Women on the Verge, Part I
Logos © 2009 Fox, © 2008 Warner Bros.
To the great anticipation of "genre" buffs and admirers of quality television in general, J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon both premiered new series on Fox last season. Fringe, created by Abrams with his Star Trek screenwriting team of Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, has just gone on midwinter hiatus. Whedon's Dollhouse [dead link] ended its erratic run of just over two dozen episodes last week.
I began what became this post, believe it or not, last February — yep, one year ago, the same month this blog began. As I jotted down notes on the still-new Fringe, which had refocused itself a bit after more than a month off the air, I thought it might be interesting to play compare-and-contrast with the Abrams and Whedon oeuvres come Dollhouse's imminent debut. Both men were known for writing strong women within strong ensembles, and both new shows featured female leads in sci-fi settings.
A few weeks after the long-in-coming Dollhouse premiere, still wrestling with my feelings for that show, I had to admit that the most relevant difference between the series from a review standpoint was this: Fringe was good.
"While it's painful to say," I wrote, "after three episodes I don't know if Dollhouse is even promising. Having seen what Whedon is capable of in Buffy [the Vampire Slayer], I'll keep watching; based on his track record, and not just out of wishful thinking, I believe that things could turn around. But if I were coming to the series cold I'd probably already be gone."
The fact that I kept falling behind on Dollhouse delayed this post repeatedly. Given that my enjoyment of Fringe only grew, I should've published my musings on it (many now out of date) solo, but here we are. Dollhouse's concept and execution had serious problems that lasted until the very end, despite the general acknowledgement of a resurgence late in the game; now, behind yet again, I have the luxury of catching up at my leisure, and I've spent too much time chewing on it not to post a retrospective when I'm done. For now, though, I'll focus on...
Fringe promotional poster © 2008 Warner Bros.
"Physics is a bitch." — William Bell
I can't say for sure, having been a faithful viewer from the start, but it felt like Fringe provided an admirable jumping-on point with the Season Two premiere, "A New Day in the Old Town". FBI agent Olivia Dunham made a spectacular entrance, hurtling out onto the scene of a collision in the streets of New York from the front windshield of what had been an empty, parked SUV. As the recap reminded us, we last saw her being greeted in a parallel universe by the mysterious William Bell — although she had no memory of the trip.
The relentless investigation of the collision, and of Olivia's classified caseload, by Agt. Amy Jessup gave writers Abrams and Akiva Goldsman (who also directed) the opportunity to summarize the series' premise: Dunham was recruited onto a special task force charged with following a chain of bizarre and deadly events known as the Pattern. These events often echo experimental work done for the US government in the late 1970s by a somewhat literally mad scientist, Walter Bishop, whose hyper-intelligent grifter son, Peter, was tracked down by Dunham to secure Bishop's release from a mental institution and keep him as grounded as possible. Also linked to the Pattern time and again is Massive Dynamic, a powerful, high-tech corporation managed by one Nina Sharp and founded by the reclusive Bell, Bishop's former research partner. Fringe Division is supervised by Agt. Phillip Broyles of Homeland Security; Dunham works out of both the FBI's Boston office and Bishop's old lab at Harvard, where Walter is assisted by the patient, multitalented, awesomely named Agt. Astrid Farnsworth.
"Truthfully, I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about what human brains would taste like." — Agt. Farnsworth
Fringe's move last fall to Thursdays at 9 p.m. — opposite CSI, Supernatural, and 30 Rock — meant that most of my current favorite shows were scheduled in direct opposition to one another. The time slot was actually a vote of confidence from Fox, in hopes that Fringe could maintain its demographically appealing audience amidst such fierce competition (besides the above, the hour is home to Grey's Anatomy and The Office) on the night that demands the most advertising dollars, thanks largely to films opening Friday and other anticipated weekend spending. Still, its ratings have taken an inevitable hit, and I know from personal experience that convincing folks who gave up on Fringe during its first season to try it again is awfully hard given the night's glut of tempting TV.
Olivia: "You're saying that I can talk to John in a coma, and he can tell me what the suspect looks like?"
Walter: "It's not an exact science."
A frequent complaint about Season One was the perception that Olivia, played by Anna Torv, was unrelatably, unrelentingly dour. Having rewatched the pilot on DVD recently (well, back in September, when a version of this post was briefly published), I can confirm both that she smiled in her very first scene and that she had good reason to be guarded thereafter, as the race to figure out the fatal pathogen that had infected her lover, fellow agent John Scott, uncovered evidence that recast him in a treasonous light. Torv never struck me as one-note at all, and I found her lack of glamour appealing. I was much more concerned early on that John Noble's performance as quirkily addled genius Walter would become too precious, or that the oddly clipped, mannered voice of Peter, played by Joshua Jackson, would grate on me the way Vincent Kartheiser's does on Mad Men (for the most part, thankfully, they haven't). But Olivia's sister and niece were brought in to humanize her, while the questions over John's allegiance and the lingering fragments of his consciousness in Olivia's mind as a result of events in the pilot were laid to rest in the February 2009 episode "The Transformation" (which aired just as news hit that Torv had quietly married Mark Valley, who played John Scott and now stars in the Fox series Human Target — so far lacking the charm of Valley's Keen Eddie, the too-short-lived series that introduced the dozen of us who watched it to Sienna Miller as well).
