Tag Archives: The Pattern

Fringe – “Safe”

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“Safe”

December 2nd, 2008

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago wherein I talked about the gradual serialization that was causing some viewers of one of the season’s successful demo hits; Fringe may be from J.J. Abrams, but it was taking a lot longer to feel like it was capable of rising to the scale of the shows we most often associate with Abrams (Alias, Lost). I argued at the time that this was part of the appeal, that it was designed (as will be Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse) to appeal to two different sectors of viewers.

Well, I’d tend to argue that between last week’s solid “The Dreamscape” and the quite eventful and entertaining “The Safe,” Fringe has officially entered into the next phase of its serialization. Picking up, really, where “The Equation” left off, this episode felt like vintage Alias. It put together pieces that we didn’t know were pieces, brought various recurring characters into one central location, and revealed that our charisma-less heroine is more central to the series’ biggest questions than we realized.

What we got, finally, is an episode that felt meaningful: where the science was being used not to terrorize but to disrupt, and where both our characters and the conspiracy took on new roles that will lead to a better series once the show returns in January.

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In the World of J.J. Abrams, Fringe Watches You: Gradual Serialization and the Active Audience

[As part of an ongoing personal experiment designed to assist in deciding my academic future, it is my goal to complete short (by my standards) essays from a television studies perspective. If you find these more interesting than my usual writings, you can find a great online journal devoted to such efforts at the University of Texas at Austin’s FlowTV.]

fringetitle2In the World of J.J. Abrams, Fringe Watches You:

Gradual Serialization and the Active Audience

When Lost exploded out of the gate with a surprising amount of success in 2004, it created a domino effect on both sides of the screen. For the networks, it created a renewed interest in highly serialized television, spawning numerous shows that offered deep mythologies, interconnected stories, and science fiction-like premises. For the audience, meanwhile, it spawned new forms of what is often referred to as “active audience,” producing large fan communities speculating on the answers to questions and the keys to mysteries.

In 2008, however, the landscape is quite different. Prison Break, a much-hyped serialized drama, is in danger of cancellation, absent from FOX’s January schedule. Heroes, once NBC’s flagship drama series, has fired two executive producers amidst falling ratings and dwindling fan interest. Meanwhile, CBS recently tripled its ratings performance in a Friday night timeslot by replacing new drama ‘The Ex List’ with a repeat of crime procedural ‘NCIS,’ now one of their highest rated performers. Where serial dramas seem to be losing viewers every week, procedural dramas seem to be picking up steam at every interval.

And yet, there is still an emphasis in terms of the networks of searching and promoting for active audience: whether through online ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), message boards, or through online webisodes or comic books that fill in gaps in continuity or add extra bits of character information. In “A Specter is Haunting Television Studies,” Jeffrey Sconce of Northwestern University questions not the effectiveness of these tactics but rather their impact on the medium as a whole. He writes that “we should be compelled to ask if these “activities” actually serve us, or if they instead actively expand the demands and desires of television itself, the most seductive point-man in the overall ‘system of objects’ that wants us to continue serving as the Petri dishes in which it cultivates its own future sustenance.”

While Sconce is speaking specifically to those who practice television studies, as well as those who consume media, a question exists here about the people who create the shows themselves. For J.J. Abrams, who developed highly serialized shows such as Lost and Alias, there is an expectation that what he produces will follow their example, particularly amongst these types of active viewers. When FOX debuted Fringe, however, this expectation was thrown for a loop. This is a show that viewers jumped into expecting to find deep mythology, complex theories and scientific phenomenon of unknown origin – what they found instead was a highly formulaic if stylized procedural that, at a glacial pace, is introducing an overarching mythology.

It’s a new structure that requires viewers to relearn how to watch a show with Abrams’ name attached to it; and, if Abrams gets his way, he and his writing staff might be the ones to teach them.

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Fringe – “The Ghost Network”

“The Ghost Network”

September 23rd, 2008

After last week’s review of Fringe was viewed as quite harsh, I want to clarify one thing: I don’t dislike Fringe. I think that the series is struggling to find its own identity, dealing with a struggle to both represent a procedural drama regarding paranormal activity outside of the norm and some type of mythologically-driven science fiction epic on the scale of Lost.

The biggest problem with the series is that the second half of that is impossible (it will never be that type of show), whereas the first part is what the entire series hinges on. The show can pile up on Massive Dynamic or The Pattern all it darn well pleases, but if its characters and its storylines don’t operate weekly in a way that feels like something different from every other crime procedural on television. Last week’s episode felt like Criminal Minds with crazy science, which isn’t something I want to watch every week.

But this week represents a marked improvement: sure, there was still some rather silly exposition, and it was often handled by too smart by half Peter (Joshua Jackson), and the mystery so cleanly bringing things back to Walter’s research is going to get old quickly, but this is a sharper hour: the “Ghost Network” has broad implications for the Pattern, the show is starting to ask the right questions about Massive Dynamic, and Peter’s slow build into something resembling a character half as interesting as his father is something that the show will need to accomplish to remain strong.

And yet, the real reason that “The Ghost Network” is perhaps Fringe’s best episode yet is simple: it is an episode that feels fun, that is willing to balance out melodrama with levity, and that feels like a show I could actually enjoy without having to accept a thesis that presumes that nobody ever smiles except for the crazy scientist who doesn’t know any better.

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