January 13, 2012

Personal essay: Here's what no one seems to get about 'Fringe.'

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Fringe television show

(For reasons that will become obvious, today's essay reveals nearly every plot secret from the first three and a half seasons of the television show Fringe; it's done deliberately so that people who read it can start watching tonight's kickoff of new episodes knowing everything about the backstory that they need to, but if you'd rather not learn this information in advance, it's suggested that you skip today's essay entirely.)

So yes, it's true; I'm one of the sci-fi fans who four years ago tuned in excitedly to the premiere of Fringe, the huge-profile new FOX series from two of the former staffers of JJ Abrams' megahit Lost (Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, that is, who also happen to be the screenwriters of the Abrams movies Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek), just to tune out disgustedly three episodes later, never to return again. In fact, it seems that most of America has ended up with this attitude -- after an average viewership of nine million per episode in the first season, a respectable if not great number for a genre show, here by season four they are down to a mere three million per episode -- although to be fair, this is not much different than any of the other endless series of disappointments we've gotten from former Lost staffers since that show ended, either because of unrealized potential or overly meddlesome network execs or any number of reasons that Lost itself magically avoided during its own run.

But then I caught an article at the always fantastic AV Club recently that posited that this show had gotten a lot better since the universally-agreed-upon crappy first season; and because of that and some other recommendations I was catching online, I decided to give the show another chance starting with this most current season, and for the last four months have been getting quickly caught up with the first three years via Netflix DVD, even while watching all the fourth-season shows each Friday night in real time. (And a digression, by the way, if you'll allow me -- am I the last person left in America without cable and a DVR, who literally watches network shows the moment they air or doesn't watch them at all? Or at least, whenever I mention to my friends anymore how I'm always excited by Friday nights because they're "Fringe nights," my friends tend to stare at me like I'm some space alien babbling nonsense at them.) And I'm lucky to have gotten to watch it this way, it turns out, because I've noticed something as a result that I haven't seen a single solitary television critic on the entire internet mention yet; that over its three and a half years now, Fringe has very slowly assembled the exact kind of grand, epic, endlessly fascinating mythology that Lost was so good at too, as well as the basic moral questions underpinning such a mythology that makes such shows so delightful to contemplate even away from the actual airings, only in this case with this mythology doled out in badly paced bits and pieces, trying desperately to balance this world-building with a network preference for the kind of "Law & Order" proceduralism that lets brand-new viewers tune in to any random episode and still be able to generally figure out what's going on. And so no wonder that I haven't seen any critics talk about this, because it's really only obvious when you sit and watch big chunks of the show at once, entire seasons in just a couple of weeks; but when you do this, you realize that Fringe is really turning out to be one of the most interesting, satisfying SF shows in television history, making it even sadder that the chances are very likely of it getting cancelled at the end of this season.

Fringe television show

See, like The X-Files, Fringe is set among a special black-ops division of the FBI, who deal only with the abnormal and unexplainable; and when the overly serious agent Olivia Dunn is assigned her first case in this division, it turns out that the only person who can help her is literal "mad scientist" Walter Bishop, who in the first season we know mostly as just a former ultra-brilliant Harvard professor who eventually had a complete snap from reality, hastened by his Altered-States-like dedication in the '60s and '70s to mind-altering drugs for consciousness-raising purposes, even as his old lab partner William Bell (played by an inspired Leonard Nimoy in only one or two episodes per season) has gone on to create the uber-corporation Massive Dynamics, a sort of Siemens-meets-Microsoft biomech company which always seems to have some sort of shadowy connection with whatever bizarro case the Fringe team is working on any given week. But see, Walter is currently in a mental institution, and the only person who can authorize his release is his hunky thirtysomething son Peter, born just as smart as Walter but who abruptly quits college because of his father's insanity, becoming instead a rogue globetrotting tech-merchant for terrorist groups and the like, and harboring a seething resentment regarding his father's complete lack of parenting skills from when he was a child.

And so does this team with a few minor additions come to explore a different unexplained crime once a week throughout the first season, with Abrams and company trying to have their cake and eat it too; for while each episode tells a standalone story involving a crime, the investigation of that crime, and the capture or escape of that crime's perpetrator, part of the agreement they had to make with FOX to get the show picked up, each of these crimes is also associated with something the FBI calls the "Pattern," certain similarities that build up week after week and that all seem more and more to be pointing towards a specific physical epicenter in upstate New York. And this frankly is why so many of us checked out of this show in its first season, because it's frankly difficult to make an episode of a TV show both a standalone story and part of a bigger mythology, especially a genre show that asks us to just swallow these outrageously fantastical concepts week after week, among these broadly-drawn characters who at first seem little more than network-TV cardboard cutouts. (In fact, I'm just waiting for a fan-made YouTube video that cuts together every moment from the first season where a skeptical minor character is forced for the sake of the script to angrily say at some point with slitted eyes, "So you're telling me that our perp can [fill in the superpower blank]...?")

