"Fringe": Every Generation Gets the "X-Files" It Deserves

Michael Curtis Nelson

Fringe is The X-Files new and improved for viewers with shorter attention spans and an appetite for more gadgets and less paper work, more super geniuses and fewer bureaucrats, higher body counts and less verisimilitude, more answers and fewer questions.

Forget Lost, J.J. Abrams’ beloved series currently receiving the fawning final-season send-off that critics bestowed on The Sopranos and The Wire. Instead, tune into Abrams’ other hit show, Fringe (Fox), which returned with new episodes in April. Fringe is The X-Files new and improved for viewers with shorter attention spans and an appetite for more gadgets and less paper work, more super geniuses and fewer bureaucrats, higher body counts and less verisimilitude, more answers and fewer questions. It’s The Twilight Zone with ludicrous, pseudoscientific explanations in place of O. Henry twist endings or concluding morals that tidily wrap up episode themes. And it’s thoroughly, frighteningly addictive: a show you feel compelled to watch against your better judgment. It’s also the perfect series for our uncertain times.

Fringe follows the adventures of a team assembled by the Office of Homeland Security to investigate phenomena that fall under the category of “fringe science", described in the pilot as “things like mind control, teleportation, astral projection, invisibility, genetic mutation, reanimation". Tough and resourceful FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv); brilliant, but crazy researcher Walter Bishop (John Noble); and Bishop’s reformed slacker son Peter (Joshua Jackson), who with an IQ of 190 is no slouch himself when it comes to head work, operate out of Bishop’s Harvard lab, where the good doctor carried out top-secret research for the U.S. government before he was committed to a mental hospital for 17 years.

Every episode of Fringe, like each installment of The X-Files, begins with a mystery. A man receives mental messages that prefigure terrorist attacks; a young woman has the ability to boil people’s brains along with her own; a sick man can achieve temporary remission of his symptoms by passing his cancer to others with a touch. But where The X-Files and The Twilight Zone often left the origins of paranormal phenomena vague, instead focusing on their psychological or cultural effects, Fringe clears up all doubt in a flurry of explication. Investigations usually lead back to Dr. Bishop himself, and the work he did before his breakdown, during what must have been a terribly busy decade and a half of tireless research and scientific experimentation.

The disease-dealing sick man was part of a cohort that Walter subjected to drug trials when they were children. The weaponized woman was rendered lethal by means of a radioactive substance in her blood that enabled her to generate microwaves, a procedure first developed in Walter’s lab. The clairvoyant man was altered by Walter himself during a supposedly harmless psych experiment he carried out years before (undergraduates, beware of what scientists ask you to do in exchange for pizza or bookstore credit). “Someone else, it seems, and I’m somewhat jealous of this, has perfected our ghost-network,” Walter complains, when he discovers that the prescient man is acting as a radio receiver. It seems that many of the afflicted on Fringe are simply suffering from pre-existing conditions.

There’s more than a little MythBusters in Fringe, and the effect is to deflate the kind of goose-bumps elicited by the best entries of The Twilight Zone and The X-Files. Remember the Twilight Zone episode starring William Shatner as an airplane passenger who sees a gremlin on the wing, damaging the aircraft, but no one believes him? If that had been an episode of Fringe, all the action would have been compressed into the teaser, the Fringe team would have been called in to investigate, and Walter would have said, “you know, Agent Dunham, in 1979 the U.S. Army asked me to study what would happen if we seeded a thunderhead with sea monkeys....”

With Fringe, the cleverly ambiguous X-Files slogan “the truth is out there” becomes “the truth was here all along". All the players afield in the The Twilight Zone and The X-Files -- government researchers, third-party experimenters, ETs, free-range monsters, maybe even God -- seem to have passed through the same basement lab at Harvard, and all the paranormal phenomena to have explicable origins in the same absurdly fertile scientific imagination.

Not only does Fringe, like a know-it-all, explain its plots to death, but it also constantly undercuts the explanations, by staging a running comic critique of the show’s premise that fringe science is science. While The Twilight Zone mostly took itself seriously, and The X-Files built skepticism into every episode through the friction between credulous agent Fox Mulder and more circumspect agent Dana Scully, Fringe drenches its proceedings with irony, even anticipating jeers from the audience. Just when you open your mouth to make fun of a particularly outlandish procedure, one of the characters does it for you. “That can’t possibly be scientific!” Fringe team handler Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick) blurts out during a visit to the lab.

Peter often functions as an ironic chorus to the show’s improbable plots, like Crow T. Robot or Tom Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000. When Walter announces that he can interrogate corpses within six hours of the time of death, Peter replies: “Right, cuz after six hours, that’s when they’re REALLY dead.” “I sure hope that a gigantic metallic suppository is not the pinnacle of human achievement,” he observes of a device that appears after a mysterious explosion. “Dammit!” Walter shouts at one point; “must you always be such a smartass?”

Irony notwithstanding, Fringe also has a paranoid side. Just as The X-Files combined stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes with installments that furthered a convoluted series-long thread involving aliens and human-alien hybrids, Fringe combines “human guinea-pig of the week” plots with the gradual revelation of the Pattern: fringe phenomena that seem to be connected, and that implicate a parallel universe, a mysterious man called the Observer, and Massive Dynamic, the powerful technology company and defense department contractor founded by Walter’s one-time lab partner William Bell (Leonard Nimoy).

The X-Files

The X-Files validated conspiracy theory adherents who believe that the federal government has covered up knowledge of UFO activity, and in general the show reflected the 1990s mistrust of government that in more virulent forms led to the Oklahoma City bombing and Branch Davidians’ Waco, Texas, standoff. Fringe likewise indulges an amalgam of current fears and fantasies, but now the blanket mistrust of government has bifurcated into mirror-image beliefs that an omnipotent federal apparatus can transform society for good or ill. “Yes we can” progressives and right-wing naysayers both have ascribed, at one time or another, almost divine (or infernal) powers to the Obama administrative; each will find something to love, or love to hate, in Fringe.

The series also encourages the libertarian bugaboo of a federal government in thrall to corporations (see Ron Paul’s recent assertion that Barack Obama isn’t a socialist, but something even worse, a “corporatist”). In a season one speech characterized by hyperbole befitting a Tea Party rant, a black-market dealer suggests to agent Dunham that the Pattern is part of a “smokescreen so Massive Dynamic can do whatever it wants to whoever it wants.... Massive Dynamic is hell, and its founder, William Bell, is the devil.” Guess who turns up dead before the credits roll. Halfway through season two, it still isn’t clear to whom Fringe team leader Broyles answers, OHS or Massive Dynamic’s enigmatic COO Nina Sharp (Blair Brown).

Fringe conveniently embodies the dark and light sides of federal power in the same character; Walter Bishop has wreaked all sorts of havoc on average Americans, but after his turn in the madhouse, he now occupies himself with cleaning up the impressive and varied messes he’s created. And here the series’ resonance with conspiracy theorists overlaps with another feature that’s helped secure the show’s popularity. Fringe is a familiar family drama: the last act in the epic play of the Baby Boomer generational cycle.

Peter, like so many Echo Boomers, has returned home -- both Bishops share a hotel suite -- to engage in a rapprochement with his estranged father, and to contend with the elder Bishop’s embarrassing reminiscences and glimpses of incipient senility. “I just pissed myself,” Walter announces on the car ride home from the hospital in the series pilot. For his part, Walter is enjoying an encore career, one characterized by a newfound ethical orientation, like Bill Gates in his foundation-building period. In a recent episode Walter even confessed to believing in God.

Sure, it’s a lot to pack into a show, but Fringe is about excess. Take, for example, the title sequence. A supercharged homage to the openings of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone, the Fringe beginning makes its predecessors’ signature montages seem stingy and languorous. The Twilight Zone deploys Einstein’s E=MC2; Fringe includes a much longer formula. As the X-Files theme song plays, the words “paranormal activity” appear on screen, one of a handful of phrases in the opening; Fringe hurls close to a dozen topics at the viewer, from “artificial intelligence” to “psychokinesis” to “teleportation". You need to DVR the show and utilize the pause feature in order to read them all. Like The X-Files opening, the Fringe title sequence includes a handprint, but the Fringe hand has an extra finger. All this to a frenetic Philip Glass-inspired theme written by J.J. Abrams.

Increasingly preoccupied with the alternate universe, with the traumatic childhoods of Peter and Agent Dunham (did I neglect to mention that as a child Olivia was subjected to experimentation at the hands of Walter, too?), and with the Pattern, Fringe is in danger of losing its vitality in season two. Still, there have also been more thoughtful story lines in the second season than we saw last year, including “White Tulip", a recent episode about a scientist who has figured out how to travel back in time, which features musings on scientific hubris worthy of The Twilight Zone at its best. That high mark is offset by a particularly egregious, cringe-worthy Fringe moment: the April 1 flashback episode detailing Peter’s childhood illness, and Walter’s first visit to the alternate universe, which he discovered how to view through a special picture frame enabling him to watch his alter ego at work and observe dirigibles docking at the Empire State Building, among other distractions. I swear I’ve seen that frame at Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware. Oh, how I was hoping that halfway through the episode would be revealed as an April fool’s joke.

Fringe is maddeningly inconsistent, at times brilliant, at times idiotic, but always entertaining. I’m sure it will run its course unsung, uncelebrated for breaking new ground on television, only to be succeeded in a decade or so with yet another series which takes as its subject the monsters, UFOs, and other unexplained phenomena for which Americans appear to have an insatiable appetite. No doubt it will be bigger, faster, and more cluttered even than Fringe. I have only one request. Please let there be mummies.





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.