Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket: Consistency and Balance in FOX’s Fringe

Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket

April 1st, 2010

There are some shows that I can honestly say I’ve given up on: I stopped watching shows like Desperate Housewives because it was clearly not going in an interesting direction, and it had long gone past the point where the strength of the performances could carry my attention. However, there are other shows that I stop watching where there isn’t that moment of decision, where I don’t consciously make some sort of decree about it. I didn’t give up on The Mentalist or Grey’s Anatomy so much as I gave up on finding the time to watch them, which is a completely different situation and one that is particularly common on Thursday nights.

And so when I stopped watching Fringe, it wasn’t some sort of judgment on the show’s standalone episodes, or any sort of disappointment with its serialized development. Rather, Thursdays are busy, and the NBC comedy block having become four-strong this year (at least in theory) has made Thursdays busier than ever. Sure, it says something that Fringe was the first show I dropped, but I don’t want to make that out to be some sort of judgment when it wasn’t one.

I’ve spend the past few days catching up on Fringe’s second season, which I dropped after the second episode, and it’s been quite an illuminating experience. When you step away from a show like Fringe for so long, and end up watching it in this sort of condensed fashion, you see a lot of things that you might not have seen before: your perception, in other words, becomes more important (or at least more noteworthy) than reality, fitting considering the role that played in the episodes I had a chance to watch this week.

While some may argue that Fringe is “inconsistent,” I would argue that it is our perception which varies as opposed to the show itself: depending on where we place our expectations, Fringe is either a compelling procedural with a (relatively) complex serialized mythology or a blasé procedural with intermittent signs of serialized intrigue. I don’t think either of these perspectives are wrong, or unfair to the show, but I would argue that it has been pretty consistent in its ambitions in its second season.

And while I don’t necessarily perceive the show as one of television’s finest, I had a lot of “fun” catching up on the show…in fact, I had more fun than I had expected.

If we accept the going theory that “Standalone = bad, Mythology = good,” then catching up on Fringe in a marathon format should largely balance out: the standalone episodes might become more apparent when viewed in succession, but you’re not waiting as long to get to the mythology, which means that frustration with “worthless” episodes is not quite as pronounced. But if we were to contest that theory, accepting that the mythology episodes are more compelling without necessary downgrading the standalone stories, then catching up is far easier than some might have imagined.

Part of the joys of procedurals is the ability to pick right back up where you left off, where the rhythms of the show are similar every week to the point where things are comfortable and familiar. With Fringe, there are plenty of barriers to this sort of viewing, as you need to have a very clear understanding of how this world works in order to accept the science of these cases, and you need to know some key facts (Peter is alternate-universe Peter, Olivia was tested on as a child, Walter has a dark past) to fully grasp the subtleties that the show occasionally delves into. But once you get to that point, once you learn what needs to be learned about Observers and William Bell and everything in between, I think Fringe works surprisingly well as a pleasant procedural viewing experience.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that this cast of characters is quite compelling. I still have my concerns about Anna Torv’s performance, but the show is doing a much better job of implementing the “chosen one” storyline with Olivia than Abrams manages with Sydney on Alias, and her “crusade” against Fringe science has been dialed back nicely now that Peter seems less aloof, and Astrid feels more involved, and Broyles has become more of a character. And while you could make the argument that a lot of this has to do with mythology episodes, a lot of it has been cemented and sort of assisted by simple standalone stories of varying quality. The stories are rarely amongst the best procedurals in television, but the creepy teasers and the unique premises work just fine when the characters have been built to the point where you just want to see them work.

While the show may vary week-by-week in terms of how much mythology is in each episodes, I would make the argument that the episodes all “work” to about the same level. The procedural episodes are solid but unspectacular, but I wouldn’t say the mythology episodes are that superior: yes, they may be more compelling at a base level, but the execution isn’t that much more spectacular, and the show has managed to create similar emotional connections in standalone pieces as in the mythology stories. In some ways the mythology episodes feel like they’re trying too hard, so clearly labeled as “different” that they fail to live up to our expectations of some new secret being revealed. The mythology is complex enough that it is often best when it’s being hinted at, stories gesturing towards rather than aggressively pursuing certain revelations.

I fully understand those who want more mythology, as Fringe has created a world filled with alternate universes and evil villains and complex ethical and paradoxical questions that when played out remain fascinating and compelling. But in some ways, I like the show better when it has nothing to do with that big picture, when it simply explores the limits and potential of science and the complex ways in which it is being interpreted. I like a good, basic procedural every now and then, and catching up on Fringe was sort of a nice twist on that – the stories play out the same way, the twists coming like clockwork and as you’d expect, but the subject matter was just a little bit off, and after a while away from the show it was nice to be reminded that no one on the show raises an eyebrow at these crazy events, keeping the show from feeling overwhelmed by the incredulity of it all.

