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SF Fanatic: The Problem With Fringe

Fringe has reached it’s ‘Winter Break’ and I think it’s a good time to look back at a season and a half of episodes and try to explain what the problem(s) with Fringe are, as I see them, and why this keeps Fringe as a merely good SF show, instead of a great one.

Let’s start off by acknowledging the elephant in the room: Fringe is riff, if not rip-off, of The X-Files. They both have two main leads on opposite sides of the faith/science debate (Fringe less so), storylines that are heavily influenced by supernatural or horror, and an overarching mythology that drives each season. Since The X-Files is one of the best SF shows ever on TV, riffing on them shouldn’t come as a surprise. You might as well ‘leverage’ from the best! But, so far, Fringe does not come close to The X-Files in terms of overall greatness.

The Characters

The first thing you’ll notice on any series is the characters. If they’re interesting, they’ll bring you back every week and help carry the show over rough patches. The X-Files had two of the most iconic characters in SF TV history in Mulder and Scully. Living up to them and their relationship is a tall order and something that Fringe fails, with one exception, at.

Fringe gives us three main characters in Olivia Dunham, Peter Bishop and Walter Bishop. Whereas Scully’s beliefs played a huge role in her actions, Olivia seems to react to events and lets them shape her. It doesn’t help that I don’t find the character of Olivia to be all that interesting. Yes, she is intimately connected to the mythology of the show, but we’ve only had a couple of episodes where she’s had anything to do with the war between realities. In every other episode she is just there, a milquetoast character. She’s not awful, but not really all that interesting. That could change, and I hope it does, as her involvement deepens, but right now she’s my least favorite character, which is a problem for a lead.

Peter Bishop is a bit more interesting, or, given the glimpses into his past, he should be. But again, with a couple of exceptions, his past (and here I’m talking about his past in the ‘main’ reality) hasn’t really been a point of interest for the show. Now, his deep past is integral to the show going forward as seen in the last episode, and it’s this connection with Walter and the other reality that is very interesting. But then Fox decided to go on Winter Break just when this was getting amped up. (Aside: What’s with the breaking in the middle of a season? Fringe already had a break over Christmas and now they’re taking another one? Really? At least it isn’t a months long break like Stargate Universe. For God’s sake, SGU has DVDs of the first 10 episodes coming out and the season isn’t even over!)

Walter Bishop is the single most interesting character on Fringe, hands-down, and one of the most interesting characters on a SF show in a long time. Walter is played brilliantly by John Noble who is able to bring out the best and worst in Walter’s mentally unstable psyche. That such a childlike persona can co-exist with a ruthlessly scientific mind may be hard to accept, but Noble pulls it off, effortlessly switching between the two seemingly between sentences. Add in his backstory with Peter and you have a tragic character who is trying, and not always succeeding, to find redemption for himself and reconciliation with his son. Walter’s story is one of the main reasons I keep watching Fringe. If there’s one fault to Walter, it’s one of the writers, not the character. Walter appears to be a modern day polymath, conversant, if not an expert in, almost every branch of scientific inquiry needed to solve each episode’s riddle. Many times he’s been involved in experiments germane to the issue at hand. If you thought the explanations bordered on ridiculous, Walter’s knowledge seems almost omniscient.

Both shows have a cast of secondary characters, but Fringe‘s can’t hold a candle to The X-Files here: The Smoking Man, Cigarette Man, Director Skinner, Kryczek and more. Fringe has Nina Sharp, Agent Broyles and Astrid. They just can’t compare.

The Episodes

By episodes I mean the stand-alone episodes and not the ones that deal specifically with the shows mythology. Since we’re dealing with what are basically episodic shows that just happen to have mythology underpinnings, we get mostly stand-alone episodes with the occasional sprinkling of story-arc ones.

The big issue for Fringe here is that the writers are trying to tie the events in each episode into the ‘Pattern’ and thus they try to make the explanations ‘scientific’. Indeed, the term fringe refers to fringe science, but many of the explanations are so out there they may as well be technobabble. For a show that tries have a scientific basis, this reliance on, basically, ‘magic’ is very disappointing. I can accept this level of babble in something like Eureka or Warehouse 13 but they aren’t taking themselves seriously.

