Thursday, December 30, 2010

Re-evaluating Fringe -- part one

When Fox premiered Fringe several years ago, I watched. And I watched the following week. After that I might have caught a bit of an episode, but I had abandoned the show. It seemed like too much of a poor man's X-Files, and I didn't see it lasting or sustaining, so I didn't stick with it. Well, now it's in its third season and considered some of the best sci-fi on TV right now. So in fairness, I've decided to check out what I'm missing and see if it has improved. It's difficult with television, especially serialized television, knowing if you'll stick with something. I hate getting involved with a show only for it to drop away. Some shows grab you right away, others don't. If I don't perceive something to have legs, I ignore it. I gave up on V awhile ago. I haven't even looked at The Event (and it seems I made the right choice there). But then there's things like Caprica which I tried to give a fair chance, though I didn't much like it, and it was canceled. Some great shows only pick up in their second or third year (Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files), and since Lost is gone, I'll risk giving Fringe another go.

I've just finished watching the first season, and it's a better show than I had first considered it, but it's also not much more. While Lost had a great two-hour pilot, Fringe's feels too bogged down in mythology. It tries to dump far too much exposition on us at once. X-Files worked because it's mythology slowly grew over a year and a half. To have all this information about Dr. Bishop, Massive Dynamic, the Pattern, Tony Scott, etc. just felt like too much. And the excursion to Bagdad for a three-minute scene feels really out of place in retrospect.

The similarities to X-Files are glaring throughout the season, whether intentional or not. However, in all cases, X-Files is better. We have FBI agent working for secret government department involving bizarre events, a larger conspiracy, a skeptical character, experiments on children in their past, the woman gets abducted halfway through the season, etc. Fringe's conspiracy is based around evil corporations rather than U.S. Government. Some of these similarities are not surprising; sometime X-Files writer Darin Morgan is a "consulting producer" on the show. Other writers include show creators Kurtzman and Orci (the new Star Trek and the Transformers movies), Akiva Goldsman (Ron Howard's pet screenwriter), and Zack Whedon (Joss Whedon's brother). I'm no fan of Whedons.

I like Walter Bishop as a character, though in the early episodes he was too much of a joke for his own good. John Noble is an actor at his best playing someone insane. It's good to see Joshua Jackson in something good for change.

On the whole, it seems like the season doesn't quite know where it's going. There's a lot of talk of "The Pattern", but it felt more like they came up with a catchy name but had no idea what to apply it to. As the season went on, I'm buying it less. I don't like calling it "Fringe division". It seems like an arbitrary way to use the name of the show, again chosen because it sounds cool. The first chunk of episodes focused on William Bell and Massive Dynamic as the enemy, with John Scott as a double agent. Fine. Then the Scott stuff got strained (an contradictory) until it was dropped altogether. Suddenly we were introduced to Mr. Jones and ZFT and nearly everything from the first half was ignored. Only at season's end did they connect ZFT to William Bell, which frankly was necessary because otherwise they had shifted antagonists on us.

I hate the way the series does location legends. HATE them. And I hate that the same font was used in the new Star Trek movie. On the other hand, I like the little symbols that pop up during commercial breaks. I began to see there had to be some sort of logic behind them, and the DVD confirms that it is code. Cool.

It's also wonderful how long each episode is. Standard television drama these days runs about 42 minutes. Fringe gets a full 49 to 50. That's the same length as classic Star Trek and other series of the 1960s. I love that Fox allowed less commercial time for that. The show feels far less choppy than it otherwise might.

Fringe is set in and around Boston primarily, and this has caused some laughable concern for me. It's hard to suspend my disbelief sometimes, as a resident of the state. In the early episodes, it felt like the writers were just looking at a map and pulling out names. Locales looked nothing like what they should have. Now, as the series improved, so did their settings. It began to look more like Greater Boston. The early excursion at South Station was a joke. I do like the name-dropping of various towns. But just when I was ready to praise them for getting better, the season finale featured Walter taking a train ride to Grafton. This is fine. Grafton is a commuter stop; I used to take that train. But he gets off at a beach-side house. NO WAY. Grafton is west of Boston and is inland. It's almost to Worcester. There is no ocean in Grafton. That's REALLY lazy. I also realize exteriors are never real. David Kelley was good about exterior shots on his series. I could even look past the Boston Public Library being a courthouse on Boston Legal. But Fringe wants us to believe the Hancock Tower is the "Boston Federal Building". I might have bought it if it weren't the tallest and most famous tower in the city. That's like calling the Empire State Building a Toyota dealership.

Kurtzman and Orci are also proving that they have no idea about multiverses. They seem obsessed with the idea, and it's polluting everything they write. The new Star Trek movie, it filtered into Lost briefly (care of Damon Lindelof), and I wouldn't be surprised if it's a point in the next Transformers. They seem to love the idea, and yet don't understand it beyond the TNG episode "Parallels". So far, it seems the show's mythology is about scientists building an army to fight coming invaders from a parallel universe. Fine. I don't know why we will be invaded from a parallel universe, but whatever. But it's becoming more ripped off from Stephen King's Dark Tower series, and confused. Liv has flashed of the other universe, and it's described as "deja vu". They say that deja vu is when you experience another universe. That's insane. That would only make sense if the universes were out of temporal sync, but they aren't. Deja vu means you experience something you've already seen. It does not mean you relive a moment you've already lived in another universe. Deja vu does not describe what's happening. This is not a causality loop we're talking about. I now have a hard time trusting the writers.

At season's end, William Bell is played by Leonard Nimoy. Nice choice. And there's a revelation about Peter that, if you were following the tiny hints from the season, wasn't terribly shocking. But I hate that it ends with Liv in a parallel universe in the World Trade Center. That makes no sense. That would mean that she has not only crossed into another world, but that she's crossed space as well, which never happened in any previous shifts. Did Bell just beam her there? That felt like a cheap gag to get a reaction.

Anyway, I'm liking the basic character interactions and stuff, less liking the overall mythology. I know as the show goes on, we'll be more in the parallel world. But I don't trust these writers with it because they seem to not have a clue about what they write. Well, I'll plow on to season 2 for now.

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