“The Day We Died”
May 6th, 2011
While I intended on writing something following the Fringe finale all week, I expected it to be a piece about how my general distance from the series made the finale less satisfying than it may have been for its hardcore fans. As the anticipation has been building online, I found myself with absolutely no investment in the series or its characters: while John Noble continues to give a really tremendous performance, the entire back end of the season has squandered a lot of the engagement I had with the series. I wasn’t looking forward to explaining why, to be honest: I don’t think there’s a simple answer, and I don’t exactly wear my inability to be a “fan” of this show as some sort of badge of honor.
However, it turns out that my lack of attachment is maybe the only thing keeping me from feeling outright ripped off by this awkward, poorly written, and yet unquestionably ballsy finale. In the final moments of “The Day We Died,” the show throws a hail mary that is designed to have fans both panicking and frantically revisiting previous episodes to discover either a loophole or some sort of reasoning for such a drastic turn of events.
For me, meanwhile, it’s the one breath of life in an episode which created too many problems for itself to properly tap into any of the pathos introduced earlier in the season, returning instead to vague generalities mapped onto poorly defined MacGuffins of little import or value. And, thankfully, I didn’t care enough to be outraged about it.
February 25th, 2011
Why do we watch Fringe?
This is an honest question, and one that I think Fringe has been forcing viewers to ask for a few episodes now. This is not a question of quality: I think we’ve long ago established that Fringe is a quality television program, and although I think there have been some weak spots as of late the show has been unquestionably solid all season.
Rather, this is a question of connection: when we watch the show, what is it which most draws us in? On some level, this is tested in episodes like “Immortality,” as our interest in the other side is tested by an episode which takes place almost exclusively in that environment. Personally, I quite enjoy the alternate universe, and while I have my concerns about how the show will stick the landing in regards to the pregnancy I thought the time spent with Fauxlivia and friends was well spent.
More generally, though, the central relationship between Peter and Olivia has been front and center, driving the storylines in both universes and, in “Subject 13,” in multiple time periods. And while I think that Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson have done some tremendous work, and I would say that the relationship has been a dramatically compelling addition to the series, I will admit that I am not all that emotionally connected to it. And so when episodes like “6B” draw some pretty heavy-handed parallels between their relationship and the story of the week, it’s a test: is the somewhat tired plot structure overcome if we’re attached to the fate of Peter and Olivia’s relationship?
Ultimately, I thought “6B” was fine, but “Subject 13” raises a whole host of other questions. There is some tremendous acting in this episode, but I have to ask: what was the point, exactly? What we learn about the past is hardly news, mostly filling in blanks which we had already filled in ourselves, and so it raises the question of why this (extremely compelling) flashback was interjected into the narrative at this point in time.
And it offers an answer that, frankly, tests my patience with whatever portmanteau the internet has given Peter and Olivia.
Aired: April 15th, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
Fringe did not end up making my series list, a fact which I attribute to two things.
One is that the list was made while Fringe was still amidst its third season experimentation (deadlines and all that), and I think I was concerned (without cause, really) that it couldn’t stick the landing – I knew the show had been much improved this year versus last, but without knowing how they intended to strike that balance it made selecting the show as one of the top 15 (in what has been an overall strong year for television) more challenging than choosing already complete seasons.
The other, however, is that “White Tulip” has been stuck in my head since it aired in April, an episode emblematic of the series’ improvements to the point that I knew it would end up on this list (and thus recognize the show for its improvements). Amidst growing complexities relating to Peter’s true origins, and Walter’s growing sense of grief over the truth he’s held from his quasi-son for over twenty years. “White Tulip” by all appearances prepares to tell a normal story at a time when the “other side” is growing more prominent within the narrative. And yet the resulting “stand alone” episode is evocative, powerful, and resonant in ways that – going back to yesterday’s focus on The Good Wife’s “Heart” – most praise of the show glosses over in favor of its more serialized elements (which have been in fine form this year as well).
September 23rd, 2010
Earlier this year, I wrote about what I called “procedural pacing,” wherein FX’s Justified gradually became more serialized throughout its first season: by starting with a more procedural format, and then having that format be interrupted and taken over by a serialized story line as the season wore on, the show established and then shattered its status quo. As a result, when the story eventually turned over in its entirety to Raylon Givens’ battle against the Crowder family, it felt “earned”: instead of seeming like an attempt to create false stakes, we had seen every step in this process, allowing the storyline to feel wholly organic and, more importantly, wholly satisfying.
I don’t think I entirely realized this before, but Fringe very much follows the same principle. It could have, at any point in its first two seasons, indulged in its science fiction premise to the degree we see in “Olivia”: we’ve known about the alternate universe since the first season finale, after all, so what was stopping them from introducing Fauxlivia at that point in the story? Fringe has had the potential for a serialized science fiction series since its pilot, and many have often criticized the series for not doing episodes like “Olivia,” a rollicking yet thought-provoking premiere, more often.
And yet, “Olivia” works as well as it does precisely because it is disrupting a status quo the series has established quite well over the past few seasons; much as Justified’s serialized elements had greater meaning due to the nuanced buildup, the slow development of the alternate universe and its role within this larger story has allowed the various dualities and conflicts the series is creating to have meaning which would have been lost had it been introduced at an earlier date.
Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: Drama Acting
June 3rd, 2010
On the drama side of things, there’s fewer trends that we can follow through to the nominees than there are in comedy. There, we can look at Glee and Modern Family and see some logical directions the awards could take, but in Drama there’s really only one new contender (The Good Wife), and the other variables are much more up in the air in terms of what’s going to connect with viewers. Lost could see a resurgence with voters in its final season, or it could be left in the dust; Mad Men could pick up more acting nominations now that its dynasty is secure, or it could remain underrepresented; Breaking Bad could stick to Cranston/Paul, or it could branch out into the rest of the stellar cast.
That unpredictability isn’t going to make for a shocking set of nominations, but I do think it leaves a lot of room open for voters to engage with a number of series to a degree that we may not have, so it’s an interesting set of races where I’m likely going out on some limbs.
“Over There: Part 2”
May 20th, 2010
When Fringe began, its “pseudoscience” was a vague conspiracy – the “Pattern” was ill-defined and faceless, a series of circumstances with no causation and thus no real emotional stakes. Over time, the show worked to provide a face to the threat (the villainous Mr. Jones, the shapeshifter taking Charlie’s form, etc.), but even then it was largely putting lipstick on a pig. Even when the show introduced another universe, that universe felt so abstract that it seemed like the show becoming more complex without any real effect on my enjoyment of the series.
However, the back end of the show’s second season has gone a long way to personifying the show’s science fiction; while it may be cheating to make John Noble’s Walter (and Walternate) central within the storyline, and the introduction of “alternate” versions of existing characters enables some shortcuts, it can’t be denied that the other reality has finally come into its own with both parts of “Over There.” Willing to blur the lines between evil and empathetic, the show delivers the sort of story which is unquestionably complex but which feels like it stems from decades of conflict and challenging character dynamics rather than a conflict created to fit a season finale.
I just hope nobody thinks it’s going to last.
May 6th, 2010
I didn’t necessarily need to go back to review last week’s episode of Fringe, considering that I saw it quite a few days late and it wasn’t particularly spectacular, but there was some interesting conversation about the show on Twitter that I wanted to comment on. Alan Sepinwall, having moved to his new home at HitFix was asked on Twitter about why he wasn’t writing about Fringe at the new site, and he responded by noting that the show had fallen out of his rotation before the move, and it just wasn’t compelling to him at this point. This resulted in responses begging Alan to reconsider, as the episodes since the Spring hiatus have been particularly strong and no one could understand why he remained unmoved.
I was more compelled by the show’s Spring episodes than Alan, but watching “Northwest Passage” I found myself thinking back to his commentary – while there are some fun elements of this episode, there is a manipulative quality to the episode which keeps me at a distance from the story at hand. The conclusion is big and bombastic, but it ends up having nothing to do with the episode itself, and I find the show at its most frustrating when it creates moments which seek to overpower, rather than crystallize, earlier elements in each episode. It’s the sort of crass serialization that got Abrams in trouble on Alias, and I think the show needs to be wary of it.
“The Man from the Other Side”
April 22nd, 2010
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have been caught up in thesis edits last week, as I thought “White Tulip” was such a pitch-perfect installment of Fringe that it deserved some sort of mention. The episode had a twisty narrative which was meant to be disorienting rather than confusing, a standalone emotional struggle which echoed the serialized emotional struggle that Walter is dealing with, and Peter Weller in a really enjoyable guest turn which built to that absolutely fantastic penultimate scene which was so poetic that I didn’t really know how to react. It is without a question the show’s most arresting standalone story, and the kind of episode that both rewards long-term viewers (in providing another chapter to Walter’s struggles with his darkest secret) and crafts a compelling science fiction narrative in its own right.
I’ve written in the past about how I don’t necessarily think that this show is that much better when it becomes “serialized,” and that those kinds of standalone installments are just as capable of tapping into the emotional core of this series. “The Man from the Other Side” further demonstrates this point, to my mind: while effectively creepy and emotional in its own right, the clear return to serialization makes the episode actually feel more procedural than “White Tulip” was. It’s a solid episode, certainly another in a string of successful hours since the show returned from its hiatus, but I think I prefer a subtle nod towards the show’s serialized story than a traditional mystery surrounding the two universes.
April 1st, 2010
In its promotions for the show, FOX sells Fringe based on the tagline “New Cases. Endless Possibilities.” But what’s interesting, and ultimately enormously compelling, about “Peter” is that the possibilities aren’t endless at all: we know what happened to Peter at the age of 7, and we know the key parties involved, so the show isn’t interested in endless possibilities so much as it is interested in interpreting what we already know.
There’s a challenge in this type of episode, especially for a show that has created such a strong dichotomy between its standalone episodes and its mythology-driven stories; fans may go in expecting answers to big questions, and while “Peter” offers a couple of interesting tidbits and some neat connections it is first and foremost a story about the limits of humanity as opposed to the potential of technology. It is a starkly human story, largely taking for granted its science fiction premise in favour of a fantastic depiction of a man struggling against the inevitable and risking everything to save a life that wasn’t his to save, to right a wrong that was not his fault.
In the process he changed the course of time and space, and this show became both possible and extremely compelling, but for this hour none of that mattered compared to the love shared between parents and their children. “Peter” is a stellar negotiation of Walter Bishop and his dances with the dark side of morality, and in the hands of John Noble and with some nice stylistic flourishes, it is certainly one of the show’s strongest hours, if one that they’ll never be able to duplicate again.