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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.

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Fringe – “The Equation”

fringetitle2

“The Equation”

November 18th, 2008

In a burst of inspiration over the weekend, I wrote a piece about the sort of transitional state of Fringe, a procedural series that people expect to offer heavily serialized content; it appears to have various states of being, and the confusion between them has kept me (to this point) from really becoming a fan of the show. Yes, there have been high points (“The Observer” has got to be on everyone’s list), but the uneven nature of the show’s opening episodes have made falling in love with Fringe a problematic scenario.

No longer, however – “The Equation” was maybe the show’s best episode yet, one which felt less contrived (if not entirely organic) and infinitely more personal than most of what we’ve seen so far. Much as “The Observer” delved deeper into Walter and Peter’s personal lives in search of an answer to a question about the Pattern and how it operates, “The Equation” takes Walter back to his time at St. Claire’s Hospital and it send us on a creepy and atmospheric journey into a quest to solve the end of an unsolvable equation.

Yes, the show still feels a bit like a low stakes Alias at points, but this episode combined some of the most interesting qualities of Alias’ mythology while focusing on the dramatic pathos of the right character at the right time. I’m not quite ready to see it as a trend, perhaps, but I was enraptured and hooked on tonight’s episode and, well, might just now call myself a fan.

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Fringe – “The Arrival”

“The Arrival”

September 30th, 2008

I was busy finishing off an assignment for Wednesday on Tuesday evening, and as a result delayed the watching of my (ridiculous number) of Tuesday night shows. So while I’ll be covering the rest in a bit of Cultural Catchup likely spread out over the weekend, I believe it is in the best interest of everyone who’s been following Fringe to get their two cents in on the first episode of the series that seems to actually be unquestionably interesting.

Now, I say interesting instead of good because the jury is still out on the latter: the show received its full season order after good stability airing behind House, but the actual trajectory of the series was fairly unclear. But “The Arrival” marks, well, the arrival of some very interesting things that deserve our attention, and I believe the attention of most viewers. Co-written by J.J. Abrams and Jeff Pinkner, Alias alum both, the episode introduced the first signs of a serialized narrative that isn’t entirely related to Massive Dynamic, ended on the show’s most successful cliffhanger yet, and made great strides in making both the series’ male and female leads more interesting characters in terms of their relationship with The Pattern.

In other words, it has taken the series from “Curiousity” to “Compelling” in one fell swoop…for me, at least.

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Fringe – “The Same Old Story”

“The Same Old Story”

September 16th, 2008

“Would you just talk like a person?”

Peter Bishop asks his father this question at the halfway point of Fringe’s second episode, and I couldn’t agree more: except that I’d apply this to Peter, and Olivia and just about every other character on the show. Because at this point, it seems like nothing that happens in Fringe is something that would happen to people, and that nothing they say seems to make any sense to anyone but the crazy person who created it all, in theory, seventeen years previous.

In the show’s pilot, this felt like an introduction into a new world, a world where things would be different and where mysteries would take on new contexts. However, what “The Same Old Story” offers is…the same old serial killer story, just with some fairly gimmicky applications of the fringe science the show is hinging its success on. Now, you could say that this is nothing new: The X-Files was essentially the same process, and Alias was your normal spy-type show but with Rambaldi’s artifacts as the reason behind the missions.

But Fringe buys into its own hype: too often the music bombasts to the point of self-indulgence, the characters talk about their own intelligence in a way that feels entirely unnatural, and the episode’s attempt at creating an emotional connection between Olivia and this week’s case is ultimately undermined by our lack of time spent with these characters in such a context.

More importantly, though, there was absolutely nothing fun about Fringe – the charm of the characters were either forced or so overpowered by the impending dread that the show never had a chance to breathe. The result is an episode that felt overlong, overtired, and an example of a show that still has me wondering just how this will turn into a series…or, even if the parts are present, wondering whether Orci and Kurtzman have the smarts to put it all together.

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Series Premiere: Fringe – “Pilot”

“Pilot”

September 9th, 2008

One of the fascinating things about Fringe is that, at its core, it is many things we normally associate with lesser television series. It’s blindly derivative of The X-Files, is a procedural in an era where the term is a dirty word, and J.J. Abrams’ creative influence feels like a simplified version of Alias. Combine with a rather outrageous sense of psuedoscience that takes some time to get into, and there’s plenty of reasons why Fringe could have been a disappointment.

But it’s not: from the opening scene, Fringe raises a central question that begs an answer, a scientific mystery that is caught up in something very large and, most importantly, something very real. I don’t mean real in the sense that this exists within our own universe, but that it is not some conspiracy trapped within pure shadows: yes, there is definite mystery, but the actual structure of the series represents a clear and, at least generally speaking, easy to follow setup in which these questions can be answered.

While this does mean that the show will not be quite the action-based and serialized rollercoaster that Lost or Alias were on occasion, it more importantly allows the show to focus on other things. In particular, there is some very strong character work throughout the episode, with strong performances and good scripting creating both interpersonal relationships and personal motivations that drive the action forward. While the result is a pilot that lacks the same punch as Abrams’ previous projects, it might actually be a better pilot at foregoing a few twists and turns (not that the ones in the episode are poor) in favour of building a sustainable foundation for the future.

Plus: that dude’s jaw totally just melted off.

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Pilot Preview – FOX’s “Fringe”

“Fringe”

Fall 2008 Pilot Preview

[As per pilot screener regulations, this is a preview and not a review. The content of the series may change between now and the show’s official airing, so all thoughts are of a preliminary nature pending said changes. For a full review, tune in for the show’s September premiere.]

When Fringe debuts in September, there are going to be a lot of comparisons made: to the past work of producer J.J. Abrams, to television’s last prominent science fiction procedural, and also to the rest of the pilots coming to the networks this fall. In all three cases, the show will play well – in its current form, Fringe is a tight series with a compelling cast, a winning premise and (most of all) the mythological underpinnings that drive any great piece of Abrams drama.

[Warning: The review will not feature any major spoilers, but there could be a few light ones as I make some comparisons to other series, so tread lightly if you’re worried about learning a single piece of the show’s plot.]

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