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Why You Should Be Watching the Doubly Delicious 'Fringe'

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 23rd 2010 3:00PM
Reviews of new shows are full of hedges and what-ifs. Unless we're sent multiple episodes of a new show, critics can't always tell when iffy programs have the potential to become pretty good or even wonderful.

No hedging here: 'Fringe,' which begins its third season at 9PM ET Thursday, has evolved into a terrific show. Now that the Fox drama is consistently telling enjoyably complex and emotionally compelling stories, I'd hate it if 'Fringe' got lost in the fall shuffle.

So I'll start off by begging you to watch 'Fringe,' pretty please, and then I'll share some non-spoilery thoughts about the first two episodes of the third season below.

The third-season premiere doesn't start off with some giant disaster -- 'Fringe' has, thank goodness, moved away from the bombastic storytelling that afflicted its first season in particular. Still, 'Olivia' and 'The Box' are very entertaining hours. And if you're worried about catching up to where things stand on the show, Thursday's episode does a good job of recapping where the characters are and explaining where Season 3 will start from. (A slightly spoilery explainer clip is here, and you can also watch several season 2 episodes, including the two-part finale, here.)

Overall, season 3 appears to be building on what worked really well in season 2, and now the show has taken the character who was the least interesting when 'Fringe' began and made her and her dilemmas very intriguing indeed.

In the middle of its second season, 'Fringe' began focusing intently on two things -- first, on the parallel universe called 'Over There'; and second, on the relationships among FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), eccentric scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his acerbic son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson).

Those twin engines drive Season 3, and they intersect and blend to the point that 'Fringe' feels like an atmospheric chamber piece. It still has action and suspense and all that good stuff, but themes of identity, loyalty, hubris, deception and missed opportunities reverberate through the show like intersecting melodies in a well-crafted musical composition.

The most resonant horrors on the show these days aren't giant bacteria or menacing mutants. Perhaps 'Fringe,' which began as (and still sometimes is) a show about FBI agents investigating weird phenomena, will engage in those kinds of monster-of-the-week stories in future, but those episodes are rarely examples of 'Fringe' at its best.

No, the most effective horrors involve betrayals that are perpetrated on the characters, sometimes by the people they love most. Over There's troubles -- and there are many -- were caused by Walter's desire to find and save a copy of his son, because in this universe, his son died. The fallout from that tragic choice and the characters' tentative steps toward intimacy and trust have given the proceedings much more meaningful stakes.

If I have one fear, it's that 'Fringe' will be forced (possibly by a nervous network) to stray too far from its mythology-driven stories, which are much more memorable than the standalone outings. It's still possible for the show to falter, but given how good the second half of season 2 and the start of season 3 are, I'm giving the show the benefit of the doubt.

What's especially impressive in Season 3 is how cogently and clearly events in the two different universes are handled. It's not hard to tell which is which and it's not hard to follow how the two worlds are connected, and those connections have only deepened the mythology in pleasing ways.

Thursday's episode spends time with "our" Olivia, who is stranded Over There (and 'The Wire's' Andre Royo does great work in a supporting role). Next week's hour focuses on Over There's even more driven version of Olivia, who has taken up residence in Walter and Peter's world and has a very definite agenda.

It's nice to see a parallel universe that is, for once, not an excuse for a show's cast to overact and ham it up. If anything, Over There is quieter but it's also more unsettling and even subtly menacing.

The directors of the show do a terrific job of making Over There feel different, via odd angles and a color palette that somehow seems a little off. But the dilemmas there, as in the "regular" universe, hinge on tangled relationships and difficult memories. And it's even more clear that Walter's choices had awful repercussions Over There, which is on a war footing mostly thanks to his hubris.

The two universes offer Noble, in particular, many opportunities to display his continually amazing range. Over There's "Walternate" is a commanding, efficient leader -- the man that Walter might have been had he not been consumed by personal tragedies and his own ambition.

And Torv, given the opportunity to play two different Olivias, both of whom are faced with interesting dilemmas and challenges, rises to the occasion. For the longest time, I couldn't see why 'Fringe' had cast Torv, but now that the actress has a lot to play in two juicy roles, every scene with Olivia or "Bolivia" (as the writers apparently call her) is charged with new tension. She manages to make the two characters different, even in their gestures, and I have to say that I'm a fan of the red hair she sports Over There.