The X-Files goes in the opposite direction and uses various supernatural/fantastical ideas and urban legends as the starting point for its faith vs. reason theme. Let’s face it, any show that uses the Chupacabra as a story point isn’t trying to traffic in the ‘real’ or scientific, like Fringe. It’s like Fringe has put a straightjacket on themselves in the type of stories they can tell and are forced to shoe horn ideas in using nonsensical ‘science’. Many times I’ve reacted with a “Oh, come on!” said out loud.

One other area I’ll stick here is in terms of the ‘gross out’ factor of both shows. The X-Files had a more ‘let the audience imagine it’ vibe to it while Fringe doesn’t hesitate to be as gross and disgusting as they can be at 8/7 Central. To me that’s the easy way to do things and I prefer The X-Files‘ approach.

The Mythology

This is the one area where I feel Fringe is superior to The X-Files. The story arc of warring realities has been part of the show since day one and allows the writers and creators to write stories driving toward a definite end. In fact, I’ve seen rumblings that the show runners would like to have an end date for the show, a la LOST, to give them something to drive toward. In any event, having a definite idea for the direction of the mythology makes each episode that deals with it feel ‘right’, and not tacked on. I also really like the idea of warring realities. It’s not something that’s prevalent on TV, even if it’s been written about quite about in SF.

The X-Files also had a cool mythology dealing with an alien invasion of Earth and how the ‘chosen’ humans would deal with that. Sadly, Chris Carter has said that he was making it up as the show went along and coupled with an open-ended end date, the mythology eventually collapsed under its own weight and inconsistencies. Unfortunate really as the early seasons of The X-Files are some of the best, with season 3 being a stellar combo of stand-alone and mythology episodes.

Ironically, Fringe‘s backstory is also its main problem. Being an open-ended series, as of right now, the writers can’t really drive toward any resolution of the mythology. They’ll have to vamp and slowly dribble bits of information in an effort to drag it out as long as possible. Add in the fact that they can’t have every episode deal with the mythology and you have a recipe for a series that winds up wandering around with little seeming direction, like LOST seasons 2 and the first half of 3. This is going to keep Fringe from becoming a great show. They need to be able to drive toward a resolution to ramp up the tension and interest (again, see LOST since the middle of season 3 when an end date was announced). This is a problem with all serialized shows, more so if you have a mix of episodes like Fringe. A lack of an end date and being unable to resolve the backstory is really keeping Fringe in the ‘good’ category when it could become great.

Granted, The X-Files, at least for the first 4 or 5 season was great, but Fringe hasn’t come close, overall, the The X-Files in terms of quality. Maybe a definite end would amp up the writers.

We can only hope as I’d really like to see some great SF on TV, especially since LOST is ending soon.

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

13 Comments on SF Fanatic: The Problem With Fringe

  1. Well the biggest problem are the standalones. They just dilute the power of the main story, break the focus and weaken the drive. I mean four standalones in a row? C’mon. After that and a Christmas break before you just forget what the whole arc is about or worse – you lose interest.

    The power of Lost or Flashforward is that it keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole season, full on. Fringe, not so much. And what’s worse, the standalones are just not that interesting or entertaining. The Colombo style “closed episodes” model is just too old fashioned and obsolete.

    For those who still didn’t give Fringe a shot I say – wait for the grand finale, then get it on DVD and watch only the “arc” episodes first. That way, it will be a great TV sci-fi experience.

  2. slothflyer // February 11, 2010 at 7:40 am //

    I think the biggest problem with Fringe is that the standard (xfiles) by which it is compared is to great.  No one compares Warehouse 13 to X-files or Bones or Sanctuary to Primeval. 

    Also, look at all the crappy sf that is playing now:  Flash Forward, V, Lost, Caprica…


    I for one love Fringe.  Especially Walter Bishop.

  3. Thank you for a thoughtful discussion.

    Fringe is more potential than reality. I watch each week hoping they get it right, or close, and each week something disappoints me. Generally, the episodes begin well enough, but they always take a weak turn.

