Thursday, 28 May 2009

End Of Season Review: Fringe

While futilely attempting to catalogue the weekly TV events of the 2008-2009 season, I spent a long time agonising over Fringe, the wacky science fiction show from J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. As mentioned in my In Treatment review, there were many other shows on our to-watch list, some of which were actually reliably good (Friday Night Lights and The Shield spring to mind), and yet I felt compelled to keep watching this first, much to Canyon's bafflement. Much of this I can put down to my nerd heritage, but it was also a consequence of the imminent end of Lost. With that show on the final stretch, I need something to replace that, something with a needlessly complex mythology that is filled with Easter Eggs for me to feel good about spotting. Dollhouse looks to be building some interesting ambiguity, certainly about the history and purpose of the Dollhouse itself, but the clues about all of that are being introduced with actual narrative force, making these revelations story beats instead of just getting the prop department to mock up a poster for Massive Dynamic with a phone number on it.

The loss of Lost will leave a hole in my life that will be absurdly big for something as trivial as a TV show, but when Fringe turned out not to be just a procedural but just the kind of batshit sci fi continuity smorgasbord as Lost, I rejoiced. Could this patchy show fill the hole? Would it settle down and provide the brain fodder that Lost did? By the time the season finished, it was sadly still a long way off, with Dollhouse providing the mental workout. More on that some other time.

Of all the shows I watched this season, Fringe was probably the most exasperating. A lot of shows turned out to be just as good as I had hoped (returning shows such as FNL and Big Love), some surprised me (Party Down, Leverage, and Sons of Anarchy are currently making me very happy, though I had expected to be disappointed), and some were terrible from the get-go and never recovered (Knight Rider, Eleventh Hour, and The Unusuals deserve their ignominious cancellations). Dollhouse was the show I was desperate to love, started out hating, and then ended up adoring, but Fringe was one that tested my patience throughout. More than once I considered dropping it, until the episode Safe came along and showed that the glacial pace of Lost was not going to be replicated. At the midpoint of the season, everything kicked off, and it seemed like Fringe was going to be my favourite new show of the year. Except that Fox kept taking it off the air for months at a time, wrecking any narrative momentum, made worse by some dire standalone episodes that will be next to unwatchable when going through the season a second time. Lost's first season might not be a patch on later seasons, but it still maintained a higher standard than this.

It was foolish to assume the show would be Lost 2.0. For a start, ABC might not be the most daring network in the world, but they have been more than willing to give Cuse and Lindelof slack to create the oddest and most complex show on TV even as that oddness and dense narrative repels viewers who have lost patience with it. Fox are pretty much the opposite, as shown by their insistence on dumbing down Dollhouse long enough to put off any viewers who wanted something more intelligent than Bionical Woman. While Whedon seems to be incapable of creating anything that doesn't demand great attention from his audience, Fringe comes from the minds of a bunch of guys who are more than capable of creating challenging and entertaining TV, but also know that they have to play by the rules if they're going to avoid cancellation. The result is a show of dismay-inducing lowest-common-denominator standalone episodes that are filled with story beats that make absolutely no sense if you haven't seen every other episode. It's not quite the worst of both worlds, but it's close.

Compared to the first two seasons of Abrams' Alias (which had Kurtzman and Orci onboard as head writers), Fringe has been, at times, an appalling mess. Part of the failure is down to the main character, Olivia Dunham, who is nowhere near as compelling or consistently written as Sydney Bristow (and Anna Torv is no Jennifer Garner). Several episodes in, her mild-mannered responses to the death of her lover and revelation of his betrayal were obviously not working. At the time I thought Torv was underplaying great emotional pain, but in the sixth episode, The Cure, Dunham is suddenly a vengeance-crazed maverick, suggesting the character was rewritten to become more dynamic. Of course, it could also have something to do with her brain being invaded by the consciousness of her evil (or not evil) lover, but none of it felt like foreshadowing, merely tinkering.

As Masticator pointed out in another internet venue, the second half of the season saw her living with her sister and niece, probably in an attempt to make Dunham seem less like an unlovable career woman (can't have one of those on Fox!). If the network feels that's what Dunham needs, then fair enough. After all, Sydney Bristow lived with Francie Calfo and hung out with Will Tippin, and both of them allowed the writers to give Bristow more moments of vulnerability, as well as having a sounding board for her troubles.

