26/02/2013 § Leave a comment
Fringe may have been the best show on television in the last ten or so years. There are a lot of contenders for this title, of course, and many shows would be equally deserving of claiming the title of the best show of the past decade. However, Fringe holds a special place in my heart.
I’ve watched Fringe from the very first episode, thanks to the prodding of some college roommates, and I enjoyed it immensely throughout its run. The first episode was crazy, creepy, a little frightening, and so incredibly interesting. The rest of the first season stuck to that mold.
It’s probably just as well that Fringe focused most of its attention on the sci-fi/horror side of story-telling because, initially, the cast was just not very good. Anna Torv, an Australian, had a very difficult time managing her accent, and so her line delivery tended to sound stunted (in a manner not at all dissimilar to Poppy Montgomery in Without a Trace). Joshua Jackson always seemed sarcastic when delivering lines, and appeared more angsty than his character was written. Since the show revolved primarily around these two actors, the show could be a bit rough to watch at times because neither Torv nor Jackson were quite ready for lead performances.
Fortunately, though, Lance Reddick was able to bring about an emotional intensity as Broyles, and his intensity and command helped keep the show from becoming too cartoonish. More importantly, the show also had John Noble as Walter Bishop, Peter Bishop’s (Jackson’s character) dad. Noble did most of the heavy lifting for acting performances during the first season and a half, and that made the show tolerable. Noble also provided the emotional core of the series, and offered at least two dozen award-worthy performances during the series’ run.
As time went on, though, both Torv and Jackson grew into their roles, and by season three Fringe looked to have one of the best ensembles on television. Jackson softened his character’s bluntness and angst; Torv began to seem American, and did a much better job relating the emotion and drive of her character, Olivia Dunham. The chemistry on the show from season 3 onward was simply impressive, and helped to cement the feeling that Fringe was indeed its own universe where Olivia, Peter, Walter, and the rest belonged.
The sci-fi and horror elements of the show were undoubtedly its hook, and the show remained quite true to it. Fringe had a tendency to rely on its hook in earlier seasons in order to retain viewers’ interest, but as time went on, the sci-fi hook took a back seat to the relationships between Olivia and Peter, and, later, Peter and Walter. While Dunham was the series ostensible protagonist at the beginning of the series (a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any other Whedon-esque series), her initial lack of acting range is probably what relegated her storyline to the back burner. Instead, Peter became the series’ focus towards the middle of season two, which was about the time that Joshua Jackson had grown comfortable with the role of Peter.
With Peter as the series’ focus, the show’s narrative was able to take off. Fringe focused less on its case-of-the-week structure (the series was quite wedded to this structure early on, and thus the series felt more like a sci-fi version of a CBS cop show instead of the groundbreaking Sci-Fi series it eventually became) on began to focus more on mythology. It was revealed that the earth existed in a multiverse, and consequently there were multiple earths. It was also revealed that Peter was from a different earth and that Walter and his former partner William Bell (portrayed by the excellent Leonard Nimoy, one of Fringe’s many superb guests) had crossed over to another earth. It also turned out that Olivia had special powers that enabled her to cross over to other earth, and that she had these powers because of experiments that Walter had performed on her when she was young.
As the mythology grew, Fringe gave incredible backstories to certain parts of its larger narrative. The Pattern, which played a key role in developing early mythology for Fringe Division, gave way to the multiverse, and then later a collision between the two earths and a potential war between them. The Observers, which were initially a side point meant to propel the story forward in season one, got their own backstory in later seasons, and eventually became the main antagonists of season five.
Throughout this all, Fringe remained a very human story. Walter, in particular, served as a lesson for the consequences that result from human pride and arrogance. In fact, Walter is often used, perhaps unintentionally, as a critique of Science, and scientism. In fact, Fringe often made a point of noting that Science is neither wisdom nor ethics, and that curiosity is often not sufficient justification for experimentation.
Fringe also made a point of exploring the nature of love throughout its run. Peter’s relationship with Olivia is certainly the main focal point, and Fringe often seemed to harp on the idea that love should be seized since you never know how long it will last or how many times it will present itself.
Peter’s relationship with Walter also focused on the nature of love as expressed through the father-son relationship. Some of the most thought-provoking and emotionally devastating scenes in the entire series occur between Walter and Peter, who often have to come to terms with how they rationalize their own selfishness as love, and decry each other’s love as selfishness. And yet, by the series end, it is quite obvious that Walter and Peter love each other, perhaps more than either can quite realize or even adequately express. Seasons four and five often return to this well, though it is found consistently throughout the series, and the emotional resonance of Noble’s performances make it quite clear why he was the soul of the show, and why he was tasked with the heavy lifting.
Fringe also spent some time exploring the nature of identity, focusing not only what makes us human, but also what makes us individuals. The dual-universe storyline serves as an impressive narrative apparatus for exploring the concept of individuality, and most of the relevant narratives usually brought up an implicit nature-versus-nurture debate. When, for example, Olivia crossed over to Earth-2, she met her Earth-2 self. The point that the show makes, on many occasions, is that Olivia is essentially the same person on both sides, as it were, but because each Olivia grew up in different environments, they are quite different in many respects. Torv does an amazing job handling this performance, and the differences between her characters are more subtle than one might initially realize.
In keeping with the idea of asking what makes us human, Fringe introduced the Observers to help explore the answer. Towards the end of the series, it is revealed that the Observers are actually humans from Earth-1 who managed to find a way to control evolution, ultimately breeding superhumans who were not tied to the whims of emotion, but were instead logical rational creatures. This train of thought plays out in a large number of poignant and occasionally humorous ways. More impressively, though, Fringe embraces the fact that is the messiness of emotion that makes us human. While it might be hackneyed and cliché to say this, love does really conquer all. And it is this theme which makes Fringe’s final scene so heart-breaking but ultimately uplifting.