“The Same Old Story”
September 16th, 2008
“Would you just talk like a person?”
Peter Bishop asks his father this question at the halfway point of Fringe’s second episode, and I couldn’t agree more: except that I’d apply this to Peter, and Olivia and just about every other character on the show. Because at this point, it seems like nothing that happens in Fringe is something that would happen to people, and that nothing they say seems to make any sense to anyone but the crazy person who created it all, in theory, seventeen years previous.
In the show’s pilot, this felt like an introduction into a new world, a world where things would be different and where mysteries would take on new contexts. However, what “The Same Old Story” offers is…the same old serial killer story, just with some fairly gimmicky applications of the fringe science the show is hinging its success on. Now, you could say that this is nothing new: The X-Files was essentially the same process, and Alias was your normal spy-type show but with Rambaldi’s artifacts as the reason behind the missions.
But Fringe buys into its own hype: too often the music bombasts to the point of self-indulgence, the characters talk about their own intelligence in a way that feels entirely unnatural, and the episode’s attempt at creating an emotional connection between Olivia and this week’s case is ultimately undermined by our lack of time spent with these characters in such a context.
More importantly, though, there was absolutely nothing fun about Fringe – the charm of the characters were either forced or so overpowered by the impending dread that the show never had a chance to breathe. The result is an episode that felt overlong, overtired, and an example of a show that still has me wondering just how this will turn into a series…or, even if the parts are present, wondering whether Orci and Kurtzman have the smarts to put it all together.
The science of the episode, at the end of the day, is an intriguing setup: a woman gives birth to a child who dies in only four hours, of natural causes. It’s an intriguing case, and it raises the central issue of the fact that Bishop’s research is now advancing to the point of being capable of moving from the theoretical into the practical. What we learn about the science, that it is a result of testing designed to essentially breed an army, has really interesting implications on the role of Massive Dynamic, of the role of science in the Pattern, and the dangers of these small hiccups in science leaking into the general population (or, in this case, a scientist’s own son).
But, honestly, I felt like none of this was emphasized by the episodes – while more time for the episode might seem like a better thing, most of that extra time was jam-packed bombastic action pieces, set pieces that never let the show breathe. Playing a similar role was their insistence that this case not just be a case, but rather a connection to Dunham’s relationship with Scott and the new questions being raised as a result. I like the idea that there is the potential for some of their old cases to have supernatural solutions that Scott covered up, but at the same time this episode felt like the wrong place to do it: right now, our interest is held more in curiosity than it is in any sort of connection to these characters emotionally.
The pilot’s strength was its characters and its premise, and building on both should have been the focus of this episode. Instead, though, it pretty much decided that the former was already good enough, and that the latter could leak out fairly slowly, to the point where they seemed like two ships crossing in the night. While the musical score was blaring as action took place, we cut to Walter forgetting something, or marveling over making popcorn, and it doesn’t feel like the music or the show are willing to stop and let that character moment sit: instead, they’re marching on ahead, even in an episode where the whole point is that they have more time to complete their storylines.
John Noble is still the highlight here, primarily because Walter Bishop is the interesting character: he has layers, he has a history, and he has a unique combination of near-child-like attention span, genius intelligence, and the constant thought that he is responsible for all of these deaths trying to invade his head as he works. That right there is an interesting case study, but all of Bishop’s research stuff actually felt more like contrived fluff to make a boring serial killer mystery more interesting as opposed to something meaningful or substantive in regards to the pattern.
Anna Torv, who I thought was fine in the pilot, got stuck with some weak material here: she gets angsty over an old case, she has a strange freakout where she imagines herself as one of the victims of these weird pregnancies, and more importantly she seems very narrow-minded with her focus. She isn’t doing this job for any reason other than that she was asked to do it: the show needed to use this episode to give her a better reason, especially since “To find out more details about your partner’s death/betrayal” was sitting there not being addressed as succinctly as it could have.
The bigger problem, though, is Peter Bishop – I agree with our friend from Massive Dynamic in that he really has no business being on this team. He’s just a conceited punk in most ways: he actually said “I consider myself a smart man” at one point in this episode, and he wasn’t being facetious. He isn’t a pure skeptic, he isn’t much of a critic, and he can’t shoot a gun worth a damn. The end question is why he’s here: what connects him to these characters that really makes the show run?
This episode made no attempt to answer that: it gave us that one final scene, as he sings his father to sleep in the next room. At that point we realize that he’s a babysitter, someone who can help tame his father and his methods. The concern, though, is that there isn’t much of an interplay between them: here, in fact, the entire episode has Walter just doing his own thing while Olivia and Peter run around. This is fine, but the whole strength of the first episode was that this group worked well together to find a solution that was much bigger than they thought it was. Now, though, rather than really explaining these reasonings, the episode did very little to grow this dynamic, and what conflict they had was with either their pasts (Which are still underdeveloped) or with just general angst.
The reason that The X-Files or Alias worked was because, despite treading on ground that other shows had done, there was something about the characters that made it all work. Alias had its Rambaldi artifacts, strange and abstract, but because we were engrossed in the characters and their complicated double lives we bought in. With The X-Files, the relationship between a believer with a past and a skeptic who is in charge of him is what makes it so it doesn’t just feel like a science fiction forensic show.
But that’s exactly what this episode of Fringe felt like: an episode of CSI where the mystery is bigger, stranger, and totally outside of Gil Grissom’s abilities. Now, who knows: this could make it a perfect companion for House, considering that’s a procedural wrapped in Wolf’s clothing, so this is nowhere near a final judgment. However, by my own standards, the show had a lot bigger questions to deal with than what they presented here: and even with our little taste of the role cloning could play in justifying Mark Valley staying in the main credits, it feels like we’ve gotten almost nowhere in 55 minutes.
And with that kind of performance, the Jury is most certainly still out.
- Olivia being offered a job by Massive Dynamic is interesting, especially in the context of the question that Olivia has yet to actually ask Broyles (Why she was selected for the team, I mean). There’s something about her that both sides now want, whether it’s her connection to Scott or something bigger (Which seems pretty clear to me at this stage).
- I do have to wonder how the show is going to get away with so clearly just ripping off The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and calling it a paranormal phenomenon. Mind you, I doubt the David Fincher movie has such militaristic purposes behind that birth, but the show definitely cribbed a bit from that story.
- I might have felt John Noble was too often removed from the main action, but watching him milk a cow on screen, even is quite engaging for me. I just really enjoy that character, which is frustrating considering that he is being depicted as so scattered that there is little chance of him leaving the lab every episode (something that could liven up the show in itself, I think).
- Seriously, what is going ON with Michael Giacchino’s score here? I know he’s busy with Star Trek and Up and all, but egads – there is score where there shouldn’t be score, and bombast where it isn’t even close to being necessary. It’s awful.