[As part of an ongoing personal experiment designed to assist in deciding my academic future, it is my goal to complete short (by my standards) essays from a television studies perspective. If you find these more interesting than my usual writings, you can find a great online journal devoted to such efforts at the University of Texas at Austin’s FlowTV.]
In the World of J.J. Abrams, Fringe Watches You:
Gradual Serialization and the Active Audience
When Lost exploded out of the gate with a surprising amount of success in 2004, it created a domino effect on both sides of the screen. For the networks, it created a renewed interest in highly serialized television, spawning numerous shows that offered deep mythologies, interconnected stories, and science fiction-like premises. For the audience, meanwhile, it spawned new forms of what is often referred to as “active audience,” producing large fan communities speculating on the answers to questions and the keys to mysteries.
In 2008, however, the landscape is quite different. Prison Break, a much-hyped serialized drama, is in danger of cancellation, absent from FOX’s January schedule. Heroes, once NBC’s flagship drama series, has fired two executive producers amidst falling ratings and dwindling fan interest. Meanwhile, CBS recently tripled its ratings performance in a Friday night timeslot by replacing new drama ‘The Ex List’ with a repeat of crime procedural ‘NCIS,’ now one of their highest rated performers. Where serial dramas seem to be losing viewers every week, procedural dramas seem to be picking up steam at every interval.
And yet, there is still an emphasis in terms of the networks of searching and promoting for active audience: whether through online ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), message boards, or through online webisodes or comic books that fill in gaps in continuity or add extra bits of character information. In “A Specter is Haunting Television Studies,” Jeffrey Sconce of Northwestern University questions not the effectiveness of these tactics but rather their impact on the medium as a whole. He writes that “we should be compelled to ask if these “activities” actually serve us, or if they instead actively expand the demands and desires of television itself, the most seductive point-man in the overall ‘system of objects’ that wants us to continue serving as the Petri dishes in which it cultivates its own future sustenance.”
While Sconce is speaking specifically to those who practice television studies, as well as those who consume media, a question exists here about the people who create the shows themselves. For J.J. Abrams, who developed highly serialized shows such as Lost and Alias, there is an expectation that what he produces will follow their example, particularly amongst these types of active viewers. When FOX debuted Fringe, however, this expectation was thrown for a loop. This is a show that viewers jumped into expecting to find deep mythology, complex theories and scientific phenomenon of unknown origin – what they found instead was a highly formulaic if stylized procedural that, at a glacial pace, is introducing an overarching mythology.
It’s a new structure that requires viewers to relearn how to watch a show with Abrams’ name attached to it; and, if Abrams gets his way, he and his writing staff might be the ones to teach them.
Alan Sepinwall of the New Jersey Star-Ledger called a scene in “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones,” Fringe’s most recent episode, “one of the most meta monologues I’ve ever heard.” Any viewer with any history of dealing with Abrams’ work likely felt the same:
“You have a problem, Agent Dunham (Our protagonist),” Broyles (Lance Reddick) says. “You’re not easily satisfied. You want everything and you want it now. In your mind, somehow a small victory is no victory. What you did was save a man’s life, but that does nothing for you. I would tell you to snap the hell out of it, to stop whining about what you can’t know, can’t control, can’t change. I would tell you to get some sleep while you can, because tomorrow we’ll do this all over again and guess what, you’ll have a million new answers and a million-and-one new questions. I would tell you those things. But I won’t. Because your dissatisfaction is what makes you so damned good, someone I’m proud to say I work with.”
Now, there one fundamental problem with this monologue: Abrams appears to be patronizing his audience by prescribing how they should watch his show, something that has been out of his hands ever since Lost exploded into the mainstream. This isn’t something that he can control, nor perhaps something he should control. It does, however, beg the question: for a man who has been unapologetically making shows with deep mythologies and highly active audiences for almost a decade, why is he only now being so transparent with his audience?
The answer can be found in the form of gradual serialization that we find at the center of this new series, a form which appears on paper as one form of series and materializes as another. As it follows a procedural structure, every episode follows a set pattern: dangerous scientific mystery threatens humanity, our protagonist discovers that it is part of a global conspiracy, and pseudo-scientific research from the past of Dr. Walter Bishop helps solve that mystery while revealing a few more nuggets about serial elements such as weapons manufacturers Massive Dynamic. Whereas Lost threw all the rules out the window, creating a vacuum of mystery and suspense, Fringe manufactures its tension in a test tube.
Abrams’ series is therefore at a point of intersection between active and passive audience; while the existence of ‘The Pattern,’ global terrorist cells and a resurrected corpse of a traitorous ex-boyfriend/FBI agent all point towards the types of serialized narrative that fans are drawn towards, each individual episode offers very little forward progression on these subjects. While this is common practice on shows like NCIS or any other of CBS’ crime dramas, on Fringe it present itself as a logical fallacy: considering that our protagonist is leading investigations on The Pattern, does it make sense that Broyles is withholding information in small packets revealed conveniently after a situation presents itself? Or would, in a logical situation, he not have briefed Agent Dunham on all related information on the Pattern?
What Fringe represents is a series where the mysteries are questions that should be answered, where the complexity often takes a backseat to ‘cases of the week,’ and where an active audience has fundamentally different expectations than what Abrams plans to deliver. However, we return to Sconce’s question: is Fringe on a fundamentally worse path with this desire for a more patient audience, or rather a different, perhaps even more desired, one? The show has shown stable ratings performance despite concerns over its pacing, even growing from its premiere audience thanks to a lead-in from House (which, not by coincidence, is a procedural drama at its core). If we remove the internet chatter from the metrics of success, Fringe is a breakout hit: in this case, is our emphasis on audience activity blinding us to the show’s strengths?
I’m not convinced it is, but I am convinced that Sconce’s argument is important to understanding the changing landscape of programming. After Heroes lost its plot and its viewers within a mired mythology, and as CBS’ lineup of procedurals grows and expands viewership, there will be more questions about whether or not these new audience-driven metrics will improve. While these metrics may serve as a more democratic form of measuring a show’s success beyond the antiquated Nielsen ratings sytem, they enter into a different territory when they are being used as the creative driving force behind a series’ trajectory.
One of the recurring symbols in Fringe is The Observer, a bald, hairless man who is present at every one of these scientific catastrophes. Considering the quasi-Orwellian desire to guide the audience into viewing this text in a particular manner, perhaps J.J. Abrams is standing outside your living room waiting to see whether you pose one question too many; for now, the big question is whether the active viewers expressing impatience with the series will stick around long enough to see if it’s worth it.
[If there’s any interest in further analysis on this issue, I’ve got a few ideas running around as it relates to Pushing Daisies (Another series that navigates the intersection of serialization and procedure) and House (a show that, after four seasons may have too many serialized storylines for its own good). Those might have to wait, though, until my real school work is complete. In the meantime, please feel free to drop in your own thoughts on Fringe’s navigation of these issues.]