Now that Olivia is in an alien world and a Bolivia with ambiguous loyalties is here, every scene with those characters has an additional weight and tension. To say more would be to give away too much, but in these two hours, at least, there are layers of meaning, suspense and drama that I never thought 'Fringe' would have.

The pilot for 'Fringe' never hinted at these developments. But the magic of TV is that having faith sometimes pays off.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I'm absolutely amazed at the improvement to Anna Torv's acting! Prior to this, she never showed any emotions at all!
Her uncle, Rupert Murdoch must have spent a good part of his fortune on acting teachers over the summer!
For the first time, she actually showed acting ability on this show.

September 26 2010 at 2:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I loved the season 3 premiere mainly for what it (along with most of season 2) did to show other people what I have always seen in Anna Torv. I used to (and still) cringe when people talk bad about Olivia in the first season, and this is why: From the beginning, the writers painted her as a narrow-minded, fearless, stoic, emotionless, ambitious person, who never did anything outside of her job of hunting down criminals. She saw in pure black & white, and she never went outside of herself. She always wore gray colors, she always had the same appearance, and she never got close to anyone. We've been given general reasons why (abusive father, dead mother, lovely but not quite stable little sister) but the point is that it's the character, Olivia Dunham--not the actress that was supposed to be so linear.
I think the writers wanted to have this character thrown into a world that defies her logic, defies her character, and pushes her to open up her mind to a new reality and break down her mental barriers. Walter is obviously a foil character for Olivia, someone who lives in shades of gray outside of her mentality. That's why she's in Fringe division, to put her in situations that break through her notions of right and wrong, etc. Every time it seems that she was about to get close to someone, or get to cut loose and have fun, (this was prevalent in the first season especially) we see her getting excited and letting her hair down, and getting dressed to do something, and...she's called into work...or the person she loves betrays her (John Scott) or things become too complicated (when she realizes Peter is from the other side)...
Now, in the second season and third, they put her in intensely emotional situations, like seeing Peter's origins, going under cortexiphan again and seeing herself as a child, being trapped in a world without the man she has finally grown close to, and feeling something that she's not been able to feel since she was a child: fear. She is scared, and this is the key to her abilities in the literal sense, but also the key to her development and expansion of character. I think that one of the main arcs of this show is to change Olivia and have her see that life is much more than she has been going through, both in the more bombastic way that these huge disasters are happening all around and also in a smaller way that she can actually see the relativity of the good, bad, love, fear, anger, etc. in people, the world, and herself.

That went on WAY longer than I meant to, but I wanted to make my point.

September 24 2010 at 5:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great story -- I agree with every word. I'm just glad I didn't give up on the show after the first season. I was tempted to, but the season 1 finale was the first inkling of the story that was to come, and brought me back to season 2. By the time we got to the second half of last season, Fringe had evolved from a well-crafted, interesting show to one that was meaningful and not-to-be-missed. How John Noble didn't win an Emmy for his performances late last year is beyond me; judging by last night's episode, they'll have another chance to make it right next year.

September 24 2010 at 10:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Totally agree Mo. Fringe has built up the mythology over two seasons and the third is now acting upon it. The second season really kicked in when the MOTW where tied to one of the main characters in some form.

Anna Torv soared last night. The memory thing is somewhat murky. Deliberately so I imagine. Just because Olivia has Bolivia's memories does not equate to mind control which is how it seem to play out at the end. Olivia still has her own memories too.

