Exclusive 'Fringe' Photo and Intel on the Show's Evolution from the Executive Producers
In a recent interview, 'Fringe' executive producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman discussed that and much more; read on for intel on what's next for the dual Olivias and both sets of her Fringe Division colleagues.
But first, how did 'Fringe,' a show that examines the mysterious and the improbable, do the impossible?
The Fox drama has delved into all manner of odd phenomena over the course of its three seasons, but the most remarkable thing about 'Fringe' is how it found its creative groove by doing all the things a broadcast network show isn't supposed to do these days.
When 'Fringe' began, we were told it wouldn't confuse people by overdoing the whole mythology thing. Though co-creator J.J. Abrams had found mainstream success with the complicated 'Lost' and had fostered cult obsession with the spy drama 'Alias,' 'Fringe' wasn't supposed to be that kind of show. It was going to tell standalone stories with only a light dusting of ongoing mythology.
So much for that plan.
'Fringe' has gone full steam ahead into its mythology, but it's done so in a deeply humanistic way that recalls the best of 'The X-Files' or 'Lost,' for that matter. The stories that the show tells don't revel in strangeness for its own sake: Each hour is all about how questions, answers and choices affect the characters and their relationships. Instead of ripping scientifically-flavored stories from the headlines, which was part of the pitch when 'Fringe' first appeared, this well-crafted drama is telling one of the oldest stories of all -- how members of an ad hoc family try to love each other, despite their flaws.
"We believe that science fiction sort of has been devalued and that people think it's specialized and it's kind of weird, but the truth is, all really good science fiction is all just about the universal human condition, and finding ways to tell stories that are about each of us and asking big important questions but in an entertaining way," said Pinkner, who is a veteran of 'Lost' and 'Alias.'
Not only did 'Fringe' decide to stop doing monster-of-the-week stories that weren't strongly connected to the show's ongoing mythology, and it began its third season by alternating episodes between two different realities, Over Here and Over There. In doing so, 'Fringe' amped up the tension and the emotional stakes for the show's characters, and it began to evoke 'Fringe'-ian themes of duality, betrayal and missed opportunities even more effectively.
And with all those moves, 'Fringe' made FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), the show's least colorful character, approximately 11 times more interesting.
The "real" Olivia is trapped Over There, and has been brainwashed by a ruthless version of Walter (or "Walternate") into thinking she belongs in that universe. The Over There Olivia (memorably dubbed Fauxlivia, I believe by io9.com) is Over Here pretending to be the real thing to Peter (Joshua Jackson) and his trippy scientist father, Walter (John Noble). Fauxlivia is working her own secretive agenda while investigating Olivia's cases, living her life and getting romantically involved with Peter, who finally allowed himself to trust someone. That was a mistake.
"Peter just keeps getting kicked in the face, doesn't he?" Wyman said with a rueful laugh.
All of these changes, especially the alternate universe storyline, could have been show-killers had they been handled with a lack of grace and forethought. But by crafting emotionally grounded tales in both universes, and by doing a subtle and excellent job of aesthetically distinguishing between the two settings, 'Fringe' has, as I wrote in this earlier piece, doubled what's good about the show and eliminated quite a few elements that were holding it back.
The producers didn't just come up with a new game plan for season 3, they also came up with a new term to describe the episodes: They call them "myth-alones," which indicates their status as standalone episodes that embrace the show's mythology.
"It's a crazy term, right?" Wyman said. "But Jeff and I realized, we were frustrating our core fans."
As many 'Fringe' commentators noted, the show was often more compelling when it focused on the mysterious Observers, on Over There and on Olivia's troubled past as the subject of Walter's twisted experiments. That random freak in the sticks? Frequently not that interesting.
Gradually, as the show deepened the relationships among the characters, it also began to explore Over There, which presented spookily different versions of Walter and Olivia and a society that was cataclysmically affected when Walter opened a portal between worlds. Over time, the writers "fell in love with the possibilities in the alternate universe," Wyman said, and they decided to focus on that in the third season.
Given that the idea of serialization gives network executives hives these days, they had to proceed cautiously and reassure the powers that be that the density and complexity of individual episodes wouldn't be off-putting to drop-in viewers. But a major goal was to reward the fans who had stuck with all the growing pains that 'Fringe' went through before it began to hit its stride midway through season 2.
"We said, 'Not everyone likes licorice, but the people that like licorice love it,'" Pinkner noted.
During discussions about season 3, "there was a degree of caution and concern from our studio and network partners -- [there were fears] that if we tell an episode entirely on the other side, is the audience going to be able to track it, won't they miss Walter, won't they miss Peter?" Pinkner recalled.
"What we said to them was, 'At this point our audience is very sophisticated,' Pinkner continued. "Every day, we make an effort to be inclusive to the people who have never seen the show before, because the truth is, we believe we're telling stories that can appeal to a large audience. They're stories about humanity and the human condition and the choices we all make. One of the themes of our shows was choices and seeing ourselves in a mirror and what we could be or could have been, had we made other choices. The way to tell that story is really with the alternate universe."
Having built interest in Over There in a measured and deliberate way in season 2, the new goal was, "Let's try to make the mythology so compelling on the other side that people will look forward to those episodes as well," Wyman added.
Structurally speaking, it helped that the show had three leads, any of whom could carry an episode. And while the idea was to embrace the mythology, 'Fringe' has begun to resemble the stalwart CW drama 'Supernatural,' which focuses squarely on the characters' relationships and answers mythology questions frequently.