     On characters: I am sorry to say that I do not really like the Peter character. The actor is fine, but doesn’t carry the part for me. Every episode contains a moment when Olivia defers to Peter, who seems to be an impossibly vast store of experience and brilliance. In a recent episode, Olivia enters with a list of addresses; it takes Peter to observe which one is the most likely target. This small example is the one I remember at this moment: every episode contains the same, or similar, happening. I understand that Peter has to perform some task beyond keeping Walter in line. I just think the show would be stronger if it focused on Olivia. She is an FBI agent. She must have some skills beyong those given her by Bishop and Bell.

         Having said that, I did like the direction taken in last episode, with Olivia seeing Peter’s glimmer. That should be fun to deal with. When Peter realizes his nature, it will provide a justified look at the character.  

         Astrid is sadly neglected. Here we have a smart character with linguist, computer and biology training. She should be out with Olivia once and a while. Or could the Walter and Astrid have an episode all their own? Maybe they go on a conference together.

         My biggest problem with the series so far is the unrelenting repetition of the plot patterns. It’s basically the same arc week to week. Olivia struggles to remember/understand, Peter swoops in with another secret skill, Walter reveals something about his past that moves the plot along. I would like to learn more about the observers. And what about that freaky typewriter and the shapeshifters? What about the agent at the beginning of season two, the one investigating the whole deal. Why was she there? Is she coming back?

       I guess I’d sum up my Fringe feelings as: less Peter, more Olivia, Astrid, and Walter.


  4. I wish the show were just Walter and Astrid.  Both characters play off each other so well, whether it’s in the lab or knee-deep in some horror in the field.  They should just spin them off now.

  5. The best 3 characters in the show are Walter, Astrid and the cow… I can’t believe none of you have mentioned the cow already… The idea of an episode of just Walter and Astrid is a great idea and I hope its one that gets realised.

    The problem with Oliva is that she’s just a cipher, she is there to give the boys the authority to walk onto crime scenes and confiscate the bodies. After that she just gets to run around and ask fairly meaningless questions that give us back exposition. Peter is good/excellent when they are doing father and son stuff with him and Walter but he is also used in a sort of deus ex machana way to give them access to ‘resources they can’t get from the FBI’, like hackers and techno nerds. *HUH* they also want him to be the leading action man at times which just spreads his character a bit to thin for my liking.

    To me it seems the show can’t decide if its just an episodic show looking at weird science of if its meant to have an on going story arc. The interaction between arc episodes and none arc ‘filler’ episodes (of which there are too many) is too patchy to give the story arc much credence, as the article mentions I think this probably has a lot to do with the show being open ended, and them being aware of the mess Carter found himself in with X files.

    For me the show gets a soild 6.5/10, occasionally it can be riviting but equally it can also be deeply annoying (bizarre insane technobable that makes trek sound plausible being the worst thing). I wish they would give it an end date and free the writers to build towards it.

  6. Martin Sommerfeld // February 13, 2010 at 12:40 pm //

    I mostly agree. Especially about Olivia being not so interesting and the “magic” you are spot on.

    I am actually interested in Peters past, but mostly we just learn that he knows shop X and guy Y ows him a favor.. such a shame. And the recent BIG revelation was obvious for quite some time, so that wasn’t such a big deal for me. I would be interested to learn HOW it happened, though.

    A lot of the recent problems are home-made by Fox and the producers IMHO. They had such a great season 1 finale, so everyone wanted to know what happens next. And what do they do? They wait and stall and wait some more until they go on with the story arc. Meanwhile they introduce a new, seemingly important characte, let’s call her “bible-girl”, only to FORGET ABOUT HER for all episodes up till now. So, we never know, was she important or not? And to top it all they really bring us a new-old stand-alone episode from season one where one recently killed character comes “back” without any explanation, not even some 2 minute scene of olivia dreaming about an old case or something like that.

    So, I am sorry, with all the evident flaws of the show, you really shouldn’t treat your show like that. If you do please don’t wonder that some problems emerge.

    Anyway, I still have high hopes for Fringe, because most importantly: The story arc (or mythology) really rocks.


