Friday, March 11, 2011

5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching Fringe (If You Aren’t Already)

To help you discern whether you should really invest time in a television series, it’s good to ask if you would recommend it to someone.  Ask yourself: are you watching this show merely out of habit, because you watched it last week and the week before, because some past version of you once took a chance on it and you’ve just been taking it for granted ever since that he made the right choice?  Or would you still, after declaring all obligations to past decisions null and void, bravely commit yourself anew?

Tonight’s episode of Fringe is titled “Os.”  I will be watching it, and you should too. Here’s TV Guide’s description:

The team investigates a gang of thieves who can defy gravity; Walter assesses the harm he’s caused to the fabric of the universe. (Drama), (V=Intense Violence, L=Strong Coarse Language).

“Wow!  Say no more!  I’m already way interested!” is what you’re probably thinking.  But as if that brief summary weren’t already enough to convince you, I’m going to identify 5 more reason why you should be watching Fringe


fringe.span But first a selective overview: “The team” is the FBI’s Fringe Science division, composed primarily of Agent Olivia Dunham, her assistant Astrid, and consultants Walter and Peter Bishop, father and son (sort of).  The Fringe division investigates strange phenomena, often employing strange techniques and equipment themselves in the process.

Similarities and Differences to X-files

The similarities to X-files are already apparent, but that’s roughly as far as they go.  The skepticism and faith set in romantic tension that defined Scully and Mulder’s relationship is wholly absent from Fringe.  From the first episode, Olivia demonstrates her openness to the unusual when, with the urgency of Jack Bauer, she accepts Walter’s administration of hallucinogenic drugs and enters a sensory deprivation tank in order to directly access the mind of a man in a coma.  Instead of skepticism and faith, the duality that Olivia and Peter set in romantic tension is, at least in the beginning, that of action and inaction.  (Although one further similarity to X-files, is that, like Mulder and Scully, Peter and Olivia are both pathological about the ways they represent their respective approaches, because they’re symptomatic of repressed childhood traumas.)

Also missing is the general atmosphere of horror and dread characteristic of X-files.  Much more of Fringe is filmed in the light of day.  It’s monsters appear mostly as men.

One last difference worth mentioning is that although both X-files and Fringe employ a two-part plot structure in which almost every episode advances not only the stand-alone plot (whatever strange occurrence they happen to investigate that week) but also the continuation plot (the series arc), Fringe’s series arc tends to dominate much of the time.  The reverse was true of X-files; individual episodes of X-files work much better as stand-alones, but Fringe episodes discourage missing episodes or out-of-order viewing.

Two Universes

So here are the major spoilers: the continuation plot begins, in a way, back in the early 80s, when Walter Bishop invents a window (and later a door) to a parallel universe that is different in mostly subtle ways; for example, Walter’s doppelganger (whom Walter names “Walternate”), instead of challenging reality’s boundaries, focused his equally brilliant energies on reinforcing and protecting order and stability, entering politics. 

Both Walters’ sons contract the same rare, genetic illness, and both fathers work towards a cure, but “our” Walter’s son dies before it can be stabilized.  Watching through his dimensional window, Walter observes his double overlook a lab result that would lead him to the cure and can’t bear to watch the other Peter die while he has the power to save him, so he resolves to cross between universes, administer the cure, and return.  But events don’t transpire according to plan, and Walter ends up abducting the other Peter, ostensibly to cure him over here.

fringe_tv_show_image_joshua_jackson__3_ Several consequences are the result of this kidnapping, Walter’s original sin.  Notably, 1) the physics of the other universe are destabilized by the penetration.  For example, a giant, bottomless vortex appears in the East River, symbolic of the emotional void opened up in Walternate by his son’s abduction.  2) Our Walter, having determined the doorway technology to be too unstable to use again, endeavors to find another way to return the Peter who is not his son.  His new method involves conducting radically experimental drug trials on young children in the hopes of turning them into a kind of passageway or key between the worlds, and as it turns out, his most promising subject is the young Olive Dunham.

Note, however, that these early childhood memories (of Peter being from another universe and of Olivia being subjected to abusive chemical and psychological experiments) are deeply repressed at the beginning of the series, so that the overall plot trajectory could, in some sense, be thought of as the gradual psychoanalytical process whereby these memories are unearthed and explored.


1. It’s dark.

For all the sci-fi whimsy of the parallel universes, drug trips, mind-reading, etc, this series is no Warehouse 13.  Psychological trauma is at the scarred heart of it.  Walter is a Victor Frankenstein; his science is fundamentally transgressive.  But his materials aren’t (limited to) corpses.  They also include the fragile minds of children.  And the series cruelly manipulates its viewer into sympathizing with him, ironically, as we would sympathize with any protective, distraught father.

2. Olivia Dunham is awesome.

She’s no Super Wizard, of course; she has very human limitations, but she’s relentless and (usually) fearless on the case, which makes her great to cheer on.  Her past has also made her intense and complicated, and she drinks bourbon, unlike her more well-adjusted doppelganger.

3. Intelligent characters. 

Fringe is a JJ Abrams production, just like Lost, but it seemed to me that there were so many times during Lost that “drama” was the result of unnecessary, irrational miscommunications.  Like so much interpersonal “tension” could be avoided if the characters collected their thoughts and explained themselves in the least hyperbolic, most honest ways.  Not so with Peter and Olivia.  Both characters, if anything, are hyperrational.  They clearly have emotions, but they explain their emotions, and the suffering that sometimes results from one revelation or another is never of the “unforced error” kind, but rather of the “so this is the truth, in the most honest way I’m capable of saying it” kind.

4. Cool cameos.

Leonard Nimoy as Walter’s partner-in-crime, Dr. William Bell.  Kevin Corrigan (Grounded for Life, Kicked in the Head, Buffalo 66, one HILARIOUS episode of “Community”) as a mysterious guide-figure/bowling alley attendant who is much older (like centuries?) than he looks, and now Joan Chen (Josie Packer from Twin Peaks) as Walternate’s advisor/woman on the side.  TWIN PEAKS BONUS: In one episode, Walter is seen wearing green and orange glasses; he explains that an old friend of his from Washington state, Dr. Jacoby, invented them!

5. Thoughtful exploration of the theme of estrangement.

I’ve written about estrangement on this blog before in a couple different ways, but what I mean is the experience of alienation—perhaps what Becket calls “defamiliarization”—the traversal of otherness and the rupturing of the usual or the comfortable.  Fringe explores this experience in any number of ways, through an alternate universe that is similar to ours but different, through one character who makes his home in a universe in which he is a stranger, through another character who returns after a period of crisis to discover a stranger had lived her life in her absence, a stranger who looked like her, who wore her clothes, who even loved her beloved, and yet wasn’t her, who is therefore led to ask: if she isn’t those things, then what exactly is she?

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