September 24 2010 at 6:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mo Ryan

X-Files was great in its first few seasons. Then, as others pointed out, it destroyed every single thing that was good about it. Fringe, on the other hand, started out shaky, and was imitating a lot of different shows, including X-Files. Then it went in a different direction in Season 2 and consistently improved and it has a much cleaner and clearer mythology than X-Files did. I have a feeling Fringe's writers know, in the show's third season, where the mythology is headed. By Season 4 of X-Files, it was clear the writers were just making up fairly random elements that they had to know they could never satisfactorily tie together. So I'd say the trajectory of these shows is pretty different. I completely loved the X-Files, by the way, and was horrified by what it became. I don't have the same fear at this point with Fringe, because it's only getting better. Hi Shaun! :)

September 24 2010 at 12:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Eludium said: Stringing us along for a mythology that never pays off with pointless freak-of-the-week eps"

I take it you haven't seen much of the show? Fringe has sort of been the anti-Lost in that it HAS been paying off for the viewers, bit by bit, as it goes along... That's something Lost NEVER did.

Sure, Fringe has had some "freak of the week" eps. But few and far between, and some of those have still had moments that tied into the bigger picture. I can't say how it will turn out, or if it'll last long enough to tell the story they want to tell, but so far Fringe has been a fun ride. It hasn't been flat-out awesome as Lost's best moments were (though it's come close), but I also don't think Fringe will end up disappointing me the way Lost did in the end. Or X-Files, for that matter.

If nothing else, it seems clear that Walternate's plan will be revealed soon enough (perhaps by the end of the season?) and a lot of what's happening on the show should fall into place at that point. Sure, I had "faith" (how 've come to hate that word) that Lost would make sense in the end too, but Fringe's path seems much more clear and a lot less "WTF?" than Lost. I'm firmly onboard.

Oh, and hi Mo!

September 24 2010 at 12:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brendan D

I think Eludium brings up a fair point about Fringe -- we've been burned before -- but I'm here to say that, for the most part, your fears aren't warranted, IMO. It's not like Lost, which took its sweet time carving out a coherent plot; nor is it like The X-Files, which pretty much blew up every single thing that was enjoyable about it. No, Fringe has very, very subtly brought along two overarching plots. The first is the scenario Mo describes above; the second is even more complex (and a bit more meta), involving a race/species/people we don't understand manipulating events for... some unknown end.

Now, granted, I look at that now, and I realize that it sounds *precisely* like The X-Files, but I promise, there's very little about conspiracy, and hardly anything at all that violates the spirit of science. Plus, getting to witness John Noble's unbelievable range between playing Walter and Walternate is something special.

Lastly, I have to give some props to Joshua Jackson. I didn't know Pacey had it in him, but his performance last season in "Peter" had me not only transfixed but stunned. He's kind of like David Boreanaz: not the best actor in the world, but worlds improved from what you might remember.

September 23 2010 at 11:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sorry, Mo, you can beg and plead all you want but this show has the stain of X-Files/LOST all over it and I won't waste my time with a series that apes other disappointments instead of breaking new ground in a creative and genuine manner. Stringing us along for a mythology that never pays off with pointless freak-of-the-week eps, nope, been there, done that. Oh, and good luck with that.

September 23 2010 at 11:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks Mo! Of all the returning shows, Fringe (and Dexter) are the ones I'm most excited to see where the continuing story is going. I'm super psyched for Supernatural's return too, but that 'reset' story isn't nearly as intriguing as what's going to happen between OverThere and OverHere. Can't wait to see the impact Fauxlivia has on Walter and Peter, and if Olivia manages to cause some ripples to OverThere before she gets back home. So many intriguing possibilities!

September 23 2010 at 4:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Your review certainly whets the appetite for tonight's return. I share your opinions about the early episodes, most of the standalones, and especially Anna Torv. During Season 1, I had serious reservations about her performances and "iffy" American accent. But those are now completely out the window: Torv was a wonder in the closing half dozen eps of Season 2, the show is firing on all cylinders, the writing sharp and engaging. Totally invested now!

September 23 2010 at 3:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tin.ear.tom's comment
Craig Ranapia

To be fair, I don't think my reservations were with Tov as an actress but Olivia falling into the trap of the "audience surrogate" in the middle of all the weirdness. Compare, for example, Gwen Cooper in 'Torchwood' -- she became a lot more interesting when she was doing more than standing in the corner WTF-ing. They managed to get around it on 'The X-Files' because Dana Scully was set up as an antagonist to Muldur, with a specific agenda to discredit her new partner.

September 24 2010 at 5:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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