I have a new favorite television show. When FOX’s cult sci-fi show, Fringe, first began airing in 2008, I watched the pilot and actually found a great deal about it quite intriguing. At the same time, I was worried. Worried about being sucked into a new sci-fi show that would most likely be canceled at the exact moment where I started to become really invested in it. Worried about investing time and energy into a new sci-fi/conspiracy/mystery series, knowing the genre’s track record for convoluted plots that often fail to come together satisfyingly in the end. To be honest, I was also suffering from a bit of Lost fatigue and, at the time, just didn’t feel up to the challenge of learning a whole new, complex TV series mythology. I decided to not proceed with the show and to instead wait a while to see what audience reaction would be in the long term, as well as to see whether the series would even survive in the long term. And after three ensuing seasons of hearing some pretty incredible things about Fringe, I decided, about a month ago, that it was finally time to immerse myself in its web of mystery and intrigue.
And I could not be happier that I did, because what I very swiftly found was not only a tantalizing, extremely entertaining, noir-infused sci-fi series but one which rapidly becomes one of the most bold, daring, beautifully crafted examples of long-form storytelling I have seen anywhere. Working within an emotional, philosophical, and metaphysical landscape that is nothing short of literary in terms of complexity and scope, Fringe is not only one of the best sci-fi stories I’ve ever encountered but one of the best character dramas, as well. And what might be most impressive about it is its remarkable sense of control. It is epic and sprawling, yet at the same time always remains grounded by and centered on its protagonists and their all-too-human motivations. It contains mysteries within mysteries, yet they are never allowed to overwhelm the audience but rather unfurl at a steady pace, as if one is burrowing out of an onion, from the center, moving outwards. Sometimes, it is even experimental, yet it never sacrifices the narrative for gimmickry. Instead, everything on screen is always in the service of either exploring the characters from a new angle or adding further layers to a story already dense with meaning and a universe more finely detailed than most multi-book series. Oh, and did I forget to mention it’s also fun and funny and freewheeling and scary and thrilling and just all around riproaringly brilliant?
In a day or two, I plan on posting a spoiler-laden review for those diehard Fringe fans who might be interested in my in-depth take on the show, but before I do that, I felt it my duty, as a new fan of this criminally underrated series (in terms of Nielsens, that is), to spread the word and attempt to entice other, new people to watch it, as well, because, honestly, if this show isn’t allowed to live a long, full life, it will break my heart into a million pieces. Fringe is the sort of show that should be watched by everyone, but which isn’t, because it requires work and attention on the part of the viewer. Not all of the answers come easily, and sometimes, it asks viewers to draw connections on their own and to remember things that happened a long time ago. The structure of the third season, for example, is difficult to describe without getting into spoiler territory but involves the story being split between two entirely different casts of characters, who alternate, week-to-week. At this point, one can’t simply turn on a random episode, having never seen the show before, and be able to have any clue as to what is going on, and it makes no apologies for that. It has gotten to the point now that, after watching almost nothing but Fringe for nearly a month, most other American network TV shows disappoint me by comparison for being less layered, less meaningful, less emotionally gripping. Fringe expects more from its viewers, and I, in turn, now expect more from the majority of the other American network shows that I watch.
To break it down even further, here are the main reasons you should be watching Fringe:
Brilliant storytelling and a coherent sci-fi mystery. What are the major complaints a large amount of fandom ended up having once The X-Files and Lost reached their ends? That their questions weren’t answered. That the story didn’t come together as a cohesive whole. That it seemed like the writers had never had a plan, after all, and had just been making it all up as they went along. Now, of course, Fringe isn’t over yet, so I can’t guarantee that it will end in a manner that will satisfy all viewers, except what indicates to me that it most likely will is that it has already begun to answer many questions, and when each new puzzle piece is dropped into place, it makes sense. The major problem on Lost was that we didn’t only not know what was going on, we didn’t really have much context for what questions we should have been asking in the first place. It was impenetrable, and when we actually got to the end, the answers were that all of those clues had just been red herrings the whole time, and that the characters were what had really been important. Except most of the characters actually weren’t that complex or deep, and a great many of them were poorly served by the writing.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fringe plays fair. We may not know the answers to all of the questions, but we are given a steady diet of substantiative clues and, more importantly, they come together coherently over the course of the series in such a way that it is clear that the major arcing was plotted out in advance. We aren’t simply flailing around in a dark cavern with no flashlight, helplessly watching more and more unwieldy mysteries dropped on our heads. We know what we don’t know, if that makes sense. We didn’t even know that Lost was necessarily, definitively scifi until the third or fourth season. On Fringe, we know upfront that we are dealing with a branch of the FBI that investigates events of an unusual nature, but unlike The X-Files, these seemingly unexplainable instances are most often answered through unconventional science, rather than the supernatural or the extraterrestrial (though a bit of the latter creeps in here and there). We know exactly what strange things are happening. We just don’t initially know how they all connect or why they are occurring, though it doesn’t take long for a picture to begin assembling. And these pieces aren’t just sci-fi clues but character details and bits of continuity whose recurrence adds further levels to the work. And what makes the storytelling most unique and fulfilling is that…
It all springs from character. One of the biggest problems with a great deal of sci-fi is that, while it remains absorbed with its own twisty, often fascinating concepts, it neglects the characters, who are often pawns or only vaguely drawn-in figures whose job it is to experience all of the things the universe has to throw at them. Fringe‘s characters, however, aren’t only the most crucial aspect of the story; they are the story, and this becomes gradually more clear as the saga proceeds. Earlier on, when most of the episodes’ plots are of a more standalone nature, the characters still have more depth than most other shows of its type, because each of the strange cases will come to reflect what is going on in their lives, with often surprising resonances and character histories revealed (the series, early on, also has a propensity to introduce episodes that only seem to be standalone, until they gradually reveal their relevance to the larger arc). Later on, however, we will come to learn that the characters and their emotions truly are the driving force of the Fringe universe. By the time the second season’s masterpiece of a flashback episode, “Peter” rolls around, the show has evolved into a perfect marriage of the intimate and the epic. The major theme of the series–among many themes–seems to be, “How far would you go to save or protect someone you love?” This extremely human-based question feeds into all of the characters’ various arcs, as well as to the very science itself, in a way that I can’t delve into without spoiling.
