Debuting in 2009 with much interest down to it being partly a new creation from J.J Abrams, Fringe was initially dismissed by many as being a copy of The X-Files. In fairness Abrams and co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci had mentioned The X-Files several times when discussing the show while doing the publicity rounds, and whilst there are many factors about Fringe in the first season that makes it feel like Chris Carter’s iconic series, as the show would continue Fringe would develop ideas and an engaging mythology a million miles away from Mulder and Scully’s adventures.
On paper, the similarities are very clear; Federal agents investigating the weird and unsettling, a strong female lead, clear chemistry between herself and her male lead, cold opens depicting weird deaths, etc, etc, the similarities are very superficial, and in time Fringe would feel like a wonderful, separate entity of its own.
Debuting on the Fox Network the same season as the penultimate season of Lost, the first year of Fringe actually earned very good ratings, no doubt helped by having American Idol as a lead-in, but not having the famed music competition being on before it meant ratings took a dive from season two onwards, and would eventually be moved to the infamous “Friday at 9pm” death slot which had been responsible for many casualties on Fox, notably Firefly and Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm.
Despite never getting Lost-style ratings, a combination of critical acclaim and a devoted cult fanbase meant Fox were, surprisingly, supportive of the show, allowing it to go until a fifth season, where the writers were allowed to wrap up the show in a satisfying manner.
Even better, the show would shift away from its more stand alone “cases-of-the-week” format and become entangled in a wonderful ongoing serialised story involving a parallel universe, although still allowing itself to throw in some imaginative self-contained stories along the way. The plummeting ratings but higher acclaim from reviewers would, in the end, allow the writers to become ever more experimental and imaginative with their work.
With a main cast consisting of Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick, Jasika Nicole and Blair Brown, everyone put in fantastic performance, with the series indicating to audiences that there was more to Jackson than Dawson’s Creek, while giving Australian actress Anna Torv her big American break. However, it was another Australian presence on the series who would become the show’s breakout star.
John Noble as Walter Bishop became the biggest secret on television, his performance a wonderfully complex one made up of much charm, humour, intelligence and a hint of a darkness. Nearly every episode would feature a stand out moment for the actor (usually through referring to candy flavoured drinks or LSD) and many of the show’s best episodes and storylines would be centred around the character, with special mention to season two’s Peter and White Tulip, the latter arguably the show’s best ever instalment. His quirky, almost child-like demeanour was always fun, but the show was never afraid to hint at, or sometimes show, his more serious and darker characteristics before his breakdown which led to the more lovable character he became.
Best of all, the show never shied away from its genre. As it became clear the series was never going to be a top ten hit, the series, under the showrunners Jeff Pinkner and JH Wyman, would embrace more hard-core genre material and run with ongoing storylines around parallel universes, thus meaning that nearly every actor on the show was playing two versions of their characters, alternative timelines, trippy animated episodes and truly weird science that frequently seemed to owe more to David Cronenberg than it did Chris Carter. The casting of Blair Brown was a nod and a wink to Ken Russell’s deliriously weird Altered States, which the pilot episode had similar elements to.
Even better, the series frequently awarded those who stuck with it. Whilst Lost became increasingly criticised by many for its lack of answers, Fringe would pose questions but then resolve them and frequently allowed its fans and the audience to walk away from episodes satisfied with what they watched. Even more so, whilst the Lost finale seemingly satisfied nobody, Fringe’s finale was acclaimed, not so much for the story it told, as much as actually resolving its relationships and character arcs in a way that many could walk away from happy having watched it.
It’s understandable that many would want to compare and contrast the shows since they share a high-profile creator and ended with the now iconic Bad Robot logo, but to do so is a detriment to both series, in much the same way it is to compare Fringe to The X-Files. There is room for both and Fringe just did its thing very well.
The final season saw the show undertake a major game changing approach to its story, a turn that I dare not spoil here, but it seen the show once again deliver the goods meaning that its more truncated final season (thirteen episodes as opposed to twenty-two) is the most daring of the lot, and yet also the most satisfying. Yes, there are one or two questions left by the end, especially by the final image, but they are wonderful questions to be left with and as it is I don’t think we ever really need them answered; the image of that final scene and what we know it potentially means for those characters is brilliant enough and a wonderful final scene for the show.