And this is simply a growing problem within the history of episodic television, that audiences are growing more and more narratively sophisticated and are demanding that TV shows become more like "visual novels," which clashes directly against the business model that has guided network television for the entire sixty years it's even been a mainstream medium, to basically fill all those endless hours of their schedule with endless reruns of past shows they already own, in a way so that any random human can catch any random episode on any random day even decades later and still have a good viewing experience, and will stick around for all those ads which is how the networks make their money. And that's why it seems that all the most exciting shows these days are coming from premium cable channels, because those networks have an entirely different business model (no ads, lots of movies, and the monetization of weekly series through the packaging of them into DVD sales and rentals), which means they can afford to give up the procedural part of such shows altogether, and really can treat them as a "TV novel" with each episode being another sequential, necessary chapter of that novel.

Ah, but almost exactly like how Lost had all of us throughout season 1 obsessively wondering what was behind the mysterious hatch in the ground that our characters found in the middle of the jungle after their plane crashed, only to reveal in season 2 that it was merely a rabbithole into a much deeper and weirder story underneath it, so too did Fringe in season 2 reveal that all these "Pattern" events ended up pointing to the middle of a lake in a quiet suburban community in rural New York, because of this being the exact spot where crazy ol' Walter Bishop in 1985 managed to actually punch a hole into an alternative universe, and that all these bizarre cases they've been investigating are essentially quantum aftershocks of this rip into the fabric of space/time that Walter created. And so for one thing, this reveal suddenly lets the Fringe staff start putting together a much stronger internal logic for so much of the loopy-seeming coincidences and strange moments from season one: it turns out, for example, that Massive Dynamics is so big to begin with, and seems to have such a shadowy connection with the events taking place, because Bell was the one who helped Bishop figure out how to make this connection between the universes in the first place, and has since been stealing tech from the other side (who are supposed to be around thirty years in advance of us in tech development) and then presenting it here as his own inventions, or simply using it secretly so that Massive Dynamics can do things that literally no other group on Earth can; and it turns out that Walter went so crazy in the first place as one of the ramifications of this reality-hopping, and that he can't remember any of it because of Bell very carefully slicing out a little part of Bishop's brain while he was institutionalized, which explains all the episodes in season 1 where crimes turned out to revolve around hidden tiny caches of brain tissue hidden around the country in places like safety deposit boxes; and it turns out that even Olivia isn't a random addition to this team, but that she was one of the children who was experimented on by Walter back in the '70s, back when he and Bell were finding kids with natural psychic abilities and then pumping them full of dangerous experimental drugs, in the hopes that they might be able to punch through to the alt-universe merely through thought alone. And then as season 2 progresses into season 3, this uber-plot gets even more complicated and hence fanboy-satisfying; it turns out that this space/time rip has been causing much, much worse problems over in the alt-universe, entire little black holes that at first would sometimes devour entire cities before the alt-universe invented a kind of suspended-animation gel that could be applied to the event horizons, and that there Walter is seen as a sort of Antichrist that has inspired a coming war against our own universe that we are of course completely unaware of, the struggles for which fill most of the episodes of the third season, as well as providing yet more explanations for some of the weirdness we saw in the first.

Fringe television show

Fringe television show

(And yet another digression, if you'll allow me; that from a pure fangirl standpoint, this alt-universe is easily one of the most inventive and fun things about Fringe, with it obvious that the showrunners get a real kick out of all the small ways this reality differs from ours; in fact, this was one of the first things that made me start to reassess the idea of watching the show, when I learned through a post at BoingBoing last year that this alt-universe contains a fully realized version of a New York skyscraper that in real life actually was once designed by infamous Spanish surrealist architect Antoni Gaudi, but that in our universe never actually got built. And that's only the tip of the iceberg; in this alt-universe, the Statue of Liberty is made out of bronze instead of copper, and it was the Pentagon that was destroyed during 9/11 instead of the World Trade Center, and it was Eric Stoltz who starred in Back to the Future instead of Michael J. Fox, and Kennedy was never killed and U2 never became famous. And in fact Fringe's showrunners even convinced DC Comics to do alternative covers of their classic titles The Dark Knight Returns and Crisis on Infinite Earths, just so they could be briefly referred to off-handedly during one random episode; and if that doesn't give you a nerd boner, I don't know what will.)