However, Francie and Will were also used brilliantly to complicate her life, especially in the second season. For two characters that, at first, had seemed extraneous, the amazing second season finale would have been nothing without them. Dunham's sister Rachel (played by Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist scene-stealer Ari Graynor) adds nothing. She kinda flirts with Peter Bishop (the almost eternally smirking Joshua Jackson), and her daughter almost gets her brain melted by an improbable evil scientist in the desperately bad episode The No-Brainer, but other than that, there really is no purpose for them in the show other than to have a child around that Dunham can hug. Look! That woman is reading a story to a child before bedtime! I no longer hate and fear her. Good work, focus group.

Other characters have little or no purpose too. Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) is little more than a lab assistant with a wicked 'do, added just so Walter Bishop (John Noble) has someone to throw exposition at when Peter isn't around. Phillip Broyles (Lance "Intensity" Reddick) either gives Dunham some props or some earache depending on what is needed for each episode. He also seems to be simultaneously jaded by the mad science events in the show, and absolutely shocked by them. Happy though I am to see Reddick getting regular work, I wish he was given more to do. He needs to shoot a motherfucker or two in the second season.

Nina Sharp (Blair Brown) has proven to be significantly less interesting than Ben Linus, or even Charles Widmore. There's a bit of back and forth about whether she's a good guy or a bad guy, but compared to my endless pontificating about the alignment of Linus, I'm really not that bothered about her. When it's revealed on the show, I'll give a damn then. Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo) has proven to be such a disposable character that he has been fired and not fired with great rapidity. I have no idea what the showrunners are up to there, though it does strongly suggest that people shouldn't drink consolation rum and then go posting on Facebook. Or wear certain egregious hats.

With almost all of the characters leaving me cold, the mad science has to keep me occupied instead, and a lot of the time it fails at that too. For every amazing, creepy visual like The Sealant (which makes your orifices close up, suffocating you to death), or a weird worm crushing a man's heart, there is some stupid Chimera monster on the loose, or a syphilitic cat woman that drinks spinal fluid (what the hell were they doing that week? Someone should tell the writers that three bad ideas do not equal one good one.). The main arc of the show is the thing that saves it, with Walter's tinkering in parallel universes causing a war with a technologically superior version of humanity.

The moment that was revealed was when I mentally committed to the show through thick and thin, as it promised some mindblowing stuff later on, but even then, we find out that Dunham was once a test subject for Walter and William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, in one of the most heavily promoted, and utterly awesome, surprise cameo appearances ever), in order to prepare her for battle as a psychic soldier. Shades of Scanners and X-Files there, and not a problem, except that Sydney Bristow, in Alias, was also trained as a child as part of the absurdly named Project Christmas. It's one thing to complain about how shows by J.J. Abrams seem to focus a lot on father issues, which is kind of unfair as it's not something he is alone in doing, but having two shows feature two special agents who have had a mysterious childhood is really taking the piss. Though still, psychic super-soldiers are a lot more interesting than just your regular super-soliders. I love Captain America, but is he as cool as Michael Ironside and his ability to blow someone's head apart? Exactly.

So, most of the characters suck. Some individual episodes are horribly goofy and uneffective. It can be dismayingly derivative. The format means most episodes end with a race against time, with, at best, a chase sequence or, at worst, Dunham talking someone out of setting fire to her with their brain (didn't they do that twice?). The science is offensively bad, even when you assume a daft sci fi show is liable to fudge the details somewhat. There is far too much evidence of the showrunners playing it safe and doing what the network demands. Why bother with it?

Because JOHN NOBLE IS LOVE, bitches! I can take any amount of dreary Dunham home chat, or Peter Bishop-style smarm, because every so often John Noble wanders into shot, and takes even the stupidest dialogue - yes, even the endless digressions about various foodstuffs - and turns it into a heartbreaking, shocking, hilarious soliloquy (yes, all of those emotions at the same time!). What's best about that is that he actually gets the best dialogue on the show, so imagine how incredible that sounds. His performance as Denethor in Return of the King left me cold, but in Fringe he performs miracles. In the season finale, There's More Than One Of Everything, he has some scenes in an old beach-house during which he has a minor breakdown in front of Peter. Kudos to Joshua Jackson for stepping up to the plate, but the real genius is being displayed by Noble, who is alternately terrifying and vulnerable.

Next to Gabriel Byrne and Michael Emerson, he's the best thing on TV.

