“The Ghost Network”
September 23rd, 2008
After last week’s review of Fringe was viewed as quite harsh, I want to clarify one thing: I don’t dislike Fringe. I think that the series is struggling to find its own identity, dealing with a struggle to both represent a procedural drama regarding paranormal activity outside of the norm and some type of mythologically-driven science fiction epic on the scale of Lost.
The biggest problem with the series is that the second half of that is impossible (it will never be that type of show), whereas the first part is what the entire series hinges on. The show can pile up on Massive Dynamic or The Pattern all it darn well pleases, but if its characters and its storylines don’t operate weekly in a way that feels like something different from every other crime procedural on television. Last week’s episode felt like Criminal Minds with crazy science, which isn’t something I want to watch every week.
But this week represents a marked improvement: sure, there was still some rather silly exposition, and it was often handled by too smart by half Peter (Joshua Jackson), and the mystery so cleanly bringing things back to Walter’s research is going to get old quickly, but this is a sharper hour: the “Ghost Network” has broad implications for the Pattern, the show is starting to ask the right questions about Massive Dynamic, and Peter’s slow build into something resembling a character half as interesting as his father is something that the show will need to accomplish to remain strong.
And yet, the real reason that “The Ghost Network” is perhaps Fringe’s best episode yet is simple: it is an episode that feels fun, that is willing to balance out melodrama with levity, and that feels like a show I could actually enjoy without having to accept a thesis that presumes that nobody ever smiles except for the crazy scientist who doesn’t know any better.
In this episode, I was watching for a couple of things, but most important was our mystery of the week. The Ghost Network offers us something very interesting, a sign that some of Walter’s past research investigated very forward-thinking ideas of secret communication networks. The mystery here is one that is directly related to the Pattern: rather than explaining away a common crime based on supernatural identities, this is a pattern-driven activity that feels like it is part of a broader plan of action, a first step towards a dangerous threat to society.
I do have my concerns that the show keeps finding its resolutions in corrupt Federal Agents as opposed to anything grounded purely in the supernatural, but at the very least the methods by which they found the information were distinctly science fiction in their design and execution. There is, however contrived at points, something very fun about watching Walter Bishop pull a mangled and twisted series of wires out of an old box they found in a dumb waiter; a type of fun that was absent in last week’s episode, and that is often an important part of a show like House that doesn’t feel like a depressing reminder of the evils of society every week.
Most of this is due to Walter Bishop, who was in fine form this week. Whether it’s having important news about ordering pancakes, struggling to use a cell phone, cooking up his own prescription medications (without a prescription) or providing his own musical score while sitting at the piano, there is just something fun about watching Walter that isn’t there for the show’s other characters. John Noble continues to have an enormous amount of fun with the role, and it feels infectious: crazy Ghost Talking guy, also, gets to throw in some humour, and when his piano playing is interrupted by two random students looking for their political science class it feels like we’ve suddenly arrived in a show that’s far more enjoyable. It’s a show where, as noted, people are allowed to smile, and the change in tone it offers changes my prospective on a lot of the episode.
The show doesn’t quite all live up to this tone, however: other moments feel like schlocky action fare, while even more others are made, by Michael Giacchino’s continually awful scoring, to feel too overbearing by half. The show can be scary, or broody, or funny, or smart, or silly, all it wants, but it does need to develop into a show that earns its ability to so easily move between the various moods. I like that the show is developing this sense of itself, but it needs to find that balance between the melodrama and shocking cliffhangers it bookends its episodes with (Here, John Scott’s funeral followed by the revelation that whatever we found in the episode could help Massive Dynamic do something or other with John’s body) and the rest of the episode before I start to really give the show credit for finding an identity.
The show’s problems are still plentiful: Anna Torv remains too sedate (I love that even Broyles comments on the fact that she never smiles), the convenience of Astrid knowing Latin feels like one of those things that you would only see on television, and of COURSE Peter is an accomplished pianist. Olivia, tough, does get to show a bit more professional concern than usual, and Astrid is a fun character, and we do get a mysterious photographer who tells Peter that he was supposed to inform them when he got back into town. What does this mean? The show is being a bit slow in offering answers, which might be a mistake when it comes to its key characters: my impatience with Peter will grow unabated until they give me a reason to care, and the longer that waits the more likely I’ll be distinterested by the reveal.
But really, it was just a much more enjoyable episode: yes, the pilot was good, and the second episode had some neat scenes, but neither felt like a series that I’d want to watch on a weekly basis out of sheer pleasure. Here, I was enjoying seeing what they did next: laughing at Walter, curious about Massive Dynamic, intrigued by the mystery, and actually kind of caring about the characters a little. So, if I had to offer an analogy, if last week was Criminal Minds on some crazy science potion, this week was like House on some crazy science potion. And I don’t think I need to tell you that this means it’s a far better effort overall.
- Walter’s line of the night, easily: “Am I required to keep him alive?” The fact that Olivia’s response was sarcastic only gave me more hope that eventually Walter’s hilarity will spread to other characters – I know this isn’t quite House humour wise, but I do think that Walter reminds me of the good Doctor in more ways of one and that, if he’s given enough of a role, he could continue to make a real difference.
- I’ve been watching Supernatural this past week for my review over at Geeks of Doom of the show’s third season, and there’s a show that has its identity: it can be funny, it can be super serious, and it can be scary. I’m hoping Fringe finds the same type of groove, and this episode has them closer to it.
- I like that Olivia actually asks the question of Massive Dynamic having their hands on everything and anything related to science, and calling attention back to her original conversation with Sharpe in the pilot. As long as the character doesn’t just buy into her new role without any questions, Torv’s accent and stilted acting will be forgiven.
- One painful piece of exposition about William Bell aside, the episode was much improved on that front.