Why “Fringe” Matters

The recent announcement of Fringe‘s renewal for next season–it’s fifth and final–got me thinking.

The first show I loved wholeheartedly was J.J. Abram’s Alias. I would obsess about it, scouring the web for spoilers for upcoming episodes, guest star lists, Rambaldi theories. Everything would stop at 9:00pm on Sunday nights as Sydney encountered an endlessly complex world of assassins, evil criminal organizations, and her own life as a triple-agent. It was pure geek bliss: a kick-ass heroine (I had yet to discover Buffy), mysterious rivalries and relationships, dense and detailed, flowchart-necessary mythology.

And then it came crashing down. I think all Aliasphiles will agree that the Superbowl episode, Season 2’s “Phase One,” was both one of the ballsiest things ever done on network television (upending the entire dramatic arc of the show in 44 minutes); it was also the series’ peak. Only rarely would Alias even hint at something as grand and ambitious over its following 3 seasons, and as a fan, it became increasingly obvious as the show went on that there was no master plan and the mythology which became such a feature got bogged down with the dead weight of half-baked storylines and needless, science fiction-y (commonly referred to in Alias‘s case as “spy-fi”) complication. (X-Files, anyone?)

I loved that show and I still do, but it spuddered to such an unsatisfying conclusion that I strained to care.  It’s was like the friend you still want to hang out with because you remember the good ol’ times, but they always stand you up.  I had invested a lot of time and enthusiasm into that show, hoping for one great, overdue payoff, but it didn’t deliver and I was burned bad.

The same can be said for J.J. Abram’s other sci-fi show, Lost.  Since Lost was a much more popular show than Alias, I’m not going to go into go into the particulars of plot and such, but again, almost everybody can agree that, regardless of your opinion of the finale, the show purposefully raised a bunch of questions to maintain suspense with no intention of addressing most of them.

Given all of this, I was hesitant to invest in Fringe, not only because it came off as a blatant rip-off of The X-Files at first (ooh, FBI agents solving paranormal crimes!)  And that’s how it played out for the first dozen or so episodes: cases-of-the-week, little character development, with a “trying too hard” kinda vibe.  Lance, though, loved it from the very beginning, and I therefore watched alongside, warily.

Then everything changed.  In “Ability,” episode 14 of season 1, the show played its hand: there was a huge mythology lurking in the background, and it didn’t have anything to do with aliens or nuclear mutation, but parallel universes.

Parallel universes! Suddenly, the show had my attention. The concept of parallel universes has intrigued me since the sort-of-abysmal ’90s show Sliders, which was about a band of misfits bouncing around to earths slightly different than our own.  I loved the idea from a scientific and creative perspective. Endless possibilities!

Over the next few seasons, Fringe built upon this initial reveal, linking it to the histories of all of the major characters and in the process tying this “conflict between worlds” conceit to their very personal and relatable behaviors.

That’s one thing Fringe has gotten right where Alias and Lost went awry.  The overarching story in Fringe is explored through the interpersonal relationships between the characters; for example, Season 4’s “altered timeline” arc is addressed primarily through the dynamic between Peter and Olivia, not through some scientific whizbang or half-nonsensical Dharma station underneath a church in Orange County.  Fringe is all about its characters, and doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of the complex roles they’ve developed for the sake of the story, unlike Alias, which had characters change allegiances half a dozen times over the course of the series for the most asinine of reasons.

The Fringe producers also keep a tight control over their mythology: we’re only 15 episodes away from the finale, and the series-long storyline hasn’t yet spiraled out of control into absurdity (no heretofore unknown half-sisters or purgatory flash-sideways here!).  Questions raised in this show get answered, and in a timely manner.

And Fringe takes major risks: it’s super ballsy, with huge, complex arcs that requires significant devotion to get through and appreciate.  It also takes characters you thought you knew(!) and reinvents them: if it’s not alternate reality red-head Olivia, it’s altered timeline Olivia or future Olivia.  Off the top of my head, John Noble has played Walter-prime, Walternate, Mad Science Walter (from “Brown Betty,” the musical episode), future Walter, and altered timeline Walter and Walternate.  This is not only a lot to keep track of from an audience member’s perspective, but it’s taxing too.  For example, after following these characters for 3 years, suddenly we’re thrown into Season 4 and these characters histories have all significantly changed; they’re not who we know and love anymore, and that taxed my investment for awhile.  But I applauded the gutsiness of the move.

What I’m getting at here is that shows like Alias and Lost were rough-drafts for Fringe, as if the producers watched those shows and pulled out what worked and learned to avoid what didn’t. Alias and Fringe both have strong female protagonists that are destined to serve a greater purpose, trained and tested in childhood to enhance abilities few others have. But that’s where the similarities end.  Sydney Bristow became hard and cold as Alias wore on; Olivia Dunham, in contrast, slowly learns how to experience and appreciate the love she kept at bay for so long.

Fringe matters because, for the most partit gets things right.  There’s an intentionality evident here that didn’t exist in J.J. Abram’s prior sci-fi television productions, and its characters drive the action on the show; they don’t react to it.  It’s a show that any sci-fi fan worth their salt should be watching, because it does what we always complain other shows don’t.

But Fringe matters to me most of all because it’s the first television show that Lance and I have been invested in and enjoyed together from beginning to its impending end.  There’s a beauty to the long-form narrative that television provides: granted, most TV today sucks, but when it’s good, you’re provided with multifaceted characters with rich histories, something that a movie could never provide.  Fringe is special to me because Lance and I have been on this ride together: we’ve gone to the other side, to Reiden Lake, to Massive Dynamic, experienced the porcupine man and the Observers and David Robert Jones and been invested in all of the Fringe Division’s wild cases…together.

I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the worlds. 

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2 thoughts on “Why “Fringe” Matters

  1. Nice essay.

    Fringe also gets it right because deep down, it is grounded in the science fiction classics that have come before it. It isn’t making things up as it goes along, because the thematic roads have already been mapped out for it by the great authors and creators of yesteryear. From Frankenstein to Asimov to the X-Files, it doesn’t pretend to reinvent the wheel, but acknowledges all these influences and lives comfortably (and brilliantly) among them. It’s a science fiction show that is about science and the scientific method. I love how multiple scientists working independently have discovered multiple methods of crossing over between universes, for example – which is how real science actually works.

    It’s best show ever produced under the JJ Abrams marque (very possibly the only truly successful Abrams show, ratings notwithstanding). And it’s one of the best science fiction TV shows ever. As SF fans will continue to discover thanks to the DVD afterlife.

  2. Pingback: Vancouver, Where Dreams Come True-ver (Part 1) « LEG+JCB

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