Fringe: Big Bangs Theory

One of them has a fringe, geddit?

Preamble

I went to Starzplay for the Veronica Mars and stayed to rewatch Fringe, the decade-ago series that was the natural successor to The X Files — but without the alien conspiracy millstone. Three TV shows in one sentence, whatever next?

Turns out, my memories of the final two seasons of Fringe are almost non-existent, and I suspect that, back then, I either didn’t watch at all or paid scant attention. You needed a satellite subscription or DVD boxed set back then (2008–2013) to watch it, and I suspect that a lot of people didn’t. About 10 million people watched its first season in the USA, but that was down to just 4 million by the end. Frankly, it’s a small miracle that it survived into a (shorter) fifth season.

General ramblings about TV genre shows

One reason people might have not watched Fringe is that, in the wake of The X Files, the world was awash with loopy genre shows, in which teams of investigators encountered the technological sublime. I loved Alias, had a lot of time for Warehouse 13, and was perennially disappointed in Torchwood.

Fringe was also a Fox show, and people could be forgiven for not committing to it. Fox have a poor track record when it comes to cancelling genre shows before their time. The most notorious example of this is Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which was shitcanned after just 11 of its 14 episodes had aired. This incident still boggles the mind when you watch Firefly, because it was really good, with the same zingy scripts you’d expect from the Buffy stable. But, hey, I’m over it.

On the other hand, genre audiences are also notoriously fickle and unreliable, a weird hotchpotch of cheapskate entitlement and obsession (ask GRRM re The Winds of Winter) and very much prone to illegally downloading rather than stumping up for a subscription. An audience into SF has considerable crossover with the people who find technical workarounds and backdoors into illegal streams. So if you’re a cable channel and half of the obsessed audience aren’t paying, sure, cancel. Think how many people managed to watch (and have internet opinions about) Game of Thrones without ever paying for it.

(Fringe being on Starzplay is ironic, because Starz are guilty of cancelling the superb Counterpart after just two seasons.)

Crucially, Fringe has exactly 100 episodes, so it’s absolutely worth your time and attention. It’s enough to get solidly into it. In modern television terms, Fringe ran for 7–10 years, depending on what you consider to be a “standard” season these days. One wonders, if Firefly had been made in the era of 10-13 episode seasons, if it might have survived a bit longer. In a parallel universe maybe. In that parallel universe, by the way, The X Files ran for around 20 seasons.

A discussion of Fringe in which there might be spoilers

Talking of parallel universes… 

The premise of the show is similar to those mentioned above. A secret team of (FBI) agents are tasked with investigating weird phenomena, all of which fall under the umbrella term fringe science. There’s a giant technology company called Massive Dynamic which appears to be involved all too often, and its mysterious CEO, William Bell, falls under suspicion. At first it seems like monster-of-the-week X Files fare, but more science/technology based, and less concerned with alien conspiracy theories. Quickly, however, the stories coalesce around a particular past incident involving members of the main cast.

Walter Bishop (John Noble) is a former Harvard researcher who has spent several years in a psychiatric hospital. His past research seems to relate to many of the Fringe Division cases, and so, with the reluctant cooperation of his son Peter (Joshua Jackson), Fringe Division gets him out of the hospital and back into the lab to help them solve cases. The lead agent is Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who reports to Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), a stern and secretive man who seems to know more than he’s saying. The team is completed by Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), who acts as Walter’s minder, factotum, and lab assistant.

It all sounds deadly serious, but of course it’s not. This show is fun with a capital UN for unknown. Noble’s portrayal of Walter Bishop is hilarious, as he veers from Mad Scientist to mischievous imp, calling Astrid a thousand different wrong versions of her name, experimenting with drugs, demanding snacks, and milking the cow he keeps in the lab.

Meanwhile, Torv’s Olivia is an empathy machine, providing the audience with an emotional connection to the sometimes preposterous events on the screen. Her working relationship with Peter Bishop develops only slowly into romance, before being shattered by events at the end of the third season.

Meanwhile, we discover that a lot of the problems the team encounters have their root cause in the time a grief-stricken Walter opened a portal into a parallel universe in order to kidnap the dying son of the other Walter Bishop and – this time – cure his chronic disease.

So, yes! Parallel universe. And Fringe has so much fun with the idea, including a different title sequence, nerd-pleasing set dressings, and an opportunity for members of the cast to play their alternate selves: Walternate, Fauxlivia, Colonel Broyles, and a very different Astrid.

The show has even more fun with flashback episodes (complete with 80s-style title sequence), animated sequences, the obligatory musical episode, and more. And of course, the audience is in nerd heaven when Olivia visits the parallel universe and finally encounters William Bell, who is played by Leonard Nimoy. Even more fun is had later on when Anna Torv gets to play Olivia possessed by the uploaded intelligence of William Bell, producing a creditable Nimoy impersonation.

I mean.

One criticism I could level at the show is that it does not reward the casual viewer. The plot becomes so convoluted that even its core audience would struggle to keep track. It’s one to watch from the beginning and stay with (much easier now you can binge it all quite quickly). Another criticism is that the show does seem to lose its way a bit in Season 4, as (I imagine) the show runners negotiated the truncated Season 5 and had to come up with an ending before they were quite ready. So episode 19 of Season 4 leaps forward a couple of decades and then in episode 20 we’re back. I know what they were doing: deliberately evoking the weirdness of out-of-sequence broadcasting (which Fringe itself had suffered previously, and which Firefly famously suffered) whilst also setting up Season 5 and playing with the audience’s expectations as Buffy did at the beginning of its fifth season. But it doesn’t quite work as well as the other playful episodes: a little too on the nose.

In Covid times, there’s every reason to watch this. As we all know, TV production was halted during the pandemic, and so there’s going to be a bit of a drought of new shows. If you’ve never seen Fringe, it’s worth a look. It’s wide screen, HD, great fun, has a cracking cast and an exploding puzzle factory of mystery.

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