"If only all parasitic worms were full of narcotics!" — Walter Bishop
Another turnoff for some viewers was the "ick" factor, which did surprise me in its intensity. The special effects on the pilot were jaw-dropping, by which I mean not only that they were impressive but that one character's jaw actually dropped off. Just when I thought that either the series had backed off on the gore, membranes, and general squirm-inducement this season, we got an episode about giant parasitic worms in December and, in this week's clash of the alternate universes, multiple bodies existing in the same place at the same time with truly disturbing results.
Olivia: "Did you eat?"
Olivia: "Well. That's unfortunate."
Creators Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman discussed their considerable David Cronenberg influence, likely source of the visceraphilia, on the pilot's DVD commentary track, well worth a listen. Abrams speaks very intelligently of his own work and others', and the trio also covers the series' casting, those floating letters that indicate locations (a cousin to Alias's motif and inspired by the film Panic Room), why opening the show aboard a plane had nothing to do with Lost, the genius of Michael Giacchino (who in addition to scoring various Abrams projects has worked on Pixar's The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Up, for which he just became an Oscar nominee again), and the perils of conspiracies, backstories, and master plans in series television.
"Why are shapeshifters from another universe stealing frozen heads?" — Agt. Broyles
The producers were wary about delving too deeply into Fringe's mythology too early, based on their own experiences with Alias and the cautionary tale of The X-Files — another of the show's inspirations, obviously, homaged in the second-season opener when it was implied that Fringe Division was a direct successor to the work done by Fox Mulder and friends. But audience feedback indicated that too many tantalizing hints about the Pattern, William Bell, and Olivia's potential connection to both were being introduced without much sense of cohesion. So the home stretch of Season One threw out lots of answers about Fringe's universe, chief among them confirmation that we were dealing with universes, plural: When enigmatic antagonist David Robert Jones returned to play mind games with Olivia, we learned that as a child she'd been part of drug trials conducted by Bell and Walter Bishop designed to induce or augment various psychic abilities, but had no recollection of that time. Jones was revealed to be an adherent of a group called ZFT, named for a manuscript written by Bell and founded to prepare for a conflict between our universe (or the version of it in which Fringe takes place, anyway) and another. And we discovered that a member of the Fringe Division team was, though unaware of it, native to that other universe.
Peter: "I don't need any crepes."
Walter: "Oh, don't be ridiculous. You were abducted. Of course you need crepes!"
While many of the answers have been wrapped in more questions, it's always satisfying for series with an overarching intelligent design to develop certain threads, rewarding loyal viewers who enjoy each episode as a chapter of a sprawling novel and reassuring them that the storytellers are working with consistency and cohesion if not a definite conclusion. Season Two has introduced shapeshifters from the other universe working as a sort of advance guard for the coming war, provided a truly bizarre explanation for the gaps in Walter's memory that led to his institutionalization, and given us an unexpected spotlight on the cryptic Observers. I've been surprised not to see more of Agt. Jessup from the second-season premiere, however, and that more hasn't been done with Massive Dynamic given that the Bishops have on more than one occasion now been granted relatively open access to (or at least cooperation from) their labs.
So far there's also been plenty for more casual Fringe viewers to enjoy, too, although the urgency of Thursday night's "Jacksonville" suggests that when the show returns in April we're in for an emphasis on the alternate-universe antagonists. One of the great pleasures of The X-Files and, more recently, Supernatural is that even as their procedural premises gave way to greater focus on the series' mythologies, there were plenty of stand-alone standout episodes to be had, and Fringe has operated along similar lines. There's also been plenty of humor, most of it stemming from Walter's uninhibited glee over milkshakes, morbid experiments, and mind-altering substances, but also born of the absurdity the characters have come to expect as part of the job. Perhaps my single favorite shot of the series is of Astrid, Walter, Peter, and Gene the Cow eating Chinese take-out in the lab while watching Spongebob Squarepants.
"Once you are given the order to put on the headphones, do not remove them under any circumstances. If you do, you may die a gruesome and horrible death. Thank you for your attention and have a nice day!" — Walter Bishop
Those of you unfamiliar with Fringe could do much worse after the logjam of February's sweeps programming subsides than to watch Season One on DVD, then catch up with as much of Season Two as Hulu, your friends' DVRs, or your iTunes budget will allow before new episodes resume in April. The ethical, existential dilemmas raised by the Pattern plotlines are intriguing, but the show is hardly for science-fiction fans only. The acting is solid, the dialogue is crisp, the relationships are genuine, the stakes are high, and the action is intense. Like I said, Fringe is good, and it might even be great.