  7. I disagree completely with the idea that the X-Files is the gold standard.  I like Fringe a lot better.  I got annoyed with the “will they” and “won’t they” relationship between Scully and Mulder.  Yes, Fringe is doing this a little with Peter and Olivia, but it’s usually fairly subtle.  Of course, maybe by the end it will be just as bad as X-Files.

    I also got annoyed with the “this isn’t possible” attitude from Scully after years of being proven wrong (a true scientist would have changed long before).  Everyone in Fringe at least acknowledges there is a lack of knowledge and strange things are happening.  Though, I agree the lack science is annoying.

    My biggest complaint with the X-Files is the mythology. 

    The X-Files (Fringe is starting to do this) wallowed around for so long you forgot half the main story by the end.  I didn’t really care about all the “Chupacabra” or non-story line episodes at all. 

    The mythology/big story arc for the X-Files also seemed very disjointed.  It’s not surprising they didn’t know where they were going.  Fringe seems to know where they are going, but it may be ruined if they drag it out too long.

    One last thing is that the Walter Bishop character is spectacular.  Other than the smoking man, who is barely in the show, there is no other character in X-Files of the same caliber.

  8. I agree with Chad, i liked fringe more than x-files. i have only watched season1 of Fringe but at least it kept me intersted in the show. the problem with seris i think they extend it too long so it became boring and losing fans. i have stopped watching lost, prison break & 24 after one or 2 seasons. one show i,m still watching is bones. they are promoting for  V  to be aired soon in my country  , but i haven,t watch it yet to judge

  9. I stopped watching Fringe I think about four or five episodes before the S2 finale.  My main problem was the inconsistancies and seeming out of character motivations–mostly Olivia and Peter. Personally, I enjoyed the stand alone eps of X-Files much more than when they got bogged down in back story or mythology as it is known here.  Same with Fringe.

    I think the idea of a show based on Walter, Astrid, and the cow is fantastic!

  10. @mksmash – I can’t help but feel that you probably stopped watching Fringe at exactly the wrong moment, those last few episodes of season 2 contain some brilliant TV, they do a lot to develope the long term story arc and it fills in a lot of the blanks in a way that explains a lot more about the characters and made them a lot more plausible for me.

    Season 3 is also getting off to a great start, where it seems to be a coherrent tv series with less emphasis on ‘monster of the week’ and more on working the mythology. I know you said you enjoyed the stand alone X-Files more but I wonder if that is because the on-going plot became so garbled and confused… but its looking like Fringe is actually going to make a decent stab at getting it right from the outset.

  11. Well, they have a great potential now…a cross season cliffhanger which consesequences turned the tables over, ambivalent motivations and characters. Could be a nice drama, but I am afraid, they’ll turn into father’s trip in revenge to destroy the universe…

  12. Carol72156 // November 29, 2010 at 4:07 pm //

    Wow – very interesting discussion and could this be … all male input?  Yes, I agree that Fringe and the X-Files have certain elements in common.  Each series grabs me in different ways.  Maybe my perspective is unique since I am not watching the episodes a week apart from each other since Day 1 but just discovered the series and catching up as quickly as I can.  For me, Olivia comes across as strong, decisive and totally carries her own.  Her determination to find answers about and with John Scott was a superb story line.  She absolutely rocks the house!  Walter, of course, cracks me up and he is my other favorite character with the cow coming in a close third.  As a sci fi tv series afficianado, my vote is that Fringe is definitely one of the best. 

  13. Alex Xendziuk // December 11, 2010 at 9:52 am //

    from Ukraine (republic of the former USSR)

    Sorry for my English. But I will try to express what I think about these serials.

    I think that Fringe and X-Files are very different. It’s impossible to compare them.

    First, if X-Files mostly traditional serial, then Fringe – something as though epos, to long history which has beginning and end.

    Second, Fringe is much more creative. I mean a plot of a story. Watching first and second seasons I took notice how much unexpected turns of plot in the serial.

    Third, such actor as real star like John Noble make this serial one of the best of Science Fiction TV shows! He is an unbelievable actor! He can to play using only his eyes!


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