September 30th, 2008
I was busy finishing off an assignment for Wednesday on Tuesday evening, and as a result delayed the watching of my (ridiculous number) of Tuesday night shows. So while I’ll be covering the rest in a bit of Cultural Catchup likely spread out over the weekend, I believe it is in the best interest of everyone who’s been following Fringe to get their two cents in on the first episode of the series that seems to actually be unquestionably interesting.
Now, I say interesting instead of good because the jury is still out on the latter: the show received its full season order after good stability airing behind House, but the actual trajectory of the series was fairly unclear. But “The Arrival” marks, well, the arrival of some very interesting things that deserve our attention, and I believe the attention of most viewers. Co-written by J.J. Abrams and Jeff Pinkner, Alias alum both, the episode introduced the first signs of a serialized narrative that isn’t entirely related to Massive Dynamic, ended on the show’s most successful cliffhanger yet, and made great strides in making both the series’ male and female leads more interesting characters in terms of their relationship with The Pattern.
In other words, it has taken the series from “Curiousity” to “Compelling” in one fell swoop…for me, at least.
I hate to be a few days late on this one because, watching it last night as part of a marathon of catchup after I wasn’t able to sleep, was really like a breath of fresh air. The show hasn’t been bad outside of the second episode, but it never seemed to give us any reason to care about the characters or to really feel out their purpose in this process. When there’s a show which such procedural elements, there needs to be strong relationships between our main characters or else the show won’t be able to sustain itself when an episode isn’t as self-contained or well-realized as “The Arrival.”
But the issue was that Peter and Olivia, in particular, were given weak and, at worst, pointless motivations. No one really understood why Peter was sticking around, or why Olivia was still involved in the project either: while curiosity might drive Olivia, searching for answers in regards to Agent Scott’s death/betrayal (not in that order), what is it that makes Peter stick around considering his character. For me, this episode did a lot to bridge the gap between believability and the show’s structure, so getting there was clearly most of the battle for the series.
It’s actually an interesting scenario: the show’s pilot had to simultaneously handle the setting up of the Pattern, Fringe science in general, Agent Scott’s death, Massive Dynamic, and these characters. The problem was that the characters were all left as cliches, and Torv didn’t stick the landing Jennifer Garner-style when it came to demonstrating the emotional breakdown that took place after the fact. The show, instead, just let the characters slide by for a few weeks while they found their groove storywise. In the end, this worked out fine: the premiere didn’t get much ratings attention, while the show has blossomed behind House. So, if you’re going to find your stride, this is the week in which to do it.
And, to be fair, I did like that there was a benefit to being able to demonstrate the arrival of The Observer by featuring him in the previous episodes in order to heighten the creep factor. It’s a smart move, because it rewards consistent viewers who spotted him, and makes a new game out of the process. I do have to wonder whether the idea of not telling Olivia about these different parts of The Pattern that Broyles knows about already makes any sense, but the slow reveal has me kind of hooked into things now: while it might have slowed down meeting the characters, us getting caught up in the mythology at the same time as the characters could give them a boost exiting the episode.
The arrival of The Observer is the biggest impact in the series so far, not only because of the fantastic opening scene in the diner in Brooklyn. Watching as he sits, writes backwards in that strange language, takes out his little viewfinder, it feels like a J.J. Abrams show again: a scene that starts as kind of weird before delving into his ridiculous sandwich order and, eventually, the explosion itself. The character (portrayed well by Michael Cerveris) is a great combination of little quirks (his eating habits relating to his taste buds, as the most prevalent and focused on example) and very broad creepiness (his bald head, his lack of eyebrows, his manner of speaking, the entire reading minds thing, etc.) He’s more uncanny than evil, a good thing on a show that needs to interest more than threaten, in my view.
And he made a good counterpoint to the episode’s other personification of evil, a mysterious man running around with a fancy energy gun and an equally unfancy mind-reading contraption. It was a more physical threat, someone willing to go to great lengths in order to get the technology being dealt with. It was good to get these two real, live human beings presented as threats or as persons of interest: in our case, it meant that we cynics were no longer just rolling our eyes and asking when this was all going to circle back to Massive Dynamic, or Walter’s research, or some all-too simple solution. Instead, there were real threats, rather than just a mysterious circumstance dropping into their laps: that’s the kind of action we needed to jump start these characters.
Peter is finally at a point where he might stop being such an insufferable knob half the time, which is the series’ largest victory yet. Say what you will about Joshua Jackson’s performance (I’ve found it quite good), but the character has seemed pointless for a few episodes now. He isn’t trained, he isn’t really the right person to have translating his father’s ramblings (or, well, he wasn’t until this week’s episode), so why stick around if he’s such a skeptic? This episode answered that question but placing him into a dangerous place, and more importantly pitting him against The Observer in a battle of wits wherein he had no chance of winning. As he ends up injured and reeling, and goes to his father for explanations, all of a sudden he wants to find out what’s going on as much as everyone else does, and that’s a very good thing.
As for Walter, I can see why they institutionalized him: if throughout his life he’s had his friend with no eyebrows hanging a favour over him, along with all of this Fringe science, one has to wonder what else he has hidden in his past. I like that he tells Peter the truth flat out, instead of dragging it on: John Noble did a lot of great work in this episode, both in terms of humour (The Root Beer Float runner, as an example) and the more serious speeches where he either gets pissed off or serious with Peter. The end result is a far more interesting character dynamic for Peter, and Walter being tied up in it all.
For Olivia, though, the end of the episode is what matters, as she is getting herself some cereal (and liquor) when Agent Scott appears in her kitchen after an earlier late night phone call. I think that Torv still needs to lighten up a bit, but the main problem with Olivia is that I didn’t understand her motivation: your partner is killed and betrayed you, and you immediately listen to these crazy people about a Pattern and devote your entire life to it? I like how they actually had her in FBI Headquarters and not the lab this week, because she probably has something close to a normal job otherwise. It just feels that she’s so isolated, in most instances, and devoted to something that lacked that emotional investment, somehow damaged between episodes one and two as it related to Agent Scott.
Now, though, it comes to life (literally) once more: the visceral and effective approach to bringing Agent Scott (And Mark Valley) back into the series will do wonders for her character, and the entire narrative. The episode was about a return to tension that we saw in the pilot, but on an even grander scale: the stakes are now higher, quite considerably so, and the end result is a series that has me actively interested in the atmosphere it creates heading towards its ends. It could come back in two weeks with an episode that fails to capture my attention in the same way, but at this point Abrams and Pinker have taken the series to a whole new level.
- I’m curious to know if we’re done learning secrets about Peter’s past: the idea that he shares his father’s thoughts doesn’t really get answered by the whole “Dead in Freezing Water” ordeal, which is part of the episode’s strength: less answers, more mystery.
- Interesting to see them try to develop Astrid as a character a bit more with her slighting Walter – I think there’s some neat potential within their dynamic, and I’d like to see them flesh out the recurring players a bit more. I love Lance Reddick, but until he shows himself capable of cracking a smile the role can’t be very fun to play. Even Lieutenant Daniels got to smile every now and then.