Has Fringe gone astray?
The recent episode “Johari Window” was not merely mediocre but increasingly typical of Fringe. A lackluster story about individuals who were hideously deformed as the result of military experiments but who appear normal as long as they stay within range of a signal emitted by a local broadcast tower, the episode was not only completely unrelated to the show’s central story arc but boring and dull as well. Every show has its off moments, but what is troubling about Fringe is that it has had so many of them.
At its best, the series has been among the finest on TV, but regrettably it is rarely at its best. In fact, the series seems to have settled into a pattern that appears to have been self-consciously adopted, one that does not bode well for the future of the show. Fringe excels when it focuses on its mythology: the still developing story of a parallel world that will result in an armed conflict in which Agent Olivia Dunham will play a crucial role. We know a fair amount about the mythology: we know about the Watchers, about something that Walter Bishop did when his son Peter was a very young child and suffering from a fatal illness (with Walter apparently kidnapping another Peter from a parallel world when his Peter died), about William Bell and his departure to an alternative America in which JFK did not die and Barack Obama in 2009 entered a newly reconstructed White House, and various shadowy organizations who are operating with the own agendas. When Fringe focuses on these themes it is one of the most exciting shows on television, and one of the best SF/supernatural shows since The X-Files. So why is Fringe boring so much of the time?
In many ways, Fringe is the opposite of The X-Files, the series to which it is most often compared. The latter was a hybrid show, part serial, part episodic thriller. Although The X-Files was one of the most important series in establishing the very long story arc on television, its best episodes were episodic. The so-called mythology episodes, the six-year story arc focusing on the alien attempt to colonize earth, are in retrospect its weaker half, partly because of inconsistencies in the narrative (they kept changing things that had apparently been definitively settled, such as the fate of Mulder’s sister and the questions surrounding Mulder’s father) and partly because the series focused more on plot than on character development. As initially conceived, Mulder and Scully were not intended to be the focus of the story, but were instead observers of the extraordinary things that they witnessed. David Duchovny and especially Gillian Anderson (whose astonishing range as an actress made possible some of the more memorable episodes on the series) were too exceptional in their roles for Mulder and Scully not to develop as characters, but the show was always more about learning about the truth that was out there than it was about their personal development.
Fringe differs sharply from The X-Files in that what happens to Olivia Dunham and Walter and Peter Bishop is more important than what is happening around them. Because Olivia Dunham’s character develops almost exclusively in the “mythology” episodes, Fringe is vastly more interesting in those than in the standalones. As viewers we want to learn more and more about Olivia Dunham as a woman of destiny, as a woman with remarkable supernatural powers (which have been almost entirely absent of late). Similarly, we want to know more about the story of Walter and Peter, especially the mysteries surrounding specifically what Walter did when Peter was a child, and whether this factored into Walter’s mental collapse. Nothing really happens to any of the three main characters in the standalones. As a result, those episodes always feel like the show is temporarily stuck in one place. An episode like “Johari Window” feels like a place holder.
The same was even truer of the recent showing of the Season One rejected episode “Unearthed,” about a girl who becomes possessed with the personality of a murdered man, an episode filmed with the rest of Season One, but not shown until the middle of Season Two (weirdly some are speculating online that this episode is set in a parallel earth, which is simply silly — the episode was clearly filmed in New York City, whereas Season Two is filmed in Vancouver, which shows that FOX simply did not want to broadcast it in Season One). It was, to quote Bob Dylan, an episode in which “Nothing is revealed.” While The X-Files was at its best in nonmythology episodes like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “War of the Coprophages” and “Sein und Zeit” and “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” (though there were admittedly also some unforgettable mythology episodes like “Gethsemane” and “Ascension”), Fringe is depressingly weak on standalone episodes even while it is extraordinary when developing its mythology. In Season One, for instance, any episode featuring David Robert Jones (played wonderfully by Jared Harris, now a castmember of Mad Men) was spectacular, not least because Jones was exclusively involved in mythology episodes. He was in all of the best episodes of Season One, including “Safe,” “Ability” (the episode that first made me think that this show had the potential to be one of the all time greats), and the season finale “There’s More Than One of Everything.”
However, here is my fear: “Ability” may be the exception — sadly, even a rare exception — than the standard on Fringe. For every unforgettable episode of Fringe, we seem to get four or five relatively forgettable ones. After the astonishing Season One finale (in my books, the best series finale for any show on television in the 2008-2009 season) I thought the show had reached a new plateau and had become one of TV’s greatest shows. But most of Season Two has been a regression. We really are not much further along now halfway into Season Two than we were when Olivia Dunham walked into William Bell’s office in the unfallen World Trade Center. The show has only been great when the story has moved forward, but unfortunately in Season Two the show has been rooted in place.
Is Fringe a lost cause? Not necessarily. “Grey Matter,” the final episode of 2009, was among the show’s best episodes, an out and out masterpiece. And Walter Bishop remains one of the most delightful characters on television. Walter and Astrid have developed into a marvelous comedic duo and I like that the writers have tried to give them more scenes together. This has, however, been offset by the decreased involvement of Blair Brown on the show and the idiotic decision to write Olivia’s FBI buddy Charlie Francis (played winningly by Kirk Acevedo) out of the show entirely. Furthermore, no Season Two baddie had emerged to take the place of the charismatic David Robert Jones, and apart from “Grey Matter,” the Watchers have been far less visible. The show can be saved, but J. J. Abrams, Robert Orci, and Alex Kurtzman need to dedicate themselves to the idea of reducing dramatically the number of standalone episodes. They suck, they are boring, they detract from the main story, and they slow down the action. Yes, they almost certainly delight and placate FOX (all networks imagine that standalone episodes attract new viewers, but I believe they underestimate how much they drive dedicated viewers away), but standalone episodes are the key ingredient to bad TV. And at the moment Fringe is dangerously close to being bad TV, at least much of the time.
Although Abrams’s involvement with Lost was minimal (he helped create it and directed the pilot, those he quickly moved on to other projects), he needs to learn from what happened on that show. After a magnificent Season One, Season Two of Lost seemed to be dragging the story out. After a while, viewers came to feel that almost nothing of consequence was happening and many stopped watching. That is happening right now on Fringe. After the irritating six episodes that started off Season Three of Lost, Damon Lindelhof, Carlton Cuse, and the rest of the writers stopped messing around and really started moving the story forward. They announced that the show would end after Season Six and laid down a finite number of episodes to finish the series. Abrams and his cohorts need to take the lessons from Lost to heart. From my mouth to their ears: GET ON WITH IT ALREADY! Don’t try to stretch this out over eight seasons when you could do it in three more. Heck, FOX will probably cancel you before then. Just tell the story! Figure out what your story is and how many seasons you need to tell it. Eliminate the standalone episodes entirely. At this point you have about all of the viewers you are going to get and you will keep them best by focusing on your story. There is a great, great series at the heart of Fringe. You guys just need to let it out instead of allowing this continued drift into mediocrity.