Fringe, one of the best shows that hardly anybody seems to be watching, just finished its fourth season. I didn’t start watching quite from the beginning — somehow it flew under my radar initially, as it apparently has with a lot of people — but I started watching about halfway through the first season, and I haven’t missed an episode since.
It’s a fun show, it’s always entertaining, and it’s pretty good science fiction, which is a rarity on for a network show. And it’s got some truly great acting, particularly from John Noble and Anna Torv. But this last season in particular, I can’t help but feel like it’s gotten just a little bit lost in itself… and I’m not just trying to pun on the fact that it shares J.J. Abrams as a creator with Lost.
As often happens with a series that has a cool concept, the problem — and it’s not a big problem, I’ll admit — is that there’s the temptation to try and “top it”. For the past couple of seasons, Fringe has had its team dealing with the existence of an alternate universe, one that Walter Bishop (John Noble) traveled to in order to save that universe’s version of his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson) — this universe’s version having already died of a rare disease. Although the plot had its slow moments, it was an interesting set-up, and gave plenty of drama hooks and opportunities to bounce different characters’ personalities off of one another, and it gave the talented actors in the cast the opportunity to play very different personalities while still being the same character. John Noble’s dual performance as Walter and “Walternate” is the highlight, of course, with both being genius scientists but contrasting Walter’s befuddled friendliness with Walternate’s austere Templar-ish personality.
But this season, with the two universes bridged, the writers threw in an extra wrinkle. The machine that bridged the universes also altered the timeline. In this new timeline (designated by an amber title sequence, in contrast with the blue or red of the pre-bridge universes), Walter’s attempt to save Peter failed. Although Peter reappears after a few episodes due to cosmic irregularities, his impact on the world ended with his death as a child. Nobody remembers him as an adult, he didn’t work with Fringe Division on any cases, the child he had with the alternate Olivia (Anna Torv in either universe) was erased from history. And now one of the menaces he put an end to, David Robert Jones (Jared Harris) is back in action again, threatening both universes. (Also, somehow his non-existence led to the non-existence of Batman in the alternate universe. A season two — I think — episode had a background gag of a “Death of Batman” comic in the alternate universe; this season has the alternate universe Lincoln Lee be completely unfamiliar with Batman — they have M.A.N.T.I.S. instead, poking fun at the short-lived FOX tv show. It doesn’t really matter, but part of the fun of the alternate universe is catching those altered references, so I noticed.)
The basic problem with this season is that it was more than a little transparent about being an attempt by the writers to revisit storylines from the first season that they didn’t feel they gave enough attention to, or to change areas where they felt they had written themselves into a corner. David Robert Jones was a first-season threat, and his storyline ended rather abruptly with his death. So they bring him back, because in this altered timeline, Peter wasn’t there to kill him. And while some of the revisited stories are indeed improved in some respects — I have to say, the flying porcupine monster was a lot scarier than the non-flying variety — it’s pretty hard to ignore that they are, after all, being revisited. It all seems too familiar. Throw in the undoing of alternate-Broyles’ (Lance Reddick) death, Olivia regaining her original-timeline memories through Cortexaphan, even Walter’s gradual acceptance that this man is the son he tried to save, and the end result is that it starts to look like the writers were trying to have the best of both worlds; throw out the things they didn’t like about what they’d written, keep what they did. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an act of revision with such transparent motives in a TV show before.
There’s also a certain feeling that a bit of trust has been betrayed here. One of the things I really liked about the early seasons of Fringe was that it didn’t play games. If there was a mystery, it was resolved clearly, logically, and relatively quickly. There were some ongoing themes, but there was a sense that there was a single, definitive answer to “Is character X a good guy?”, or “What is group Y up to?”, even if hadn’t quite been revealed yet. With the altered timeline, it becomes more clear that they’re winging it, and are open to changing their minds. The new mastermind behind the plot to collapse the universes is William Bell, who in previous seasons was essentially benevolent. The altered timeline meant Walter had raged against the heavens for a while, and while he stepped back from the abyss, Belly eventually walked into it. While this does provide a reason for the show’s producers to talk Leonard Nimoy into returning for a few episodes (which is nice, even if it’s not quite as cool as watching Anna Torv’s eerily good Nimoy impersonation) it also feels a bit like it’s a change for the sake of making a change, a twist for the sake of shocking the audience rather than because that’s what the plot really demanded.
That’s not to say the season was all bad, though. In fact, I wouldn’t really say it was bad at all — just that the illusion that they had all their ducks in a row has been exposed. The episodes have been a lot of fun, even if sometimes familiar. And the actors continue to prove themselves to be one of the most adept ensemble casts on television. Introducing Lincoln Lee to the primary universe team has made Seth Gabel a more regular part of the cast, and he plays well off the others in both universes. And Jasika Nicole, who plays Astrid, finally got to really demonstrate her own acting range when the differences between main-Astrid and alternate-Astrid were finally shown in full. Main-Astrid is an extroverted people person, alternate-Astrid appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and Nicole switches between the two roles with ease. Plus Torv and Noble got to show off a little bit more with the different personalities their characters displayed before Peter’s reintroduction to the universe; we see a more detached Olivia Dunham and an even less-together Walter Bishop. The cast has always been the best thing about this show, and they elevated what could have been a weak season into a fairly decent one.
I do have one episode I kind of feel the need to gripe about, though. Episode 19 of the season, which was set in the future, for no apparent reason. There are always episodes each season where the writers decide to break the mold and do something “strange” for the sake of doing it. And in and of itself, that’s not really a bad thing; some of those episodes have been pretty cool. But they’ve also been integral to the storyline as a rule. This really didn’t feel that way. Maybe it’ll come out that way in future episodes, but for this season, it was a non sequitur.
Fringe has been renewed for a fifth, and final, season of 13 episodes. That will give the writers the chance to, hopefully, figure out where they’ve been going with all of this. I find it interesting that the season four finale states that Olivia probably doesn’t have her Cortexaphan abilities any more; while they weren’t always a big part of the show, they were an ongoing subplot, and removing them may weaken the show some. On the other hand, Olivia the Super-Agent with telekinesis, electro-direction, super speed and regeneration probably would derail the show if left unchecked. Still, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see another dose of Cortexaphan come Olivia’s way in season 5. And the increased stature of Fringe division in the primary universe, with Nina Sharp (Blair Brown) coming on as science advisor will probably be a very good thing for the show; it’s about time Fringe Division grew out of the single laboratory (even though Walter should still be the focus). Whatever they do or don’t do, however, I just hope that the writers take advantage of the fact that they know the show is ending to make it go out with a bang. It’s been a very good ride so far, and the revision of this season is the only thing that’s ever made me wonder if they would keep up the quality the whole way. Don’t let us down, guys.