Thursday, January 17, 2013

FRINGE: A Review Of The Creepy TV Series

          The scene:  A bicycle messenger zings his way through a crowded city street.  He's wearing his helmet and backpack and he's panting slightly as he evades pedestrians, snack vendors and taxi cabs.  He pulls up to his destination, quickly locks his bike to a traffic sign and runs towards the glass doors of the high rise office building.  He bumps into a woman emerging from the building.  His face is suddenly troubled.  His coordination seems to be failing.  He bumps into a man.  Something is clearly wrong.  He almost makes it to the front reception desk but now things accelerate: little stalks are growing out of his forehead, popping out of his eyes, wriggling from his mouth.  A woman screams.  The bike messenger topples to the reflective marble of the lobby.  He is writhing, his heels kick the floor.  The stalks multiply rapidly.  Each stalk, slimy and weaving, is topped by an eye; a very human looking eye.  More screams.  The bike messenger's clothes tear into hundreds of pieces and there is nothing left of the young man but a football-shaped creature with two hundred eye stalks.  At the creature's center a toothy opening appears, and many sharp teeth are exposed.  The creature exhales a brown vapor.  There are screams everywhere.  The brown vapor spreads and is breathed into the lungs of dozens of unsuspecting people.  Within seconds, each of these people is metamorphosing into a football-shaped creature with two hundred eyeballs on stalks.
          Welcome to the television series "FRINGE."
          How is it possible to have affection for a TV series, to watch it faithfully, yet know in our heart of hearts that it's crap?
          Somehow FRINGE pulls off this stunt.

In the foreground, actor Joshua Jackson as "Peter"

          There is such a thing as too much suspension of disbelief.  It's acceptable to let the craziest notions fly around in science fiction stories.  But FRINGE wants to have it both ways.  It asks our permission to fly the freakiest flags imaginable: parallel universes, re-animation of corpse brains, hairless time travelers, shape shifters with mercury for blood.  Yet it wants us to accept these ideas as somehow supported by fact. Maybe, the show implies, the state of our current science is almost, but not quite, developed to this point.  But it's close!  It's credible!
           However close, however credible, in the FRINGE world there are only two scientists who are advanced enough to work with these facts and one of them is either 1)dead 2) in a parallel universe  3) dead and in a parallel universe or 4) dead, in a parallel universe and temporarily occupying the body of an FBI agent.
          Every episode has us scratching our heads.  "Do you know what's going on?" I ask my wife.
          "Not a clue," she responds, equally perplexed.  Then I hit the remote and start the next episode.
          And there you have the big question: why do I watch the next episode?
          It's obvious that the writers are improvising. Don't get me wrong; improvisation has a large place in the writing process.  It is not, however, an adequate substitute for a well planned story arc.  The producers of the show got one thing right and they've been leaning on that one thing for five seasons.  That "one right thing" is the character of Walter Bishop as played by actor John Noble.

John Noble

          I've seen great actors, but I've never seen an actor like John Noble.  He has such exquisite control that he can hover on the edge of tears for minute after minute; the water pools at the bottoms of his eyes.  It hangs at the edges of his lower lashes, yet never quite falls.  His facial muscles convey the most delicate sadness.  It's as if he's so sad he CAN'T cry, the very act of weeping would sully the feelings he's experiencing.
          John Noble plays multiple roles in Fringe, since he must play not only Walter Bishop in THIS  universe, but the OTHER Walter Bishop (called "Walternate"), as well as various Walters in various time periods and states of exultation and/or decrepitude.  The other universe's Walter Bishop is The Secretary, that is, the political boss and chief boogie man.  Walternate is not warm and fuzzy like OUR Dr. Bishop.  He's much colder and more vindictive, but as is the nature of the competing universes in FRINGE, he is in a sense a mirror image of the sweetie-pie genius nut-case Walter Bishop who carries so much of the series' plot.

