Going into its fifth and final season, Fringe has proved itself to be the one and only true heir to Lost. Over the last few years, many shows have tried to replicate Lost’s blend of strong characterization and mind-bending SF, but hardly any have endured past a single season. Fringe, which like Lost was created by J.J. Abrams, has not only survived, but has established itself as one of the best shows on TV.
When it first aired in 2008, Fringe seemed a blatant rip-off of another revered SF show. Attractive blonde FBI agent Olivia (Anna Torv) was paired up with scruffy outsider Peter (Joshua Jackson) and sent off to solve “fringe” cases that defy scientific explanation. They might as well have named the leads Mulder and Scully. The fact that many of the early episodes were monster-of-the-week stand-alones didn’t help stave off comparisons.
Throughout the first season, it was unclear if Fringe had aspirations beyond being a police procedural with a SF twist. Like The X-Files, it planted the seeds of a greater mythology from the very beginning, but it was unclear that it would follow through. Then, in the stunning conclusion to the first season, Olivia found herself face-to-face with the puppet master, William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), in a World Trade Center office in a world where the buildings had not been destroyed by terrorists.
This set up a series of confounding and deeply satisfying twists that led viewers through a shifting landscape of alternate universes, shape shifting double agents, genetic experiments on children, and plenty of interconnected unexplained phenomena. Even better, like Lost, all the episodes soon were feeding into the greater mythology, including those that at first glance appeared discrete.
Even as it’s become clear that the show is playing a long game that is rewarding loyal fans, this game also makes it impossible to join the show in progress. Again, like Lost, Fringe is unable or unwilling to make concessions to draw in new viewers. Each new twist makes the overall story hopelessly complicated, which is manna for fanboys and anathema to the ratings.
Season Five opens with yet another reboot. For years, there have been mysterious fedora-wearing men tracking the progress of Olivia, Peter, and his father Walter (John Noble), and occasionally interfering with important events. Nicknamed the Observers, these otherworldly pale interlopers did not seem to be anything but celestial historians who were usually indifferent to human plights. By the end of Season Four, we learned that they were far more sinister than that. The new season’s opener sets up the final arc for the series, the war between the Observers and ordinary people.
Fringe is rooted in the concept that such people — that is, us — are our own worst enemies. The morality play of Lost shared the view that humans are fallible, but ultimately the real threats on the island were supernatural. In The X-Files, the main antagonists were extraterrestrial. All of the devastation and destruction on Fringe can be traced directly to our own hubris.
Walter is the core of the central paradox that seeking truth can cause untold harm. And so, much of the damage done in two worlds stems directly from his actions. He opened a rift between dimensions when he tried and failed to save his son from a fatal disease. In trying to unlock the potential of the human brain, he created a race of damaged and dangerous superhumans. He even nearly destroyed himself by various manipulations of his own brain, both to enhance its abilities and to forget his own shortcomings. Walter is the embodiment of how our noble instincts are corrupted by our inherent ability to ignore the morality of our deeds. It is one of the great injustices in TV today that John Noble, who has played three different versions of Walter with grace and delicacy, does not have a mantle full of Emmys.
It is always a high-wire act to finish off a series that has become so intricate and byzantine. Even the title of the season opener, “Transilience Thought Modifier Unit-11,” is so incomprehensible that it suggests a no-compromise posture for the remaining episodes. Which is exactly what the loyal fans want and deserve. For everyone else, don’t try to engage this show from the beginning of the end. Go back to Season One and watch the whole thing from start to finish.