Fringe (Season 1)
By John Fountain
I’d heard good things about this series; current geek-meister JJ Abrams latest foray into television. Fringe’s basic premise is that there are some areas of scientific progress that are tantamount to the supernatural. Cutting edge science, or “Fringe” science, is reaching the point where technology becomes able to supersede the current parameters of the Known. So far, so good.
The way this plot thread is woven into the series is by way of a young, beautiful FBI agent (are there any other kinds?) Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). She and her partner, John Scott (Mark Valley) are having an illicit affair. They are called in to investigate a horrific terrorist event on a flight from Germany. The attack itself is extremely well done, with some seamless and wonderfully drippy special effects, as the passengers and crew melt before out eyes. Great stuff.
Unfortunately, it is right after this that things start to unravel into a poorly written mess: Dunham needs to get hold of Dr Walter Bishop (John Noble), incarcerated in a mental hospital these last 17 years, as she believes Bishop holds the key to unravelling the incident. To do this, she needs to track down Bishop’s errant son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), a jack-of-all trades shady character with rough edges by a heart of gold (yawn). Even though Peter is on the run from some “people”, he’s easily found by Dunham in Iraq. Peter is a blank slate of a character, he is essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card with the writers being able to dredge up some past experience or underworld contact to use.
Drawing this group of characters together is Broyles (Lance Reddick) who walks everywhere like the bastard child of a predatory cat and a cartoon by R.Crumb, head of the Fringe division. Broyles and Dunham have a complex relationship…or is it just that different writers sketch him out differently minute by minute? Throw in mysterious robot-handed Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), deputy head of the sinister multinational Massive Dynamic, wonderful goggle-eyed FBI agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo) and young, beautiful trainee FBI agent (really, another one?) Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) and you have the main players in this tale.
So begins the first season of Fringe, in which we learn that Scott may be a traitor or not, Nina Sharp may be a baddie or not, Broyles is continually grumpy or not, Bishop is crazy and can’t remember Astrid’s name (oh the hilarity), and Peter is, well, just there. The character of Olivia Dunham is well played by Torv, who brings some real emotion to the role, especially when her sister and niece enter the story and her life by moving into her apartment. The problem is that even though you are asked to suspend your disbelief to a certain degree (yeah, sure, a chemical that turns someone into a were-porcupine, ok fine), the plots seem to revolve around finding a stupid pseudo-science means of solving the mystery.
A case in point: using a “special” camera to photograph the impulses travelling along the optic nerve of a corpse to see the last thing they saw. NO! Bad Scriptwriter! Go outside to do that! The other main annoyance is the conceit that Dunham has a portion of Scott’s consciousness in her brain, that can be accessed by drugs and an isolation tank. Wisely, they ditched this particular script-crutch after a few episodes, but not before it already reached it’s clunky annoyingly-convenient stage. Bishop is there to spout techno-babble that Star Trek writers would be envious of and to come up with an elaborate and implausible way to save the day. Lazy, lazy writing. The introduction of the terrorist organisation ZFT is a welcome one, with a star turn by Oliver Reed sound-a-like David Robert Jones (Jared Harris) playing the incarcerated head.
The other great part of the series is the character of The Observer (MichaelCerveris); obviously included to give fans something to talk about on the internet. The Observer plays the Man In Black from UFO mythology, only this guy is from another dimension. Or is he? He is a good guy. Or is he? The main problem with Fringe, aside from the really annoying last minute pop-science salvations, is that it is suffering from Lost syndrome. “Ooh, look how mysterious we’re being” is the main cry through the series.
So many plot threads, so little cohesion. What is the Pattern? Eventually, you won’t know or care, because the characters don’t seem to. Is Massive Dynamic is real bad-guy? Dunno…does it matter? Who are Broyles and Sharp really working for? Do the writers even know? Are the writers playing a game with each other? All in all, the plot lines, especially the metanarrative, seem cobbled together, loosely written, with no sense of any real cohesion. Almost as if they were all written late at night when everyone was tired.
Is there a stand-out episode in the season? Well, not really, they are all a little bit “meh”. None have the throat grabbing tension of the early X-Files, nor any or the well toned humour of that series. Fringe feels like X-Files Lite, a poor cousin, a fart in a bath-tub. Fringe feels like X-Files of around season 4-5 when it really started losing it’s way. None of the Fringe episodes rate more than a 6 out of 10.
That being said, they are entertaining. I recently bought the box-set of S1 and spent 2 days watching them back to back. When the box-set of S2 gets cheap, I’ll probably buy that too, because no matter how clunky the scripts, how throwaway the plots, there is something in the performances (except that of Peter, but to be fair Joshua Jackson isn’t really given much to work with) that makes you want to see what happens next. Speaking as the co-writer of a soon to be published RPG that jumps between alternate realities (subtle plug) the multiverse aspect appeals to me. So all in all, Fringe is a likeable, if simple, series that is entertaining. You just have to keep your hand poised over the Bullshit Button…