Lance Reddick

          The uber-story of FRINGE is that of a war between the two universes.  The viewer should understand that this so-called war is a political construct, that it's been cooked up by evil powers to serve their own ends.  We are familiar with many such wars in our own "real" universe.  That much is simple.  We get it.  It's a phony war but it has devastating consequences.  It was ostensibly "started" by OUR Walter when he built a machine that enabled him to cross over into the "other" universe in order to kidnap a version of his son.  The reason for the kidnapping: his real son, the one in HIS universe is dying from an unspecified disease. Walter can't let go of his son.  So he steals an exact copy from the other universe.
          By crossing into a parallel universe, Dr. Walter Bishop inflicts a deadly wound into the space/time fabric and thus damages both universes in ways that slowly become apparent as the series progresses.
          His son, Peter, grows up to live in "our" universe but there are a lot of facts about his past that are obscure, both to himself and to the audience.
          I could go on..and on...and on..for at least five seasons worth of FRINGE but there's no point. I don't really understand what's happening, who is who, where they are, which version represents which universe, and so forth.

          Somehow FRINGE holds our attention.  Every character is well played.  Actor Lance Reddick as Agent Broyles is so spooky looking that he could dance the waltz in a tuxedo and still scare the crap out of me.
          FRINGE is a crazy hodge podge of plots, subplots, superplots, and (let me invent a word here) unplots.  It hits you with a left hook when you're expecting a left hook, yet it still maintains an element of surprise, and, more importantly, an element of super-creepy fun.  FRINGE laughs at itself.  Hence, it's fun to watch.  The actors are having fun.  The show's producers are having fun.  Nothing is too outrageous, the genie is out of the bottle and FRINGE will soon pass from our television universe to go into pan-galactic syndication.

The two Agent Dunhams, one from each "universe"

          FRINGE is not brilliantly written but its actors compensate us with performances that turn the series into a drama that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Few such dramas can survive the leaden hands of less gifted writers, but the series somehow acquires fresh infusions of blood (uh...uh....) as it progresses.  By the time Season Four rolls around, I have the feeling that all the improvisations are finally gelling into a real story arc and that a few "high fives" are being shared around the writer's table.
          "We got there!" they congratulate themselves.  "We know what FRINGE is about!  Now we'd better pull our shit together before we start to grow boring, tiresome, repetitious and trite."
          They have, after all, been flirting with these show-stoppers since the pilot episode and have just narrowly missed the bullet with each new season.
          Addendum: We have now seen all of Season Four and unfortunately
my prediction has come true.  Aside from a couple of decent episodes, the series was puerile, the writing lazy, the plots derivative.  I understand that Season Five only recently ended its network broadcast.  If they had cut the cord at the end of Season Three they would have escaped with their dignity intact.  Alas, television production is subject to pressures of which we have no idea.  I can only say that my wife and I have a new slang term: we've been Fringed.  This is not a good experience, being Fringed.  It leaves one with the taste of stale hyperbole, like two day old coffee that's been endlessly re-heated in the office coffee urn.


  1. Hey Art,
    Thanks for the review. I discovered Fringe fairly recently, via Netflix, and have been going through episode after episode, season after season, since last summer. Finally caught up.

    I think your review characterizes the appeal, and the frustration, quite well.

    Personally, I think it took a turn for the worse when the invasion of the Observers started, and the alternate universe all but disappeared from the plot line. Previously, the peaceful Observers lent a zen-like appeal, and the transition to the invasion force just didn't 'grok.'

    Anyway, thanks for the review. I'm not sure, but I think the season ends this Friday night, and possibly it's a series finale as well.

  2. I appreciate your feedback, TEL. This wasn't an easy series to review; took me a couple of weeks of thinking on it, while watching the Netflix episodes slide by in a semi-addicted way. I agree with you, on the basis of watching Season Four's opening episodes, that the fire has gone from the producers' bellies. I can't imagine much after a Season Five. Still, it's been fun. My wife and I consider ourselves as discriminating viewers of TV/Film media and we set the bar pretty high or we don't waste our time. Fringe is like some crazy creole dinner recipe with ingredients from a hundred SF series, everything from Twilight Zone to X files and then some....


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