Perhaps it’s just that John Noble remains so fantastic as Walter Bishop, integral to both sides of the show’s coin. He’s central to its mythology, the tragic and at times evil figure whose past mistakes have largely created the world the show lives in, but he’s also the reason that you want to keep watching even when the story has nothing to do with those mistakes. In one moment, Noble is terrific as a man haunted by the past, and then in another moment he’s a man haunted by the present, of a life of uncertainty and confusion that he still doesn’t quite understand after his time in a mental institution. And then in another moment, he’s downright hilarious as an overgrown child of a mad scientist enamoured with science and the potential of it all. He lends such gravity and levity to the show that it would simply not work without him, and I’d argue it would also not work without all sides to him: if he was always in one mode, the show would not have any sense of balance, and the tragedy or the levity would overwhelm the pleasure and tension in the rest of the series.

Right now, the sense of inconsistency is being created by the perception that this is supposed to be a show like Lost, but in reality it’s supposed to be a show like NCIS, or at least is choosing that as its baseline. All procedurals want to create a sense of history, and a sense of uncertainty surrounding the show’s characters and their relationships, and Fringe has certainly gone above and beyond most examples in doing so; however, they’ve entered into a different genre bracket, so the speak, in the process, and perception changes as a result. If you were to argue that Fringe is imbalanced as opposed to inconsistent, then I think we’re on the right track. But if the argument is that the show needs more mythology in order to create that balance, I don’t think I agree. If you are going to “fix” the show by taking it in one direction, the only way it works (for me) is if you take it in the opposite direction entirely: stop having “mythology episodes” and just keep slowly chipping away at the potentials of the world and the science involved. Leave the big picture stuff until finales and premieres, and let the show set its own pace.

Fringe is not a perfect television show, but it is a television show that knows what it wants to be: it wants to be CSI by way of Lost, the show that Alias tried to be in its fourth season or the show that Dollhouse pretended to be before Joss Whedon realized that he didn’t have compelling enough procedural stories to make the show work in that format. And while this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think viewers need to be very keenly aware of that going in: while it may be a flaw that they’ve found a way to turn away both casual and hardcore fans with a premise that tries to sit between the two, I think they’ve been pretty consistent about that goal, and as someone who enjoys negotiating those kinds of conflicts I found journeying through the world of extraordinary scientific and the characters caught up in its progress to be an enjoyable way to spend some downtime.

And while that might not make it the next Lost, and it might not quite be the same as NCIS, I think it’s nonetheless a commendable achievement, and look forward to the show’s return this evening…although perhaps only because NBC’s comedies won’t be on. Chances are, after a few weeks, I might find myself back to the point where Fringe might just be too much for my Thursday viewings, but I’ll at least know that catching up again will be perhaps even more pleasurable than watching week-by-week.

Cultural Observations

  • Note how the show is building mythology elements that work nicely as standalone storylines: the super soldiers from the other side are a fine example of this, something that works as a credible and unique threat when presented as a procedural storyline. The one problem, really, is that sometimes previous mythology elements can feel dumbed down presented in such a form: “August,” where we saw an Observer try to save someone from certain death, was a really compelling episode ideologically, but putting the Observers into such a rote story sort of robbed them of their mystique, something the show needs to be wary of.
  • The show has really been using the “Peter is the Other Peter” plot point as a sort of ticking time bomb for a while, so now that Olivia knows about it I’m curious what the show goes to next: will there be another secret, or will the show find something new? I’ve really liked how the truth has weighed on Walter, and how he’s slowly been revealing his anxiety and pain relating to it, so what they do once the show settles the issue is going to be quite compelling.
  • I did not, just in case you were wondering, watch the transplanted Season 1 episode they dumped into the second season for no apparent reason – why they bothered airing it at all is still sort of bothersome, and I wonder how they’ll place the episode when they eventually release the Complete Series on DVD at some point in the future.
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4 Comments

Filed under Fringe

4 responses to “Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket: Consistency and Balance in FOX’s Fringe

  1. Excellently written explanation that touches on all the things I felt about this show that I couldn’t put my finger on. Your comparisons to Alias and it’s strengths and shortcomings was particularly apt in my view, as I’ve found myself feeling the same about Fringe as I once did for Alias.

    And to both shows’ credit, for all of its flaws and my frustrations with them, I bought the complete Alias DVD set for a reason.

    Also, I know you largely tend to stick to an episode by episode format for the shows you currently cover, but I really enjoy when you step out of your box and just expound on things outside of your routine purview. Please don’t be wary of doing so in the future.

  2. Pingback: Fringe – “Peter” « Cultural Learnings

  3. davidsigurani

    Fantastic overview of the show I get frustrated with. Not necessarily of inconsistency with mythology vs. procedural, but the inconsistency of quality. The majority of the episodes do moments fairly well, but there are a couple duds here and there were the procedural fringe science fails to be engaging or at all unique.

    As a huge fan of the X-Files (even the seasons others have issues with) I find myself constantly disappointed by the recycling of plots from that show and done in a way that doesn’t refresh the genre tropes. The characters (excluding Olivia until recently) are what keep me watching, and the actors behind them, but I just wish the show were more daring or unique in it’s approach to the procedural fringe element every week. I’d be more than happy to not have any mythology episodes if only the procedural elements were consistently compelling enough.

    My enjoyment differs almost weekly due to execution. Characters have stopped reacting realistically to problems, and mysteries have been revealed to the audience within the teaser, before the characters.

  4. Pingback: The 2010 Cultural Catchup Project: Reader’s Choice Poll « Cultural Learnings

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