During an unusual case, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Torv) is recruited by Homeland Security officer Phillip Broyles (Reddick) to investigate a series of paranormal phenomena known as ‘the pattern’. Out of her depth, she tracks down Walter Bishop (Noble), a genius former expert in pseudo-scientific experiments and fringe science, who’s been institutionalised for the past 17 years. Also enlisting the help of his estranged jack-of-all-trades son Peter (Jackson), the trio form a special Fringe Division and their investigations lead them to a rogue scientific terrorist cell who are preparing for a doomsday event…
Regardless of his level of day-to-day involvement, any show co-conceived by the mind of JJ Abrams is certain to draw the attention of genre fans. With Alias, he created a compelling spy-fi saga where missions-of-the-week were elevated to near-greatness by a sprawling mythology, and with Lost he helped give birth to television that has become the very definition of serialised, can’t-miss-an-episode viewing. But importantly (and disappointingly), after musing on the difficulty of attracting mainstream viewers to densely-serialised TV, Abrams and his co-creating duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci were quick to point out that Fringe was purposefully designed to have a more procedural feel, playing out mostly with self-contained episodes…
As such, those hoping for a signature serial-format JJ Abrams experience will be left wanting. Despite a healthy sprinkling of minor clues to the over-arching bigger picture, the opening run in particular is comprised of stand-alone adventures, which frustratingly slip into repetition pretty quickly (monstrous occurrence connected to Walter’s past work, Peter is sarcastic, Olivia is po-faced). Of course, the typically high-concept mystery behind all the freaks-of-the-week remains intriguing, but anyone looking for another Lost will likely jump ship after the first eight or nine instalments.
Which, it turns out, is a shame given that the ‘arc’ episodes themselves are arguably worth sticking around for. So much so in fact, that you become increasingly frustrated that JJ and his creative team didn’t just embrace the serialised storytelling style which they’re blatantly more comfortable with, instead of trying to merge it with the more mainstream-accepted procedural format. Thankfully, when Akiva Goldsman was later brought on board he helped the writers realise that it was actually the mythology instalments that the audience was responding to, and not the self-contained X-Files-type monsters.
Speaking of, it’s simply impossible to review Fringe without mentioning Chris Carter’s ’90s alien conspiracy phenomenon. While there’s obvious shades of The Twilight Zone – not to mention the fact that Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman reportedly sited the influence of David Cronenberg’s body horror – comparisons with The X-Files are obvious and inescapable. That said, while Mulder and Scully’s investigations mostly operated on the outskirts of sci-fi believability, here the unexplained phenomenon is frequently explained, and done so via pure science fiction which varies in terms of how much you’re required to suspend your disbelief. Varying from slight supsension to essentially launching it out the window.
Still, the show sparkles whenever John Noble’s Walter Bishop is on screen. Flitting back and forth between scientific super-genius and quirky, senile liability, he’s a scene-stealing delight, whether offering obscure remarks at inappropriate times (“I just got an erection!”), milking the laboratory cow or being just plain eccentric (approvingly noting that Spongebob Squarepants is “surprisingly profound for a narrative about a sponge”). To be honest, it begins to grate that so much of the weird occurrences link back to Walter’s previous work (how much did he actually do in this time?), but he’s very much the main reason for watching.
Elsewhere, Anna Torv received much criticism for her largely frosty, smile-less demeanour and Joshua Jackson is often shackled with the thankless task of interpreting Walter’s crazy theories to those of us who don’t speak advanced science. At times, the latter’s interactions with his father borders on repetitive, yet as the bigger mystery starts to unfold all the puzzling comments and memories that don’t match up start to make sense. In smaller roles, Lance Reddick is both criminally underused and under-written to the point he’s merely there to deliver exposition in that deep, distinctive voice of his (little more character for him next time please), while the similarly-underused Jared Harris makes for a first-rate creepy villain.
Though designed as a more episode-of-the-week type show than the serialised likes of Lost, Fringe is at its strongest when focussing on the bigger, ongoing story. Giving up early is understandable, but stick with it for some gripping sci-fi instalments.