Suffice it to say that the disparate characters of Fringe–the heroic but reserved Olivia (Anna Torv), the brilliant but damaged mad scientist, Walter (John Noble), his equally brilliant and damaged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), his gal Friday, Astrid (Jasika Nicole), Olivia’s FBI partner, Charlie (Kirk Acevedo), and her boss, Broyles (Lance Reddick), etc., all grow into a most unexpected and unconventional family unit, all of whom are fiercely loyal to one another and would go to any length to protect one another. And their various relationships–and these relationships’ evolution over the course of the show–are truly beautiful to watch. Watching Walter and Peter gradually heal their estranged relationship, watching Peter and Olivia grow ever closer, watching the paternal relationship Walter comes to form with Olivia and Astrid, as well, are among the series’ many emotional highlights. Even more wonderful is the fact that the characters aren’t idealized or sentimentalized. They are complete and flawed human beings. In his past, for example, Walter was a rather ruthless scientist whose actions might have caused some people to classify him as a villain. Meanwhile, Peter is a con-man, Olivia can seem cold to an outside observer, and so on and so forth.
Olivia’s particularly interesting, because she is a kickass heroine who is never objectified. She wears bland-colored clothes and wears her hair down. She doesn’t wear sexy outfits or high heels. She is a remarkably strong person, who has built up a lot of barriers as a form of self-protection. Some viewers interpreted Anna Torv’s performance as flat in the early episodes, but what was actually happening was that we simply didn’t know Olivia well enough right away. As the first season progresses, we swiftly learn who she is as a person, see the cracks in her facade, and come to love her despite and because of her various emotional issues, because we come to learn why she is the way she is. She also happens to be one of the most self-reliant heroines I’ve ever seen. Peter is often practically the damsel to her knight. Meanwhile, Walter swiftly reveals himself to be not only sweet, bumbling, and funny, but also rather tragic and heartbreaking, in many ways, much of which springs from the 17 years he lost to incarceration in a mental institution, as well as from the reasons he was there in the first place.
Sci-fi tropes made shiny and new. As awesome as the characters are, Fringe also, of course, wouldn’t be great sci-fi if it weren’t for the sci-fi itself. Fringe employs countless sci-fi tropes: time travel, doppelgangers, robots, intelligent viruses, aliens, and so on and so forth, but does it in a manner that is often completely new, due to the depth of both its world-building and character-building. Being as unspoilery as possible, I will say that I have never seen any show explore the concept of parallel universes with the complexity, depth, level of detail, and sheer imagination and ingenuity of Fringe. Um, that’s about all I can say about that without spoiling.
Experimental but not gimmicky. As I alluded to before, Fringe is also extremely experimental. The best example of this is probably the second season episode, “Brown Betty,” which is a film noir and steampunk-influenced musical episode in which Walter, after getting high on a special pot blend, tells a fairy tale of sorts to entertain a young girl. On any other show, this episode might be a simple lark. On Fringe, however, this episode isn’t only entertaining but comments on what is happening in the plot at this point in the story, and even further, beneath the whimsy, is quite dark and absolutely heartbreaking, resonating deeply. I can’t think of another American network show that operates on this many levels. Speaking of which, any given episode is stuffed to the brim with references that range from pop cultural to literary to scientific and often hint at its deeper meanings. Also, keep an eye out for a mysterious bald man who makes an appearance in every single episode, even if only for a split second. Fringe is the rare show that encourages active involvement on the viewers’ part.
Great acting. Besides the great writing and cinematic production values, Fringe boasts one of the best casts on television today. I could go on for hours about every one of them, but the most impressive are likely Anna Torv and John Noble, whose immense talent only becomes more apparent as the series progresses and we are afforded chances to see them perform variant twists on their regular characters. What makes their performances so brilliant and astounding is that each version of the same character is distinct (at times, it’s easy to forget the same actor is playing both roles), yet we can see the roots that they have in common, despite the different directions that life has taken them. Oh, and if you happen to know a little show called Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy has a major recurring role here, as well.
And that’s about all I can think to say without giving away all of Fringe‘s stunning surprises and twists. Perhaps the greatest thing of all about the show is that, as with science and technology itself, the possibilities in Fringe are practically endless.
Fringe airs Friday nights at 9 PM on FOX.
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