop, who – to keep the X-Files comparisons going – is probably what you’d get if you combined all three Lone Gunmen. A bit insane but quite intelligent, at least when it comes to wacky shit. Walter is seemingly connected to everything that happens throughout the first season in some way. To some people this might seem a bit preposterous, but as a watcher of Lost this is par for the course. Walter has a tendency to say inappropriate and odd things at times, and is the source of most of the shows humor. The relationship between Peter and Walter starts out fairly antagonistic, though tempers cool as things progress. Even when they do bicker, humorous back-and-forth is a common occurrence.

The always great Lance Reddick plays Dunham’s boss, Phillip Broyles. Despite some tension between the two of them early on, they work well together; Olivia is his best agent and he knows it. We don’t learn a whole lot about Broyles during this first season; something I hope they rectify. Regardless, he’s off screen just enough that it’s always a treat when he gets a bit of the spotlight.

The final two on the FBI side are Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo) and Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole). Charlie is probably one of Olivia’s only friends; a very down to earth guy who’s not easily phased by the strange happenings he has to deal with.

Astrid, on the other hand, is basically a glorified intern; she helps Walter out at the lab, both in scientific endeavors as well as the more mundane ones. She’s mainly around to brighten up the place, but she does have her moments.

The ‘Dharma Initiative’ of Fringe is a company called Massive Dynamic, run by Walter’s former colleague William Bell (Leonard Nimoy!). Bell himself doesn’t make an appearance until the end of the finale; most of the MD story is told through Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), an executive at the company (with a robotic arm!) that has a particular interest in Olivia. Whether this is due to Olivia just being so damn good or because of other reasons that are revealed during the second half of the season are yet to be determined. But in any case, both Nina and Massive Dynamic are red herrings for the majority of this season, only becoming an important factor during the last few episodes. Every time they are shown to be doing something that’s possibly insidious in some way… It actually isn’t. I grew tired of this intentional misleading of the audience very early, but thankfully you don’t have to put up with it too long.

Introduced near the end of the first half  is Dr. Jones (Jared Harris), who becomes the main villain of the season. Jones – soon revealed to part of a pattern related group known as ZFT – is first shown locked up in a german prison, though this is soon rectified by an FBI agent that is part of his group named Mitchell Loeb. Jones himself is a creepy yet slightly charismatic fellow that takes a liking to Olivia when she comes to see him in Germany. With the help of Loeb, Jones makes his escape by teleporting (not as far fetched as it sounds) from his cell to Boston, though the side effects leave him a right mess by the end.

This would be a fairly exciting mid-season moment. It would be, had two of the integral episodes leading up to this moment not been total bullshit.

In the episode ‘In Which We Meet Mr. Jones’, Loeb has a giant parasite inside him and a series of events leads Dunham to Jones to figure out how to help him. In exchange for helping, Jones needs to speak to an old colleague who unfortunately gets shot in the head in this very episode, leading to Walter busting out the mind reading gizmos to ‘talk’ to him. Yadda yadda yadda, in the end it turns out to be a ruse by Loeb to get the information out of the guy.

This episode felt like a backronym. It’s almost like the writers (one of which is unsuprisingly Abrams) had an ending already – which included Olivia and Jones meeting and Olivia knowing the information that Loeb got so she could go running off because of it 3 episodes later – and proceeded to write a series of events to end up with this result. I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying, “Do the ends justify the means.” In this case the means is a sloppy mess full of loose ends that I could have done without. Now, I would be willing to overlook this usually; every series has its stinker episodes every once in awhile.  I can’t overlook it however, because the very next episode pulls the same fucking bullshit.

Yes, ‘The Equation’ starts off interestingly enough: a boy is abducted, using a flashing sequence of lights to hypnotize his father. It’s revealed similar cases of abductions had been occuring for the past many years (10+), with all the abductees being prodigies that become obsessed with a particular equation that they can’t finish. One of the victims turns out to have been commited to the same facility as Walter, which leads him to be temporarily reconfined to the facility as he tries to find out more about the equation. It’s all very intriguing… until the end that is. The abductor brings the equation that the boy managed to complete to none other than Loeb. And the equation? It’s the last thing needed for a device that lets you pass through solid matter (?), and is conveniently exactly what Loeb needs to get to the components of the teleportation device (!?) that none other than Walter Bishop (!!?) stored away in various bank deposit boxes. Was there really no other way to introduce this device? Did every little detail really have to tie back to Walter in some way? And for that matter, why is this equation that has eluded so many for so long, the exact fucking component needed for this literal plot device?

Ugh. I could rant and rave some more about this, but I’ve already gone way beyond the amount of talking I originally intended. So I’ll be wrapping this shit up.

J.J. Abrams has said that they intentionally made Fringe easier to follow for the more casual viewers.  I’m not entirely sure they managed to succeed in this endeavor. What I do know is that this season had a rough start; the first half is a very mixed bag, with no one episode that I can strongly recommend. The second half of the season is a big improvement, with a string of very good episodes and a finale that actually manages to finish a plot thread or two… which is probably a first for anything Abrams has worked on.

I feel there is room for improvement, but overall the show managed to win me over. If you’re looking for a sci-fi show with an interesting cast of characters – and the occasional dark humor moment – I recommend checking it out. Though, you might want to stick with episode 10 and onward. Just saying.

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7 Responses to “Performance Review – Fringe”

  1. John Mora Says:

    I, too, started watching Fringe just to fill some sci-fi hole in my heart. It wasn’t particularly engaging… until the midway point, when they revealed there was a point to everything happening and the greater arc of the series revealed itself. I very much look forward to more of this show, especially if they start skewing more into the larger mysteries of the show instead of just pattern of the week type stuff.

    And Anna Torv still strikes me as odd in some way. :s

  2. Rick Says:

    I hated this show originally because it was an X-Files clone.

    But I stuck with it because some other show had gone off and I had a slight vacuum in sci-fi, and very occasionally I do require meat with my potatoes.

    This show had no protein at first, only starch. But as you’ve put fairly well, Marc, it gains ground and turns out to be pretty decent towards the end of the first season, and I highly anticipate its new season. Also, great to see you contributing to my favorite review thinger. This place needs higher output sometimes. =3

  3. Sean/Shard Says:

    I think I tuned in for the first four or five episodes, but I couldn’t force myself to watch any more. Every time they started “explaining” science my brain just put on the brakes and disbelief asserted itself again.

  4. sirtmagus Says:

    So is Lance Reddick the black Mitch Pileggi?

    What about a Krycek character? What about the BLACK OIL!?

  5. Marc M Says:

    Broyles gets much more of the spotlight than Skinner initially did.

    There’s nothing similar to the other two… at least, not yet.

  6. Star Trek: The Future’ So Bright, You Gotta Wear Shades… Seriously « Grump Factory Says:

    […] Grump Factory A blog about movies, games, anime and other forms of entertainment. « Performance Review – Fringe […]

  7. Virtuality: Virtually Ignored « Grump Factory Says:

    […] Dollhouse is too uneven to fit the bill. LOST is too twisty, zany and soapy to match it, either. Fringe, as much as I enjoyed Season 1, is too mainstream and procedural. Where’s that hard-nosed […]

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