March 25th, 2011
The greatest test of a critic’s demeanor towards a particular program is how they respond to its renewal.
When Fringe was picked up on Thursday, there were two primary responses among critics. The first was excitement: many had written off Fringe after it was banished to Fridays by a network with a reputation for injustices related to science fiction programming, and so an early renewal (rather than a tense upfront decision) was a revelation.
If I’m being honest, though, my response was more on the side of cynical. My first thought was what would need to change to justify the renewal, and what kind of story/casting changes might be necessary in order to facilitate this renewal. I think part of this is just my inner pragmatist, wanting to be realistic about the obvious compromises that will need to be made as Fringe shifts from a show Fox wants at a 2.0 to a show Fox will renew at a 1.5. However, I can’t lie and suggest that my cynicism is not partially the result of some trepidation regarding the show’s more recent story developments.
“Bloodline” seems an ideal episode to air directly after the renewal, given that this is the kind of episode that the show might no longer be able to do. While I think it might be premature to suggest that a cash-strapped fourth season will result in the end of Over There’s role within the series’ overarching storyline, I think it is fairly safe to claim that spending a quarter of the season in an entirely different world populated by different characters may be lost.
And I hope they don’t think that plot can make up for the loss of atmosphere.
“Bloodline” was a perfectly acceptable episodes of television featuring some strong performances from Anna Torv and Seth Gabel, the welcome return of Andre Royo as everyone’s favorite hijacked cab driver Henry, and some interesting developments in the Over There Fringe Division with Lincoln and Charlie starting to put some pieces together about just what’s been happening under their noses.
And yet, I can’t help but shake the feeling that “Bloodline” was the beginning of the end for what has been the season’s most successful storyline. While Olivia’s return to our side resulted in some compelling television, on some level “Over There” has been the more valuable setting: it has been a constant experience of discovery, moving beyond playing up the differences between the two worlds to actually delving into who these people are and what they’re fighting for. Yes, on some level we spent time in this world because “our” Olivia was there, but she became more than a hostage towards the end of her stay, and as the story more or less shifted back to our side I found myself more interested in what was happening with Lincoln, Fauxlivia, and everyone else. Part of the point of Olivia’s time there was to humanize these people that we might otherwise consider the enemy, to take what seemed like a hostile environment and make it very human and very real, and it was obviously quite effective given my desire to spend more time there.
What frustrated me about “Bloodline” is that it essentializes the value of “Over There” based on its contribution to the overarching plot. While the part of me which raised an eyebrow at the pregnancy storyline might be glad to have it over so quickly, the “acceleration” robs us of any real sense of how Fauxlivia was responding to the crisis, or how it altered the ongoing dynamics at Fringe division. I appreciated that brief scene as Charlie discusses his date with the bug girl from “Immortality,” but the rest of the episode seemed to confirm that those kinds of scenes are over. For the sake of the plot, the pregnancy must be sped up, and while I was ultimately pleased with where that plot ended up I wasn’t pleased with how it played such a foreboding presence. The conspiracy elements in those final scenes were endless: the doctor with the scar, the clandestine transfer, the Observer’s observing were just all very blatant, and to my mind overshadowed any other function the episode might have served.
In its fifth season, Weeds chose to accelerate a pregnancy through narrative rather than scientific methods – it simply skipped six months so that Nancy could go from morning sickness to giving birth in the span of just a few episodes. I asked one of the show’s writers, Dave Holstein, about the decision, and he said there were two reasons: on the one hand they simply wanted to avoid forcing Mary-Louise Parker to spend a bunch of time with a fake stomach, but they also wanted to maintain the storyline’s tension. It was another instance, without going too far into spoilers in case you all have plans on catching up on Weeds sometime in the near future, where a pregnancy was quite literally a plot point: it wasn’t actually there to have an impact on the character, it was there to serve a purpose with a plot which would drive that character’s behavior.
The scenes with Olivia struggling during the acceleration were tensely shot and well performed, and the actual birth scene was really strong all around. The problem is that I feel as though that was simply a by-product, something that will not be maintained and which feels at jeopardy the more “Over There” becomes a plot-driven world. I understand that the acceleration is supposed to feel artificial, and that Fauxlivia and the rest of Fringe Division are meant to feel as though they are being manipulated by Walternate, but I feel like they’re losing what made this setting so interesting in the first place. Or, rather, that which makes it so interesting is being narrowed in order to build towards the tense confrontation with our universe, and in the process it is becoming clear that we may well be coming to the end of Fauxlivia’s story.
For the record, I would love to be wrong, and I would love to see the show continue to show us these two worlds in the future. My concern, though, is that the writers will lose their sense of scale due to budget cuts and think that the solution is to replace depth with volume. Instead of having a more complex and intriguing overarching storyline, one which enables diverse forms of storytelling and unique character building opportunities, they’ll simply spend more time on serialized plot but from a narrower perspective. What I loved so much about the “Over There” storyline is how it used the procedural structure to its advantage, giving us time to see the structure as both a serialized element and as a new twist on the show’s more episodic structures. Whatever the show moves onto next, I worry that it will exist purely in the realm of “mythology,” and that its lack of concrete form will result in a less interesting series.
I am aware this is all empty speculation, but the renewal brought it on: while some are left imagining a lot of wonderful scenarios, I don’t know if the show has my trust right now, and therefore I tend to lean on the side of caution. “Bloodline” is effective because of the depth provided those on the other side, but the closer we get to the end of the season the more it feels like that depth is reaching its climax. And so while this hour might be effective, the combination of budget cuts and the trajectory of the mythology would suggest that it may be the last time we spend even a few minutes “Over There” without a pressing mythology-related plot issue to deal with.
And I would say that’s unfortunate.
- I’m pretty sure that Fox is out to get me by giving critics access to episodes early through online screeners – it’s fueling some honestly toxic discourses wherein the week’s episode is built up with rhetoric like “game-changer” that I’m tired of for any number of reasons (which Ryan McGee gets into in his review). Maybe I’m just getting crotchety, but there are a number of shows right now where the hype is starting to actually fuel something of a backlash within my own opinion, which is new for me.
- Presuming that FOX keeps the show on Fridays, I’ll be curious to see what they pair with it – Kitchen Nightmares isn’t exactly compatible, and I’ll presume that launching in the Fall will have FOX looking for a proper pairing. Sci-Fi Fridays seems like a fair bet, but I’m not sure what they have in the pipeline.
- Just as NBC renewed Parks/Community the same day they dropped to their lowest ratings ever, I presume that FOX renewed Fringe before this two-week-hiatus in order to keep people from seeing tonight’s rating and presuming that it was a lost cause. They’re clearly hoping that the promise of another 22 episodes will entice viewers to pick up the show in the final four, and I’ll be curious to see how the strategy plays out.