He's not the only reason I keep watching, though. That amazing series concept, so much more interesting than "FBI investigates odd science things, has great potential. The episodes that furthered that arc the most were the season highlights, showing up the standalones for the silly mistakes that they were. The ratio of good to bad episodes is tilted in the wrong direction, but even so, the bad episodes often featured some moment of trickery that justified them. The Easter Eggs, mostly involving Michael Cerveris' cameos as jalapeno-loving curio The Observer, are always fun to look for, though again, how much the show will reward rewatching will depend on whether there are even more clues than we thought, and even more future plot twists have been foreshadowed without us even knowing it. Of course, that excludes the heavily sign-posted revelation that Peter is actually Alternate Universe Peter, a twist that was blatantly obvious very early on in the season (though I have to give props to internetter Diane Court for putting her finger on that before me). So far, though, I'm not quite sure what the lens flares mean. Is it to do with crossing back and forth from one universe to the other? Or just a test run for Abrams' dazzlingly bright Star Trek?

Speaking of The Observer, just how cool is he? His introduction in The Arrival was the first hint that Fringe was up to something more than just solving a case a week, and captured my imagination just as I was beginning to think the show was a misfire. It's a good thing too, as the pedigree of the showrunners promised something better than the humdrum introduction. As I am human, I tend to be more disappointed than usual when something doesn't live up to expectations. Kurtzman and Orci get a lot of flack for their film work, and sometimes there is a point there. Their script for The Legend of Zorro was a depressing failure, and the controversy surrounding The Island is the most interesting thing about it. However, they wrote some of the very best episodes of Alias, and only someone with a heart of stone couldn't love their Star Trek revamp. I also didn't hate Transformers, and will not apologise for that, even if judged by God him-and/or-herself (though I reckon God loves Transformers as much as me and has also watched it four times in one week like I did last month).

I'm not sure how much input they have in the show (according to Orci's IMDb page, they're developing nine projects, and that's in addition to their work on the next Star Trek movie), but hats off to them for hiding the real arc of the show for about half of the season, and for gathering together a strong team of writers and directors. Though it was sad to see X-Files legend Darin Morgan depart the show after only a few episodes, the showrunners managed to get some terrific writers like Jeff Pinkner, Zack Whedon, and J.R. Orci, and talented TV directors like Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Lost veteran Paul Edwards, and Christopher Misiano, among others. They also got Brad "Transsiberian" Anderson to direct some of the best episodes (including that excellent season finale), and, in a surprising masterstroke, brought in Akiva Goldsman. For a long time he has been loathed by cinephiles and nerds the world over for writing some of the worst movies of our time, but Bad Dreams, the episode he wrote and directed, was a taut forty-five minutes filled with creepiness, humour, and horrifyingly effective shocks. He can be extremely proud, and I can ease off the urge to scream when his name appears in credits. Give him some better projects to work on, and he might surprise even more people in future.

In the end, I like the idea of the show far more than I like the actual show. It's extremely gruesome, which I always appreciate. It's full of truly awful TV science, but the showrunners have at least made the mad science machines look like real world instruments - all dials and switches and rheostats - which is a lovely touch. The cast is largely forgettable except for one acting titan (Noble) and a bona fide sci fi legend (Nimoy), but I don't really mind, even though that's often a deal-breaker. This is your actual "damned with faint praise" review, but even though the things I love about few and far between, I still do love the show. A surprising amount as well. I can't really explain it. Maybe it's because it's the sort of show I get a kick out of even when it fails, like when you buy a car against everyone's advice just because you like the shape of it, and you can forgive it when the seats aren't that comfortable, or there's a weird smell that never goes away, or the windscreen wipers don't work when they get wet. It doesn't matter. This is the car you wanted! Sometimes that's enough.

People used to say that Heroes was Lost for Dummies*, but in fact it is Fringe that, right now, feels like the low IQ version of Cuse and Lindelof's epic. I don't mean that as an insult, especially as I strongly believe that after this opening season of promising set-ups, quirky narrative experiments, and interesting concepts, the best is yet to come. Let's hope I'm right about that, because after Lost leaves us fans bereft, with Dollhouse unlikely to make it to season three, and Goyer and Braga's Flash Forward an unknown quantity, this might be all we have left to cling to.

* In case you were wondering, Heroes is actually Smallville for Dummies. True fact.

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