BINGE OR NO? Fringe, Season 1 (i.e., Head Explosion Theatre)
Sure there’s lots of new shows streaming, but you can always catch up on the old ones you never watched. Or maybe there was a reason you missed them the first time around?
Never having seen a single episode, and despite reading a not-so-cryptic warning right here on HNTP, your intrepid recapper decided to give Fringe a go. Why not? The entire series streams on Netflix. It ran five seasons, so how bad could it be? And if it really was that bad, what went wrong? My previous knowledge:
– Fringe was created by J.J. Abrams, famous for Lost and the Star Trek reboot franchise, which means expect weird shit (WS) that the writers may be making up as they go along.
– You’ve got two opposite-gender FBI partners examining said WS, but it’s totally different from The X-Files because here it’s the female agent who wants to believe and her male partner with the science and continued-for-way-too-long skepticism.
The pilot opens on a plane just like that other J.J. Abrams show. As they’re coming in for a landing, a passenger injects himself with something. Then everybody’s head explodes as they all turn into goo—but fortunately the autopilot brings the plane in safely, so no buildings were hurt.
The investigators look through the windows of the mysterious ghost plane—an opening that The Strain would rip off a few years later because television loves the recycling. Then, we’re introduced to the main characters.
There’s Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who like Agent Dana Scully never smiles. Unlike Scully, Dunham doesn’t simmer underneath with a hot white flame either. Dunham’s squeeze and colleague, Agent John Scott, gets infected by the goo-toxin, only his exposure is different than the people on the plane. He’s turning to goo slowly. Desperate to save him, Dunham does a web search, the latest tech in the FBI’s arsenal, and finds out that Walter Bishop (John Noble), a mad scientist who once upon a time did fringe science research for the government—telekinesis, astral projection, resurrecting the dead, etc.—may know about the goo-toxin.
Dunham goes to spring him from the mental health facility where he’s been held since a lab assistant got blowed up years before. Turns out he can only be released to a relative, which isn’t exactly how the mental health system works. Soooo, Dunham goes to Baghdad—because sure why not—to track down his son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), who’s some kind of unaffiliated international man of mystery or fraud or genius or something.
Petey seems to be in the middle of a deal with nefarious types—we can tell by the accents—which is about to go south when she finds him, and off they go to see the estranged father he hasn’t spoken to in years. Dr. Bishop says he needs his old lab at Harvard to work on the antidote. Of course Olivia is able to get it for him, refurbished and equipped with everything he needs because it’s not like any of this might involve a wee bit of red tape or anything, and he cures John Scott. We soon learn that the goo incident might be part of something called the truth Initiative B-613 Section 31 Unimatrix 0 Pattern. Thus, our team is set up to investigate events that might be part of said pattern, but John Scott isn’t exactly on the team, for reasons I won’t go into because SPOILER.
So far, so good if you were a fan of the shows Fringe resembles and don’t mind that it’s completely derivative. Fringe is episodic, but there’s that overarching mystery of “the Pattern” with small bits of information and occasionally larger reveals woven into every episode. The problem is—at least in the first season—the episodes were so repetitive and formulaic that they just blend into each other.
There’s always a prologue in which people die, usually from some variation of being turned into goo and/or having their heads explode. Heads explode because a woman’s brain emits radioactivity that nukes other people’s brain like a microwave oven, or a man gets the world’s worst cold and turns into a snot ball, or another man emits dangerous levels of electricity that electrocute anyone around him when he’s angry, so please don’t make him angry.
Then there’s the episode with a video clip that (surprise) makes your head explode. Maybe part of Fringe’s quirky appeal is in trying to guess what complete gross-out way people will die before the opening credits. (The smart money is always on explosive cranial decompression). But what’s the point in watching the rest if you know what’s coming? And if you’ve seen one episode, you can probably nail it. After the head-exploding, there’s an investigation, which always leads back to the earlier work of Dr. Bishop and/or his former partner, who is now the head a large—and therefore, by definition, sinister—corporation. Then Dr. Bishop comes up with an explanation for what’s happening, followed by a cure or fix to prevent another imminent head explosion. If you’re a big fan of the head exploding, this is totally the show for you.
Just like that other show featuring a pair of unusually photogenic FBI agents on the trail of mysterious phenomena, Peter and Olivia both have SECRETS in their past, SECRETS they themselves are unaware of, which will be very important later in the series. But there’s some missing element in the way the characters connect, or fail to. We expect the unlikely duo of by-the-book Olivia and vaguely-criminal Peter to wind up together because television pairs like this always wind up together, but the actors lack chemistry and aren’t helped by the banterless dialogue. Peter’s past includes fraud and hints at worse, but where’s the cynical humor and bad-boy behavior? Between his perfectly maintained stubble and hazel eyes, Peter’s looks hint at George Clooney, but he lacks Clooney’s too-cool-for-the-room charm. Olivia needs him because his father will refuse to help the FBI if he leaves. But given his past, we don’t know why Olivia trusts him. If he has some hidden agenda, he’s keeping it well hidden, and it’s clear from the start his father is keeping secrets from him.
Speaking of his father, Walter Bishop is less a character than a collection of scientific genius television and movie ticks. He’s obsessed, socially awkward, and childlike. He suffers from a vaguely defined mental illness that still allows him to do very high-level work despite being comically absent-minded. Has any television writer ever lived with a parent suffering from mental illness? It’s a laugh a minute.
The cast also includes the always-fantastic Blair Brown as the well named Nina Sharp, an executive at the sinister corporation, and Lance Reddick—a Lost alum—playing Olivia’s boss. Per my research on the internets, which aren’t just for FBI agents looking for an antidote to goo-toxin, Leonard Nimoy shows up occasionally in later seasons playing Walter’s former partner turned corporate overlord. While the ratings took a dive in the second season—and each one that followed—Fringe retained a loyal fan base and reportedly got better as it got deeper into the mysteries of the Pattern. But I’ll have to take Wikipedia’s word for that as I could barely make it through season one.
Weird shit can be fun, but it does not a successful series make. Where’s the edge of your seat suspense? But even more importantly, where are the characters who are more than a set of generic traits? We didn’t follow Lost because ridiculous things always happened—although the cliffhanger endings after some unexpected twist sure helped. We watched because we cared about the people to whom said ridiculi were occurring. We rooted for them. Sawyer and Juliet—just say those words and see if you don’t feel a twinge. Sayid. Charlie. Penny and Desmond. Hurley.
Even in goofy television shows, even on cartoons like Scooby-Doo, character is everything, and the chemistry between actor and actor, or actor and audience is the real mystery.