“A New Day in the Old Town”
September 17th, 2009
From the very beginning, I’ve said that Fringe is a cross between Alias and The X-Files, two shows that were pretty similar to begin with. While The X-Files leaned more towards the blatantly supernatural, both shows dealt with elements of prophecy which linked investigators with the events transpiring, and each dealt with the impact of bureaucracy on such investigations. So when J.J. Abrams created Fringe, in some ways it was an example of a creator taking an element of one of his earlier shows and simply expanding it into a new arena. There is not a huge leap between Rambaldi and the Pattern, and at various point in Fringe’s first season you could see Abrams (along with Orci, Kurtzman, etc.) tweaking the formula in an effort to avoid what happened to Alias, where serialized storytelling overran any chance of the show maintaining a procedural structure.
But at the end of the first season, Fringe truly came into its own. Once the show started more carefully considering the impact of the pattern and really indulging in its serialized side of things, the show picked up a new head of steam. Early complaints about Anna Torv’s performance mostly melted away, and the show should some skill in how it handled the conclusion of Mark Valley’s time on the show and eventually how it introduced the fairly huge development of an alternate universe. By linking said alternate universe both to Peter’s sense of identity and to Walter’s damaged mental state, and by placing the mystery of William Bell directly within it, it became part of the fabric of the show as opposed to tearing it all apart. When we panned out and discovered the Twin Towers still standing in said universe, it was a shocking moment that showed a series very much in control of its own destiny, and not just a collection of leftover ideas from Alias or The X-Files.
And to be honest, I think “A New Day in the Old Town” is probably a far better episode than I’m about to give it credit for, as its ‘big twist’ fundamentally took me out of the episode and right back into feeling as if this is Alias: Part Two for Abrams, in some respects. While parts of the episode really felt like the show that I came to really enjoy at the end of last season, there were other parts which were designed to capture new viewers and to trick unsuspecting viewers into feeling sad, or concerned, or anything else. It’s a trap that is often considered necessary for procedurals (which Fringe technically is), but by delaying the resolution to last season’s cliffhanger and providing a simulation of conflict it felt as if the episode was all about that big twist at the end…and when that was Abrams blatantly ripping himself off, I guess I’m just not as excited about this episode as I expected myself to be back in May.
This is technically an Alias spoiler, but I’m just going to come out and say it. In the (amazing) second season episode “Phase One,” Abrams fundamentally destroyed the fabric of his show when he purged SD-6 (the main evil fake government agency in which Sydney Bristow was a double agent working for the real CIA) and gave you that emotional moment of Sydney and Vaughan finally getting together. However, it then pulled the rug out from under you and revealed that Francie, Sydney’s close friend, had been murdered and replaced by an exact replica. So, as someone who watched and really enjoyed Alias, you can imagine how I reacted when we discovered that Charlie, Olivia’s close friend and confidante, is now in fact a shapeshifting soldier from the alternate dimension whose arrival was prognosticated by a woman on severe psychotic drugs in Walter’s laboratory.
It may seem petty, but it’s an example of a storyline really taking me out of the episode, something that happened a lot. Whether it was the introduction of a new FBI character to whom Peter could explain the entirety of Walter’s backstory, or the use of Olivia’s fake death to create a false sense of danger and suspense, the episode was filled with tricks and distractions instead of something approaching an actual plot. What really made me excited during the first season was when episodes felt like they were part of a much larger storyline, that they had been building to this point for a long time, and I honestly believe that they could have managed to build an organic premiere which more carefully integrated the necessary exposition with a greater sense of the show’s journey thus far. Instead, we got a lot of cheap thrills (including the fake-out at episode’s end) and not much in the way of larger questions that the show has been wrestling with for some time.
Fringe has never had any problem being cool: even early on, the individual stories were quite effective, and here the mouthplate shapeshifting device was a neat piece of technology and I really liked the little room with the typewriter where the soldier was able to communicate with the alternate dimension (receiving orders from someone, although we don’t know who precisely). Those kinds of scenes are the kind of stylistic thing the show has never had any sort of problem with. Similarly, the show has always had a pretty strong sense of humour, so Walter simultaneously completing an autopsy and baking custard or getting way too excited about riding in the back of an ambulance or putting a birthday hat on a cow still made me extremely happy as a television viewer. There is something about the show that works on that purely sensory level, either visually stunning or simply enjoyable to watch.
And the questions it sets up for the season ahead are, in fact, fairly interesting. We presume that Olivia’s meeting that did, in fact, take place was the one she had with William Bell, and that there is something in their conversation that she doesn’t remember anymore and which someone is clearly looking for. So, now we are trying to figure out who in the alternate dimension is out to get Bell and now Olivia (my money is on alternate universe Walter, driven to vengeance rather than insanity by the loss of his own son), and we also want to know for ourselves just what object Olivia now knows something about.
But I think it’s the way the episode so blatantly designs these questions that has me concerned, just as with us learning about Evil Charlie at episode’s end as a big twist. It isn’t that these questions are poor, it’s just that the show clearly has set them up as the main mysteries for the season. After the alternate universe felt so organic and was even hinted at ahead of time (a saw at least one Twitter user rewatching the first season who said you could clearly see clues about Peter in hindsight), it seemed like the show was really opening up and giving Abrams a new playground. However, here, the show manufactures secrets by not showing us the remainder of that meeting, and rehashes an Alias plotline to give some semblance of a big twist that Abrams has already played out before.
And while I’m not anywhere near condemning the show or anything similar, it was a premiere that did everything to take me out of its universe, undoing some of the finale’s great work in the process.
- Interesting sequence with Anna, the new FBI agent/liaison type person (since Charlie is, you know, actually dead), connecting all of their individual cases to sections in the Bible. It was a subtle scene, but one that shows how an external set of eyes can sometimes see things that others cannot. The episode also dealt with the idea of God in terms of Bell and Walter’s experiment with the young woman designed to have her see a higher power, so religion may turn out to be a theme.
- What is with Lance Reddick and red-haired white women of authority having clandestine sexual relationships? There was always something between Broyles and Sharpe, but that was honestly a bit weird. The entire Washington D.C. subplot was really just to set up that final scene where we learn that Fringe division is going to get a bit more pro-active, an interesting idea but unfortunately one which we don’t get to see in action in the episode.
- Just to be clear, the cow in the birthday hat? Highlight. However, Walter’s quieter moments were great in the episode too: whether it’s talking about Peter’s love of custard (wanting to return to childhood birthday celebrations) or suddenly proving nostalgic about his childhood, he’s clearly reeling from totally coming to terms with what he did when one Peter died and was replaced by another.
- I think I understand, but the car accident that we open the episode with: that was the accident that could have happened back in the finale when Olivia is driving in New York and we see a flash not unlike the one she then experiences in the elevator before the meeting. I’m still not entirely sure of the timeline going on there, as to how all of that happened, but it was effective as a really awesome opening sequence (Olivia being thrown out of the windshield) that the episode didn’t quite live up to.
- If you were wondering, the show dropped about 9% from its season finale ratings in its new timeslot, although the question will be how the show performs next week with both CSI and Grey’s Anatomy returning. FOX is trying to stake a claim on Thursdays (Bones nearly beat Survivor at 8pm, so it’s working), and is kind of using Fringe as a guinea pig, so I’m hopeful the drop isn’t too substantial.