Alternate Realities on 'Fringe', 'Lost' and 'FlashForward'

All my serialized sci-fi shows seem to have turned into one-hour drama versions of choose-your-own-adventure books. I’m still trying to figure out if this is a cop-out or a stroke of genius. Maybe it’s both.

TV shows in their purest form offer an escape into another world. Suddenly, however, there is a mini-trend where shows are serving up multiple versions of the same world. It’s enough to give a viewer whiplash. I’m trying to figure out if it is lazy writing or brilliant twisty storytelling. Let’s look at three shows that are using this device right now before we decide.

Be warned: spoilers abound.

The core mythology of Fringe posits that overlapping worlds share the same space. The worlds themselves are largely similar, but with key differences (such as the intact World Trade Center we saw at the end of season one). There are people who have opened portals between them. It is really really bad to open portals. Even worse, one of the main characters – the lovable but stark raving mad Walter Bishop - has used the portals to replace the dead son of his world with a living counterpart from another world.

FlashForward also has an intriguing alternate reality hook. Everyone in the world blacks out at the same moment. While they are unconscious, they see what they are doing many months in the future. Except it becomes clear that what they see may not have to come true. It may be that there are multiple possible outcomes for any given action in any given moment. Yeah, that kind of makes my head hurt too.

Lost of course is the granddaddy of the serialized shows, having lasted a whole five seasons (which is like thirty-five seasons in procedural show years). They started with straight-up flashbacks that showed us the characters before they came to the island. Then, in a fit of hubris that paid off, they switched to flashforwards that showed some characters after they got off the island. Now, in its final season, we have flash-sideways, where we are seeing characters in a completely different world at the same time as the events happening on the island. It is very enjoyable, but also completely baffling.

Here’s my worry with the alternate reality thing. The writers really have to know what they’re doing to make it work. It’s like time travel. Once you open that door, anything is possible because you can always travel back or forward in time and change everything (which has been the true downfall of shows like Heroes). Alternate realities provide similar escape hatches for writers.

On Lost, the writing/producing team has earned the right to dabble in the flash sideways alternate reality. I’ve trusted them for years now and have yet to be let down (even when they veered into the dangerous time travel territory). So I’ll go along with the premise, even if I don’t have the energy to play connect the dots with every character in the two worlds. I’m not ready to pronounce the final season a success, but I also would never tar the alternate reality concept lazy here. And the April 6 episode was one of the best yet, providing a tantalizing glimpse of the show’s end game.

I am concerned about both FlashForward and Fringe, but Fringe has the edge because it has done better legwork in my opinion. The alternate reality concept has been grounded in character-driven action. Walter’s deep grief led him to violate the boundary between the worlds. That is powerful stuff. I hope they play it out to a logical conclusion and don’t let themselves off the hook.

FlashForward feels the most in danger of using the alternate reality concept as a storytelling crutch that allows for a complete reboot. The ratings for the show are disappointing. Characters are already talking about another blackout which could be code for let’s-toss-the-first-season-and-start-over.

I guess for me it really comes down to characters over concept. That’s why I love Lost, feel an inkling of trust in Fringe and suffer from great trepidation about FlashForward. The Lost characters are like family at this point. On Fringe, the main characters all feel unique and fully drawn. FlashForward, even after nearly a full season, still is populated by too many shorthand cookie cutters for my taste.

Of course, in this not-so-alternate-reality of network TV scheduling, it doesn’t look like it will matter what I think about FlashForward – it is all but canceled. Fringe, on the other hand, has basically been renewed, so I hope my trust isn’t misplaced.

And the producers of Lost are going to wish they had their own flash-sideways if they screw up the upcoming series finale. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I think it will continue to be the unattainable ideal that these other shows need to live up to.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.