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 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.
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.
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.