Fringe – “Night of Desirable Objects”

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“Night of Desirable Objects”

September 24th, 2009

Thursday night television is, well, a night of desirable objects. With the return of Grey’s Anatomy and CSI, along with FlashForward, FOX’s decision to move Fringe into this competitive timeslot proved temporarily terrifying for J.J. Abrams and company as the show plummeted 23% in overnight ratings. Now, Live+7 numbers will ultimately tell the story of how many people DVR’d the show in order to catch the more buzzworthy Grey’s opener, but it’s like a big old red flag that FOX knew was coming, but that it hoped could be avoided. Bones has nicely situated itself in the once Survivor-dominated 8pm timeslot, and FlashForward dominated the timeslot with its premiere and CSI debuted to its own lowest premiere numbers since likely the first or second season.

What’s unfortunate for Fringe is that “Night of Desirable Objects” isn’t particularly desirable, effectively stopping the long-term storylines dead in favour of presenting a pretty simple (and not overly complex) frightfest along with a slow burn reveal regarding Olivia Dunham. For those who want the show to be a full-fledged television serial, it’s the kind of pace changer that turns them off entirely; meanwhile, for those who are mostly tuning in to see Walter have too much fun investigating dead people and to get some cheap thrills with some characters you enjoy, it was a harmless hour of entertainment that did some good work making Olivia more interesting and perhaps provide some laughs or scares along the way.

As someone who kind of sits in between, it was a not entirely unwelcome change of pace, although one that’s likely to prove an ineffective lure for new viewers.

But, realistically, how many new viewers are there going to be for Fringe? Airing in television’s most competitive timeslot, FOX’s hope right now is that the fans stick around while a few disenchanted CSI viewers are looking for something a bit different and some Grey’s Anatomy viewers recall their earlier love for Dawson’s Creek and switch over out of anger when they discover that they killed off George (it’s been out there all summer and aired 24 hours ago, but I really am sorry if I spoiled that for someone), which strikes me as somewhat strange. It’s not that those aren’t two reasons that someone would watch Fringe, but there’s so much more going on with Fringe that doesn’t fit into those categories which is just as like to turn them away. This show isn’t Bones, which has likely done well being an alternative in a timeslot with an aging reality franchise, eroding NBC comedies (Earl, in particular), and the female viewers getting bored with Ugly Betty. This show has a bit of scorpion and mole DNA in it, and unlike the genetic superbaby that proves to be the episode’s strange phenomenon that isn’t going to help it survive.

There was nothing technically wrong with this episode of Fringe from a procedural television standpoint. The Mole/Scorpion Super Baby was predictable (as soon as we saw the old man spotting the new victim down in the hole, my first thought was mutated child), but it provided some visceral action pieces (the car caving him in was a pretty great image) and the investigation worked well as a way to start to tease out Olivia’s side effects (more on that in a second). The problem was that it was all too contrived, like how this case was so lazily connected to Olivia by the “Look, these people disappeared just like Olivia did!” We knew that it had nothing to do with Olivia at all, and since none of the victims were particularly beloved by the audience and we never really got a chance to relate to either the father or the son, the entire episode felt heartless. I know that I often complain about cases on procedurals too closely connecting with personal stories, so it’s not like I needed that as a requirement, but to just kind of pretend it was a connection to justify them ignoring the far larger questions rang false.

And that’s what Fringe’s worst enemy is, feeling as if all of this is just a premise and not an actual show. The whole point of Peter going to Broyles and arguing about their need to be more forceful, I thought, was so that cases could be more proactive, not so Peter could do a little bit of research and try to turn non-Fringe cases into Fringe cases. Where the show still feels fresh is when they let Walter loose, like his inability to contain his excitement at the idea of this potentially being a new stage of human evolution or something similar. Walter is infectious in a way that the show’s premise has been proven not to be, so leaning on the procedural roots too heavily seemed to sink this one right off the bat.

The one movement the show made was to demonstrate (quite cleverly, with the breathing at the house first confirming the presence of another person) Olivia’s newfound “Super Hearing.” It’s an indication that what happens when one goes across to the other Universe (which Walter tells Olivia is what happened, although she still doesn’t know what went down) is something that’s going to change her life quite considerably. Now, the jury is out on whether it makes a pretty boring and lifeless character more interesting, but a jittery Olivia suddenly able to hear bubble popping in her bathtub is certainly a step up, and it even gives a timeframe in which Evil Charlie (a storyline that’s still an Alias ripoff, but that didn’t bother me as much here as I expected) is going to need to act considering that he seems to be getting sick himself. The idea that there is something about moving between the universes which changes your senses (and eventually leads to headaches) is going to make for a really interesting moment when Olivia does finally remember what she heard from William Bell, and when everything starts to become clear.

The one thing the show needs to make sure of is that they don’t bore us too much while we’re waiting: when it so clearly sets out the next point at which the show promises to be really interesting again, they need to keep us interested in the interim, and this episode ultimately didn’t do enough to do so.

Cultural Observations

  • The Walter/Peter stuff was lacking in grace this week – the “a child’s grave with no child” note was all sorts of clumsy, and the final fishing note came up really suddenly and never really felt connected to the rest of the episode for me.
  • My money is still on Other Universe Walter to be the one behind the typewriter, just so we’re clear on theories.
  • I blame House for forever ruining Lupus as a serious disease – now, it’s just a big ol’ joke.
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