Thursday, September 15, 2011

On the Fringe

I've been trying to figure out how to sum up my reaction to Fringe, and after giving the matter some thought what I've concluded is that Fringe is a good show that is also incredibly badly written.  The second part should need little explanation.  "From the writers of the Transformers films and Star Trek, with guest appearances by the writer of Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and Lost in Space" is hardly a guarantor of quality.  But what I find interesting about Fringe is how very closely its flaws concentrate around the meat and potatoes of writing--on plot, character, and dialogue--and how that concentration leaves space around the edges for a surprising complexity that will almost certainly curdle into nothingness by the time the show ends, but which for the time being makes the show almost worth a look.

Fringe kicks off with FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) being recruited to the titular division, which investigates crimes whose method or circumstances are strange and unexplained, after her partner and lover becomes the victim of one of these crimes, and in turn recruiting former mad scientist and current mental patient Walter Bishop (John Noble), who insists that the laws of nature are nothing of the sort, and his reluctant son and guardian Peter (Joshua Jackson), who is skeptical of these claims, to help her figure out what's causing this sudden outbreak of seemingly impossible phenomena.  The premise is rather obviously borrowed from The X-Files, but the interpersonal relationships and character arcs seem to have been lifted from Alias.  Like Sydney Bristow, Olivia is a damaged but supremely capable super-agent who is launched into a new world, whose existence she had never suspected, by the death of her lover, but who quickly discovers that she has been intimately linked to that world since childhood.  And like Sydney's relationship with her father Jack, Peter and Walter start the series at odds, with Peter resenting Walter's alternately chaotic and absentee parenting and Walter struggling with the many dark secrets he's kept from Peter, but slowly grows--with some notable setbacks when those dark secrets start coming to light--into a deep and loving bond.

To hold Fringe up against either one of these shows is to get a good sense of where its writing fails.  Nowadays, the conversation about The X-Files tends to revolve around the disintegration of its conspiracy story arc, or the awesomeness of Mulder and Scully, but when the show was just starting out one of its greatest strengths was that it took a simple premise--the rational investigation of irrational events--and spun so many different stories, in so many different settings and emotional registers, out of it, with results that were almost always worth watching and sometimes sublime.  Fringe's standalone stories, in contrast, are thin and predictable.  They all seem to take place in the same narrow swath of nondescript East Coast cities and their suburbs (on the rare occasions that the show ventures out into the country, it quickly devolves into a stream of embarrassing rural stereotypes), do little to develop those settings or the week's guest characters, resolve in the same manner--the weird phenomenon of the week turns out to be related to an old experiment of Walter's, which allows him to save the day with technobabble--and do all this through dialogue so canned that I often found myself predicting the characters' lines before they had spoken them.  Most Fringe episodes seem to rely for their effect on images of gore and horror, which occur several times in each story as the weird science of the week claims its victims.  These scenes are always impeccably constructed and effectively horrifying--if nothing else, one can't help but respect Fringe for kicking off its run with a shot of a man whose jaw is melting off his face as he screams in horror and then going deeper into that well--but they seem to represent the other departments of the show's production--directing, music, makeup, and special effects--compensating for the writers' ineptness.

Makeup and special effects will only take you so far, however, and when it comes to creating characters Fringe's writers have little but their talents to fall back on.  The results are not pretty.  Especially if you stand it alongside Alias--by no means a standard-bearer for complex, subtle character work but certainly a series that managed to engage its audience with character arcs and relationships very similar to Fringe's--it's impossible not to notice how underwritten Fringe's characters are.  The writers' approach seems to be that if they pile more and more incredible and unusual circumstances and background details on their characters, eventually, and as if by magic, an interesting personality will be formed.  So Peter isn't just the abandoned son of a mad scientist, but a genius con man with a shady past who has bounced from one job to another (sometimes forging his credentials) for ten years.  And Olivia isn't just a badass FBI agent and former Marine who loses her lover under tragic circumstances, but a survivor of child abuse (who is still being stalked by her abusive stepfather, whom she shot when she was 9 years old), of the early deaths of both her parents, and of illegal experiments conducted on her as a child by Walter meant to unleash her latent psychic potential, of which she is the most successful (and most functional) former subject.

You can guess how well this works, especially as the show takes a tell, don't show approach to many of these attributes--at several points during the first season, for example, I found myself suddenly taken aback by the realization that Peter is supposed to be a dangerous rogue, which I had forgotten in the face of how milquetoast the actual character is.  Olivia, meanwhile, has a justification for her blandness--Walter's experiments have damaged her psychologically and left her with the subconscious desire to blend in and not call attention to herself.  This, however, is an explanation, not an excuse.  A character can be reserved and emotionless and nevertheless draw the viewers' attention to themselves, conveying the turmoil beneath their calm facade (perhaps the best example, especially in Fringe's neighborhood, is Dana Scully), but this takes strong writing and a capable actor.  I think the show has the latter in Torv, who does fine work when called upon to play a more demonstrative version of Olivia, or mimic the mannerisms and speech patterns of Leonard Nimoy (an actor who knows a thing or two about playing an emotionless character who is nevertheless charismatic, and who on Fringe plays Walter's former lab partner William Bell), but the writing just isn't there, and Olivia just isn't very interesting.

The one character on the show who couldn't possibly be called underwritten is Walter, who positively bursts with personality and a host of quirky and seemingly contradictory traits.  In any given scene, Walter might switch on a dime between childlike glee at the rediscovery of a favorite food forbidden to him during his stay in the mental hospital, prurient reminiscences of his drug-addled escapades in the 60s and 70s, excited fascination at the prospect of a new case, especially if it involves gruesomely mutilated bodies, frustration at having his pie-in-the-sky scientific theories questioned by narrow-minded fools, a greedy and heedless hunger to be the first to cross some previous unsuspected frontier of human knowledge, and deep sorrow at the consequences of having indulged that hunger in the past.  Noble, who is the show's greatest asset, manages to tie all these conflicting emotions into a person who is simultaneously daffy and sinister.  Without Walter, and Noble, Fringe simply could not work--he embodies, and gives life to, the conflict at its core between rationalism and fantasy, and between the desire to cross boundaries and fear of what that crossing might entail and cost.

The problem is that Fringe's writers are too aware of this, and use Walter as a crutch.  If an episode is dull, or if the "science" at its core strains credulity even more than usual, Walter can provide a distraction and liven things up by making an inappropriate reference to his sexual history, or getting high on some home-brewed intoxicant.  Which, to be fair, is always funny, but the more we learn about Walter, the less suitable that humorous tone, and the show's fond, bemused take on him, come to seem.  As well as the experiments that scarred Olivia and permanently damaged many other children--experiments conducted without their parents' knowledge or consent--the Fringe team encounters several other survivors of Walter's experiments, many of whom have also suffered serious adverse effects.  And these are not even his worst crimes.  Near the end of the first season we discover that Walter has proven the existence of an alternate universe, and even seen into it, and in the second season it's revealed that twenty five years ago he opened a portal to that universe, and crossed through it to kidnap Peter, the alternate of Walter's own son who had died.  This breach caused--as Walter knew perfectly well that it would--catastrophic damage to the alternate Earth, which in the decades since Peter's kidnapping has experienced localized breakdowns of the laws of physics, the spontaneous formation of black holes, mass die-offs of plant and animal species, and outbreaks of lethal mutated strains of diseases like smallpox and bird flu.  In other words, Walter is responsible for destruction and suffering on an unimaginable scale, and the deaths of probably millions of people--and that's before you even get to the revelation that unless a solution is found, the inevitable result of his meddling will be the destruction of both universes.

By any reasonable standard, Walter should be, at the very least, an unsympathetic character, and on a stronger, better-written show a lot of mileage could have been wrung out of the tension between the audience's horror at Walter's actions and his contrition and determination to make amends.  But Fringe needs Walter, and Noble, too badly to ever let him spend too long in the villain's corner, so every time it reveals another facet of his crimes, it tries to downplay them with a host of unworthy and manipulative techniques that include Noble's dependably winning hangdog expression and puppy dog eyes, having one of other castmembers comfort Walter for feeling so bad about his past misdeeds (mostly this is the criminally underused Jasika Nicole as the equally criminally underused Astrid Farnsworth, an FBI agent for whom the Bureau can find no better employment than to act as Walter's lab assistant and gopher, but sometimes the rest of the cast take turns--when Olivia is furious at Walter for experimenting on her, Peter comforts him; later, when Peter disappears after learning that Walter kidnapped him, Olivia is the one who offers Walter solace), and, most shamefully, using Walter's disabilities--he is either mentally ill, brain damaged, or both--and the infirmities of his age to elicit pity and imply that he's just a harmless old man who has suffered enough.

To the show's credit, in the third season Walter learns to consider the consequences of his actions, and accepts that he can't continue to protect Peter at the expense of others, but this not only leaves the question of his past crimes unaddressed, but seems to imply that the only thing wrong with Walter was a tendency to leap before he looked.  Personally, I think someone who can brutalize small children in the name of science has a bit more wrong with them than that, but Fringe seems eager to evade that point.  Instead of admitting that a person can be lovable and horrible at the same time, Fringe constantly tries to use the former aspect of Walter to short-circuit the latter, which ultimately damages the character.  There's a limit to how many times the show can reveal yet another awful thing that Walter has done, only to immediately stress how sorry he is and look, the old man is getting high and telling stories about the time he woke up in bed with Yoko Ono, before Walter, for all of Noble's best efforts, starts to seem less like a person and more like an engine cranking out wacky scientific theories, fart jokes, and sad expressions on demand.  (Interestingly, Walter's counterpart, whom our heroes call Walternate, does not suffer from this problem.  Fringe is willing--eager, even--for us to see Walternate, who as his world's US Secretary of Defense is convinced that the two worlds are at war and has dispatched operatives to our world who have killed countless innocents, as at best a conflicted villain, though it also acknowledges that he has suffered terribly at Walter's hands.  Absent the constant, and increasingly desperate, editorializing that accompanies Walter and tries to argue that he's a good guy at heart, Walternate is free to become a more human, more believable character--someone whom the audience can dislike while still acknowledging that they have legitimate points on their side.)

So far I've written a lot of about the ways in which Fringe is badly written--so much that my conclusion that it is nevertheless a good show might seem almost untenable.  So what is it that works in Fringe despite its flaws?  The simplest--but not, I suspect, the most accurate--answer would be the transformation of the show's storytelling in its third season, in which the battle for survival between the two universes, which has been building in the show's background for two seasons, boils over and becomes the show's main focus.  The season begins with Olivia's double (dubbed, naturally enough, Fauxlivia) taking her place in our universe while Olivia is brainwashed into thinking that she is her alternate, and continues to switch between the two universes even after the two Olivias return to their homes.  As the effects of Walter's incursion begin to be felt in our world, both universes' Fringe teams discover a God machine with the power to destroy one universe or the other, and the race is on to see who can get theirs working first.

Fringe's third season is the first one that I genuinely enjoyed watching, but as fun and exciting as it was--and as relieved as I was at the show finally moving away from its limp standalone stories to tell this more continuous one--I'm not sure it represents a meaningful and lasting improvement in the show's writing.  Fringe in its third season puts me very strongly in mind of Heroes in its first--that same sense of plot developments being flung at the audience at breakneck speed to distract from their flaws, of quantity making up for the absence of quality.  There's a lot more plot in the third season, and, with two universes, nearly twice as many characters to keep track of.  This does a lot to distract from the show's weaknesses--the contrast between the main cast and their alternates in the other universe, for instance, not only gives the actors a chance to strut their stuff but crystallizes our sense of the original characters, and helps to counteract their flatness--but it doesn't eliminate them.  The whole season is flimsy, ready to fall apart at the lightest touch--there's really no convincing reason for either of the Olivias to switch places with each other, for example--and given the example of Heroes, and the silliness of the plot tokens currently on the board (which include a race of humans who lived on Earth millions of years ago, but who may actually have been our heroes, who traveled in time to the distant past) it seems all too likely that the plotty fun of the third season will give way to complete nonsense sooner rather than later.  (Also, if I were in any way invested in Olivia as a character, I'd probably be a lot less enamored of the third season, in which she goes from the heroine foretold in prophecy to the person whose destiny it is to enable Peter's foretold-in-prophecy heroism, and in which her alternate spends an episode pregnant and strapped to a table.)

What does work in the third season, however, is how it constructs the alternate universe, the obvious care and thought that have been put into creating a world that is like ours but different--slightly more technologically advanced, but wracked by hardships that have affected everything from culture to technology to social policy.  People in the alternate US go out for tea because coffee is prohibitively scarce, pause somberly to reflect on the twentieth anniversary of the opening of a wormhole in the East River that threatened to tear New York City apart, protest the use of amber, a quickly solidifying gas, to encase "soft spots" where wormholes might form because such quarantines sometimes trap fleeing pedestrians in a sort of living death, and always check the oxygen content of the air before stepping outside.  It's an endlessly fascinating portrait--all the more so for the way the characters take it in stride, having lived within this hellish situation their whole lives--and I found myself wishing for more glimpses of it, for a whole alternate Fringe set in this universe.

The alternate universe also helps to emphasize one of Fringe's prevailing themes, and arguably its strongest attribute--as strange as it may sound, Fringe may be one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking treatments of 9/11 and its aftermath on American television.  The 9/11 attacks are referenced explicitly several times in the series--to signify that Olivia has crossed over to the alternate universe at the end of the first season, the camera pulls away from her and reveals that she is standing in one of the Twin Towers (in that universe, the terrorists attacked the White House instead); when Peter's consciousness is brought to the future in the third season finale, he finds himself at Ground Zero, gazing at the new World Trade Center and a plaque commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the attacks; Fringe division itself is originally introduced as falling under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security--but they are also recalled more subtly, through the alienation and fear the characters experience upon discovering that the world is not what they thought it was, and so much scarier than they expected.  In an early first season episode, Olivia and her friend and fellow agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo) discuss their sense that they are helpless to protect people against the new threats they've been confronted with--a conversation that wouldn't seem out of place between any pair of FBI agents following 9/11.  But in this case the threats being discussed are fringe events.  These are often staged to recall terrorist attacks--public murders of victims of opportunity seemingly aimed more at horrifying their survivors--and frequently referred to as such by the characters.

Fringe throws a serious spanner in the works when it reveals that the alternate universe--where many of the fringe events that our heroes have been trying to fight and protect people from originate--has a genuine grievance against ours, and that the damage their operatives have caused pales beside the damage we've inflicted on them.  It must be said that Fringe is making things easy on itself.  The alternate universe device means that the show never asks either its audience or characters to identify with the Other or see past their differences, because these hardly exist--for all the differences between the two universes (or at least the North American settings we've seen in both of them) they have essentially the same culture, language, and racial makeup--and the parallel with real world situations is severely undercut by the damage to the alternate universe having been caused by the actions of a single grief-stricken man, not decades of foreign policy backed by, and reinforcing, cultural attitudes.  At the root of Fringe's 9/11 analogue are not colonialism or imperialism--arguably the building blocks of Western society and thus rather hard to dismantle--but a single mistake.  Nevertheless, I'm struggling to think of another US TV series that has allowed itself to say as baldly what Fringe has been saying for three seasons--that 9/11 did not come out of nowhere, that it has root causes that often lead back to the West, and that we may not be the good guys in this story.  Especially when compared to other, clomping attempts to address the West's culpability in the War on Terror in science fiction (in particular Battlestar Galactica's hysterical "the heroes are the terrorists!!!1!1!" approach), the low-key, matter of fact way in which Fringe delivers this message--as if it were plainly obvious and now we just have to face up to it and figure out what comes next--comes as both a surprise and a relief.

Between this message--and the intriguing way in which it is delivered--and the fascinating worldbuilding of the alternate universe, there's enough in Fringe to keep me watching for now, even though I suspect the whole thing will end in tears and disappointment.  I'd be remiss, however, to close this essay without mentioning another, far less congenial, of the show's themes.  Fringe is determinedly, almost scarily anti-science.  There has not been a single positive portrayal of a scientist or scientific research on the show--all are depicted as sinister, deranged, unethical, and more interested in acquiring knowledge than in morality.  Research, and especially experimentation on human test subjects, is never rational, methodical, or rule-bound, and the possibility that science might be a force for good--that it can cure diseases, advance technology, help to improve standards of living--is rarely given any credence.  (There is one exception--a second season episode in which a doctor who has developed a treatment for sleep disorders is genuinely trying to help his patients, has been following strict scientific and ethical procedures, and in general seems like a decent, well-adjusted guy.  It naturally transpires that his own treatment has split him into two Jekyll-and-Hyde-like entities, the latter of which has been abusing the treatment for its own pleasure and killing the patients who have received it.)  It's a stance that sits well with the show's roots in the Gothic tradition (in the pilot, Peter compares Walter to Dr. Frankenstein) and with its oft-repeated moral that there are some boundaries that should never be crossed, some areas of knowledge that man was not meant to venture into.  But it rather puts one off to come to a science fiction series in 2011 and find such a regressive, conservative point of view.  Of all its many flaws, if there's one that has the potential to put me off Fringe for good, it is this conviction that science is evil.

8 comments:

George Pedrosa said...

I was never much interested in Fringe, since I figured Abrams and co. would just repeat the same trick they used in Lost of making things up as they went along. Glad to know there's a solid mythology surrounding the episodes. I'll have to check it out now. Are the first two seasons even a little bit worth following to get to the third?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There's not that much worth watching for in the first two seasons, but the third season builds quite extensively on the foundation they lay. I would start at least from the middle of the second season, just so you get a sense of who the characters are before they start alternating with their counterparts.

Raz Greenberg said...

The reason that turned me off Fringe - and I admit giving up before reaching even the first half of the first season - is the same reason that turned me off "The Sarah Connor Chronicles", "Heroes" and (eventually) "Battlestar Galactica": like all these shows, and way too much critically-acclaimed genre shows, it demonstrates the writers total incompetence in telling a compelling story. After a reasonably intriguing pilot there was just nothing that pulled me into subsequent episodes. There was no sense of pacing, no sense of mystery, no sense of any plot development - things just happened, and then the episode ended. I suspect that it's not so much an attempt by today's showrunners (and writers) to challenge the traditional three-act structure (which stood firmly in the basis of "The X-Files", and pretty much everything that Joss Whedon has done) as complete ignorance of it. Too many writers today, it seems, have no idea how to tell an interesting story - and too many of them, unfortunately, work on genre TV.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

That's an interesting observation, Raz, and I think you have a point. I wonder, however, whether this problem isn't concentrated in genre TV - after all, a huge portion of scripted shows are still procedurals, and good or bad they can usually hack the three-act structure. So, I think, can more formulaic genre shows like Eureka and Warehouse 13. Maybe the problem here is more localized, prevalent in genre series that are trying to tell an elaborate overarching story. The obvious approach, if you can't hack a combination of standalones and arc storytelling, is to give up on self-contained storytelling entirely and just advance the plot like a novel (the approach Caprica took) but often that's not financially feasible, and you end up with something boring and badly done like Fringe.

Alexander said...

Neat to see an original content on the blog, and on a subject I have direct partial experience with for a change. I gave up on Fringe after the end of the season when it seemed that the larger plot was going to be even more crushingly slow than anticipated from the setup, and because the villains were entirely underwhelming--shadowy arms dealers or a personal grudge, attacking semi-random targets for no good reason except to fill out a loose wider arc. I tuned back in for an early third season episode after hearing the show had improved a lot but it didn't pull me in--the alternate universe setup felt rather pedestrian and unpersuasive. Perhaps I was a bit hasty with that, although I feel I get a lot more from reading this analysis than I would watching the show, and the disconnect from the characters at this point is probably enough to keep me from being particularly enthusiastic in their fates. I'll likely wait to see if, against all probability, if the show finishes decently and then go back to the later arc. It's annoying that even all flaws removed it seems that season one was almost entirely irrelevant to the larger setup, for as much as the show leaned on its arc pretensions I find that extremely de-mobilizing as a viewer.

Still a bleak array of genre television (and Torchwood: Miracle Day has proved every bit the bust that I feared, perhaps three was material for three good episodes among the ten that aired) but not at a point to make Fringe palpable enough. Glad that you went through it insofar as it produced this analysis, and the write-up on Walter particularly nails it--from my own viewing he was very much the best part of the episode, but the longer his ethical faults came clear the weaker the show's control over them seemed. Particularly since Olivia and the team are for most intents and purposes incredibly self-righteous absolutists, it makes a failure to call out Walter for wrecking any number of lives rather questionable. One could have a strong show with characters that committed to the notion that the past was the past and pushed forward on utilitarian grasp, instead this show went with the more conventional (and dangerous) approach of excusing evil because the character involved with it was funny, well-known and relatively cool.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alexander:

If you close your eyes and want it badly enough, you can almost pretend that the first season's overarching story ties in with the rest of the show's, but realistically it's entirely disconnected. That said, I did enjoy the first season a bit more than the second because the overarching plot was as unknown to us as it was to the characters, and we had to follow along with their investigation. In the second season, we know from day one what the characters take forever to discover - that Peter is from the other world - and this made for rather dull viewing until everyone got to the same page and the story could move on.

it makes a failure to call out Walter for wrecking any number of lives rather questionable

What's even worse is that the characters do call Walter out, and if what he's done affects them they stay mad at him for a few episodes (Olivia's experiments, Peter's kidnapping) but then they just go back to being a happy family.

Bademeister said...

In a more sophisticated drama series, Walter Bishop would be portrayed as a cross between Robert Oppenheimer and Josef Mengele (one man co-invented the atomic bomb and helped obliterating Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the other conducted fatal medical experiments on concentration camp inmates).

Imagine that show on a pay TV channel like HBO, actually daring to explore the vast potential of such a complex anti-hero - who nonetheless must be an essential part of the Fringe team because they just can't fight the fight without him. "He's a bastard, but he's our bastard."

That is what makes such characters so mesmerizing, a lot of these men were family men (just like Walter sincerely loves Peter), yet at the same time showed a complete lack of ethics when it came to advancing science by any means and at any human expense necessary (just like Walter who conducted experiments on children that lead to many of them having tortured lives, committing suicide and murder as adults).

Unfortunately that will never ever happen on a network. Unlike HBO, networks need to sell four blocks of ads that slice every episode into neatly packaged little pieces. No company buying airtime wants a serious, depressing show about Sci-fi war criminals because depressed watchers make for bad consumers.

Nobody feels like buying Viagra or a cold Budweiser after an episode of Carnivale or The Wire.

That's why simple-structured procedurals will always vastly outperform even the most successful mythology shows (just compare the numbers of LOST to the most successful procedurals of the same time). Seemingly complex, but in reality quite dumbed-down shows like LOST, Fringe, FlashForward, Invasion and whatever other X-files incarnation there is - these are the most intelligent forms of entertainment that you can get away with on a network without tanking your ad sales and viewership.

It's sad because these shows often have untapped potential and you can watch it squandered, you can see "what could have been" in almost every episode.

It's less a case of lack of creativity in the writer's room and much more a case of the business model of network television.

That we can't change, all we can do is hope that ideas for genre shows get picked up more frequently by HBO, Showtime and the likes.

A Scifi show on a par with Rome, The Wire or Carnivale, that's what I would pay to see.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm really not convinced that the problem here is the show's venue. As I say in this post, I think that Walternate is a very well done character, a man who does very evil things for understandable reasons. The problem is that Fringe isn't willing to make Walter as complex, and this strikes me as a failure of the production, not something that Fox won't let them do.

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