If you’ve been put off watching Fringe because of comparisons with The X-Files, don’t be. In fact it was those comparisons that made this hard-core X-Phile watch it in the first place. The series is part of a long line of wonderfully weird crime shows that use procedural format and investigators through law enforcement and the Federal Government to go off and have some weird fun along the way. It’s a series that is a clear cousin of shows such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Millennium, Supernatural or Kolchak:The Night Stalker, but one with a touch of Cronenberg-influenced body horror and weird, icky, gooey science for good measure; I don’t think any other show in prime time US Network Television was as infatuated with the destruction of the human body the way that Fringe was.
It’s a show that rewards its fans and became one of the most quietly daring genre shows of it time, that was sadly underrated and under appreciated but left a superb run of episodes ripe for future generations to discover via video streaming and Blu Ray box sets. It has a lovely on going love story at the centre of it between Olivia and Peter, and an even better father/son story between Peter and Walter. It is an undervalued classic in every sense of the word and must surely rank as one of the most quietly brilliant television shows in recent memory.
It also teaches us that there is something quite profound in regards to a narrative about a sponge.
AIRDATE: September 2008-January 2013
NUMBER OF SEASONS: Five
NOTABLE WRITERS: Created by JJ Abrams and previous Alias executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the most important voices on Fringe would become Jeff Pinkner and JH Wyman, who would become showrunners on the series and be pretty much responsible for allowing the show to become as wonderful as it did. Yes, ratings may have went down when they took over, but the show became better, less formulaic and took many chances and risks. The parallel universe mythology became more gripping with each passing episode and the show became one of the most risk taking on network television under their guardianship of the series.
Amazingly, another key collaborator on the show was Batman and Robin screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. Responsible for writing one of the worst movies of all time, believe it or not, many episodes that had his name credited as writer and director on Fringe were some of the best ever episodes, with special mention having to go to season one’s Bad Dreams, a superb stand alone mystery with an amazing central performance from Anna Torv and a brilliantly engaging mystery. It shows none of the problems of Batman and Robin and is arguably the best thing Goldsman has ever done.
NOTABLE DIRECTORS: On top of writing, Akiva Goldsman directed many episodes that he was involved in, whilst many others were directed by Brad Anderson, who had directed the feature film The Machinist, television veteran Joe Chappelle and showrunner JH Wyman. Honourable mention must go to The West Wing’s Alex Graves who gave the pilot episode a wonderful cinematic flourish and a style that the series would continue with until the end.
NOTABLE ACTRESSES/ACTORS: The core lead cast were all fantastic; Torv, Jackson, Reddick, Brown, Nicole and Noble, with Seth Gabel making a wonderful addition to the show’s third and fourth seasons as Lincoln Lee, Kirk Acevedo being a quiet stand out as Charlie, and Michael Cerveris quietly mesmerizing as September, whose cameo appearances on the show sometimes made it feel like a live action version of Where’s Waldo. Jasika Nicole’s performance as Astrid was also truly wonderful, but almost seemed at times to be too underused, which only made fans love her more. A fourth season episode where she meets here parallel universe equivalent, Making Angels, was long overdue and gave the actress a real chance to shine in dual roles, and her caring of Walter gave the show an extra layer and a beating heart, along with a brilliant running joke where Walter could never get her name right and proceeded to call her by many variations.
On top of the regulars, the show also boasted many great guest stars, with Peter Weller, Jared Harris, Christopher Lloyd and Leonard Nimoy being particular standouts whose episodes were simply unforgettable, Nimoy and Harris were so good they were always called back, even after it looked as if we had seen the last of their characters. Nimoy in particular was always graceful when he appeared and the finale of season one when we first see him is without a doubt one of the show’s greatest ever scenes.
BEST SEASON: Tough one this, but I am going to give it to season two. Three, four and five are unmissable, but there is something about seeing the series really find its footing and deliver great episode after great episode in such a satisfying way with episodes such as White Tulip, Peter, Northwest Passage, and the two-part finale Over There.
WORST SEASON: Probably the first. It’s still a good season and there are a lot of good episodes in it, but it is a show that’s finding itself during those earlier episodes, albeit in a wonderful way and watching it is still highly recommended, but once the show gets into the second year and beyond, that’s when the show became a stone-cold classic.
BEST EPISODE: White Tulip is without doubt one of the greatest episodes from a science fiction television show ever. Emotional, engaging, deeply intelligent and featuring series best work from John Noble and what really should have been an Emmy Award winning guest performance from Peter Weller, this is the episode that deserves to be held up as a prime example as to why Fringe is so good and demands to be watched. The highlight of the episode is a scene in the second half of the episode which basically becomes a two-hander between Weller and Noble. If that wasn’t good enough, there is also the final scene, a key moment that would be reprised in the series finale, to call it emotional would be a dire understatement and is performed brilliantly by John Noble.