The idea was to make 'Fringe' not about the questions but "about answers and the consequences," Wyman said.
When he joined 'Fringe' at the tail end of season 1, Wyman said he wasn't really a fan of science fiction per se, and he was "really worried" that that would prove to be a problem. But in reading Isaac Asimov and other classic sci-fi writers, he said he realized that "the more the science fiction is about the human condition, the better it is."
"We get to really examine themes on a weekly basis that keep our tank full in terms of ideas. If you're writing about those kinds of things, you can never say enough," he noted.
So far 'Fringe' has admirably resisted something that other shows have done when they've ventured into alternate universes. Typically alt-universe episodes are opportunities for a show's cast to wear black leather, vamp it up and play predictably villainous versions of themselves.
But the Walternate of Over There is "not a bad guy," Wyman said. "Walternate was fundamentally changed the day his son was kidnapped by someone from another universe. It's fairly understandable how he became man he is."
As for Olivia and Fauxlivia, I've put what Wyman and Pinkner said about their futures at the end of this piece, in case you want to avoid mild spoilers.
It doesn't spoil anything to note that the entire season won't follow the structure the first part of the season did -- i.e., one episode Over There, next episode Over Here -- but "we're committed to telling stories in the other universe. We will continue to" venture there, Pinkner said.
"We can't go back now," Wyman added.
There are a few more notes from the conversation with Wyman and Pinkner below the video:
* Wyman said there was a conscious decision not to overwhelm people with too much information about Over There: "We made a very measured decision to leak out little bits of it, and give people as much as they could appreciate and leave them wanting more. We thought that's the way it would be the most successful -- when you start to notice the little things... One thing we can't stand is when you look at a sci-fi [setting] and there's too much to take in. It's too crazy and the effects don't look that great. You're kind of like, 'I don't really buy it.'" The idea in 'Fringe' is to focus on the kinds of things the show can portray well, and also focus on little differences -- such as the lack of pens Over There -- that help tell the story of the week.
* Wyman on why Peter hasn't noticed that "Olivia" is different. "I think we're playing it at face value -- she had an experience which she said fundamentally changed her. She saw another version of herself, which would be pretty mind-blowing. The changes are real but subtle, and at the same time, Fauxlivia has studied our Olivia -- her history, her cases. So all the circumstantial evidence would point to the idea that it's the same girl, but he wants to believe that she's made a change for the better."
* Both said that though Walter now owned Massive Dynamic and can use that company's vast resources and tools, he'll mostly stay in his basement lab at Harvard. Walter feels "far more comfortable" there, Wyman said.
* On why the show keeps kicking Peter with tough emotional revelations. "That's the journey of life. I mean, isn't Peter sort of a metaphor for that? Just when you think that you're OK something happens," Wyman said.
* Andre Royo of 'The Wire' returns in the Nov. 18 episode as cabdriver Henry.
* [There are mild spoilers about upcoming developments from here on out]
* When asked if Fauxlivia's mission Over Here and the construction of the Doomsday Device would crank into high gear when the show returns, Pinkner said, "without giving too much away, that will become very obvious in the next couple of weeks." He added, "In the next run of episodes, we'll build toward a crescendo -- the big questions are, is our team going to realize that the Olivia there is not 'their' Olivia? And will 'our' Olivia be able to discover who she really is and will she be able to find her way home?"
* Speaking of the season in general, Pinkner said, "At a certain point, 'our' Olivia will go home, and [Fauxlivia] either will or won't go back to her home. But that will not end our forays into the other universe."
Here are episode summaries for the next three 'Fringe' episodes from the Fox press site:
Nov 4, 'Amber 31422': The alternate universe Fringe Division investigates a shocking breach of security when a twin frees his brother (guest stars Shawn and Aaron Ashmore) from a quarantined Amber area. As the team sets out to crack this sophisticated case, Walternate experiments over there more with Olivia as she reenters the tank. Meanwhile, visions of Peter continue to haunt Olivia about returning to the "other side."
Cast: Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham; Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop; John Noble as Walter Bishop; Lance Reddick as Phillip Broyles; Blair Brown as Nina Sharp; Kirk Acevedo as Charlie Francis; Jasika Nicole as Astrid Farnsworth
Guest Cast: Ryan James McDonald as Brandon; Amy Madigan as Marilyn Dunham; Seth Gable as Lincoln Lee; Shawn Ashmore as Joshua Rose; Aaron Ashmore as Matthew Rose; Holly Dignard as Danielle Rose
Nov. 11, '6995 KHz': Back "over here," the Fringe Division investigates a bizarre phenomenon when 15 people up and down the Eastern Seaboard, all suffer retrograde amnesia from listening to their shortwave radios on the same frequency. Much to Walter's dismay, Peter presses on with piecing together the mass destruction device. Just as alternate Olivia and Peter's chemistry deepens, the anticipation of Olivia's return escalates.
Guest Cast: Ryan James McDonald as Brandon; Clark Middleton as Ed Markham; Kevin Weisman as Gemini; Mark Acheson as Murray Harkins; Vincent Tong as Shen Chan; Minh Ly as Dan Liang; Paula Lindberg as Becky Woomer; Tyler McClendon as Laird Woomer
Nov. 18, 'The Abducted': When a serial kidnapper "over there" strikes again, the emotional and familiar case hits home for Colonel Broyles, sending a determined Olivia to uncover additional details about the abductions. In the meantime, Olivia fights on and reunites with Henry (guest star Royo) to enlist his services on an intense and covert mission to return home.
Guest Cast: Andre Royo as Henry
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.