Fringe television show

But the most important thing of all about this expansive mythology, and the thing that saves Fringe from being yet another disappointing post-Lost project, is that this alt-universe concept perfectly lets the showrunners explore a series of fascinating basic ethics issues, ones concerning the true nature of our personalities, whether it's genetics or environment that mostly determine our fates, and exactly how important the "butterfly effect" of big consequences from small changes actually is to our lives. This is precisely the one thing that Lost got right that so many of these other shows don't, was to find a deeply emotional core to the stories which is what so many episodes turned out to really be about, away from the theatrics of secret societies and mysterious numbers; and so too does Fringe get great mileage in season 3 out of exploring these characters as they exist from one universe to the other, exploring the tiny little changes in their pasts that have led to big differences in their competing adult selves, as well as such fascinating single episodes as the one (for an infamous example) where a professor with hidden homicidal urges, who learned as a teenager how to control these urges, is recruited to help hunt down his doppelganger from the alt-universe, who never learned how to control these urges and has turned into an out-and-out serial killer, the episode just as much about this person's emotional journey after learning this as it is about the crime itself.

But what is perhaps most remarkable about all this is what turns out to have motivated this universe-jumping in the first place; that in our universe, Walter was unable to prevent the childhood death of his son Peter from a rare disease, even after figuring out the cure later by spying on the alt-universe Walter (or "Walternate," as he calls him), and that our Walter crosses universes literally so he can steal the still-alive alt-Peter, bring him back, cure him and raise him as his own son. And so this has a tremendous amount of emotional and moral ramifications on everyone involved, as brilliantly explored at a snail's pace over the second, third and fourth seasons: how it was the guilt of all this that partly drove our Walter crazy; how it was the theft of his son that drove Walternate to be the bitter, sociopathic war-mongerer he is in the other universe (over there, he's the US Secretary of Defense, and their Fringe division is a bloodthirsty wing of the military that is preparing a doomsday device to cook our universe's goose for good); how a lot of the third season is dedicated merely to exploring the ways that these Walters' varied lives were influenced by Peter either being or not being a part of them; how it's Peter's eventual discovery of this kidnapping as an adult, and the furious disconnect he feels with both fathers because of it, that fuels so many of the plot twists seen in that third season; and how it's Peter's eventual realization of just how much this "false father" had such a positive effect on him anyway that leads to his sacrificial act at the end of season 3, to use this doomsday device to instead create a permanently open quantum doorway between the two universes, forcing both universes to finally work together all through this most current fourth season to try to fix this space/time rip, but with Peter's very existence snuffed out as a result, even from the memories of everyone who has ever known him. (Or is that what happened? That's been the main mystery fueling the fourth season, as Peter mysteriously reappeared a few episodes into it, his memories completely intact but with no one else having any clue who he is; new episodes of season "4.5" start again the very night I'm writing this, with the showrunners promising to answer the Peter mystery fully by the end of this season.)

This is really what's made Fringe turn into such a satisfying show after having such a rough start in its first season; not just the much more expansive mythology, not just a relaxing of the network execs' insistence that the show be part "Scooby-Doo" procedural every week, not just the delightful inventiveness behind the showrunners' alt-world-building, but the fact that there is such a strong, deep, ethics-based emotionality behind it all, exploring the kinds of Big Life Questions that all great works of art do, which when all is said and done is what mostly separated Lost from all the cheap genre imitators that have come after, and why that show succeeded so insanely where all these others have failed so miserably. And like I said, it's a shame that Fringe didn't handle this expansion better, or make it a more integral part of the show from its first episode; because at three million viewers per episode, it's in very real danger of being cancelled at the end of this year, although to their credit the showrunners seem to be quite aware of this themselves, and seem to be setting up the story so that it can be neatly ended at the end of this season if need be. (And in fact this is one of the few things the show has gotten consistently right since the very beginning; it seems to be hyperaware of its own possibility of cancellation every year, so has set up the final episodes of each season so that a tidy show-ending could've been employed, but instead with yet more questions being raised each time their necks were saved and the show picked up again. This is absolutely one of the tricks that this show picked up from Lost, and showrunners Kurtzman and Orci absolutely learned how to do this through the example of Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the undisputed masters of building escape hatches into multi-year story arcs.) I look forward to watching a fifth season of Fringe if one is given to them, although I have to say, it was quite worth it to fly through the first four seasons as well, even if they do turn out to be the self-contained entirety of the show; and I encourage all my fellow genre enthusiasts to do so too, or at the very least to watch the remainder of season 4, starting tonight and lasting until late April or so, in the vain hopes of bumping up its numbers a little more and guaranteeing it a fifth season to begin with. Today's extra-long recap should be all you need to jump into the middle of things starting tonight, where I promise you that you'll find more than enough great things to really make it worth your while.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:50 PM, January 13, 2012. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |