“Fringe”: Every Generation Gets the “X-Files” It Deserves

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.