Fringe Primer

M: One of our good friends submitted a formal request for us to review Fringe, and since we here at Relatively Entertaining are nothing if not accommodating, we will oblige. However, since season two is just starting up, we figured we do it as a review, but also as a primer for those who may have missed all or parts of season one.

WARNING! If you haven’t watched and don’t want spoilers, DO NOT READ THIS POST! However, I recommend that you read E’s Harry Potter fan fic post, since we don’t want you to leave without being entertained.  As another warning, this will be long!

M: Ok, back to Fringe…. Fringe is an FBI show in which an elite, yet eccentric, team investigates strange, sometimes paranormal crimes and events. It was co-created by JJ Abrams (Alias, Lost), and is based in the Boston area. Since the Quibbling Siblings were huge X Files fans (more on this connection later), are all huge Alias and Lost fans, and are also based in the Boston area, E and C were in…. for a while, at least. I missed the start, but picked it up a few weeks in. Turned out that was the way to go. But first, some details you need to know.

Continuing JJ Abrams trend of strong female leads, the show starts out introducing us to our soon to be lead agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) with her parter, who we quickly find out is also her lover, John Scott (Mark Valley). Scott is soon killed, and implicated in treason, which rocks Dunham.

We’re also introduced quickly to what will become our other FBI regulars, friend and new partner Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo), which cracks us up as we have a family friend named Charley Francis!

E: And makes me happy cause I thought Acevedo was brilliant the first time I saw him, in Band of Brothers.

M: We also meet their boss, Phillip Broyles (Lost‘s Lance Reddick). Dunham has a testy relationship with Reddick at first, before proving herself in the pilot, and having him bring her on to his team investigating “The Pattern”. While we are never given a real clear definition of what “The Pattern” is, it is a series of strange or paranormal events that may or may not link together in some way. Most of them lead to potentially evil monolithic corporation Massive Dynamics, more on them later.

E: The fact that all these disparate events are all related -and that Walter worked on the science of all of them – bumps up against the suspension of disbelief, but still, the show entertains.

M: We are lastly introduced to our non-FBI team members, estranged father and son Walter and Peter Bishop (Lord of the Rings‘ John Noble and Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson, respectively). Walter is literally a mad scientist, starting out the show in his 17th year incarcerated in a mental institution. Peter is his estranged son with a shady background filled with underworld connections and old skeletons – one a lot more literal than you would expect, but we’ll get to that, too. Walter is released into Peter’s care in the hopes of helping them with the initial case, and when he is able to using “fringe science”, he is given his old lab in the basement of a Harvard building back. Oh, and he lets slip along the way that he used to share that lab with William Bell, who is the fonder and chairman of the aforementioned Massive Dynamics. Little did the institutionalized Walter know his old lab partner went on to become the wealthiest and most influential man in the world.

Between his role as Denethor in the remarkable Lord of the Rings movies and his role here as Walter, John Noble proves that he can play all kinds of crazy. Noble’s Denethor is power mad and completely loses his mind while the story unfolds in a nasty, jealous and vindictive manner. In Fringe, however, Noble’s Walter starts out having already lost his mind, and as the story here progresses we see the delicate balance between him trying to regain it while not necessarily wanting to relive the horrors that come with the memories and abilities he has lost.

The great part, however, is that Walter’s craziness manifests itself most of the time in a childlike joy. He delights over things like pudding and obscure breakfast cereals (though not orangutans), and keeps a cow in his lab, both because bovine DNA is extremely similar to that of humans, and because he likes to milk it.

E: It took the show a while to find its rhythm. Walter has always been entertaining (if also the king of tmi and not a little bit gross) but Torv is pretty impassive, and took a while to grow on me. Something admittedly dumb got in the way of my enjoyment of the show at first; local geography. I can’t decide if the writers did this on purpose, and if that would be better or worse, but their grasp of where things are in Massachusetts was atrocious. They speed in and out of places that are no where near Boston, and give wildly inaccurate times for how long things driving to take. They never get stuck in traffic, which is a gas. The role of Harvard is played by a Canadian university which looks nothing like Harvard; they set Boston College on a busy urban street. If that was the look they wanted, why not just call it Boston University, which IS in downtown Boston? They refer to a rural, landlocked suburb as Boston’s warehouse district and give it a massive bridge. A murderer kills in central Mass and dumps the body in a swanky coastal town. I couldn’t figure it out. Why not just look it up? Why use local town names at all if you’re not even going to use google maps and pay any attention to where they are? How hard could that be? This is the kind of stuff M mocks me for caring about, but for me it just gets in the way. I’m sure no one would care about this stuff if they didn’t live here, but let’s just say that the Boston locale was not a bonus for me.

But eventually, they got a little better at that, and the plots got more involving, and the show won me over. Olivia’s story became more complex, and they gave her some family members to relax around. Her little niece gets attacked, and her sister (Ari Graynor, recently seen playing a teen in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) gets to flirt with Peter.  I never expected to warm to Pacey, but I did. Peter Bishop mothers his father, and I like him for it. And – all ranting aside – The Pattern started to actually have a pattern, or a purpose, or a shape, or a something, and that started to be really really interesting. We don’t know who’s manipulating it. Is William Bell evil? Is he the cause of The Pattern? Is Massive Dynamic unleashing destruction on the world, or helping to prevent it?

M: As I stated earlier, the show took a while to find its stride.  To echo E, they have gotten better with the more frustrating Massachusetts references, like calling Stoughton “the warehouse district” (E: Like I said) and putting it on the water, referring to Dighton (pronounced like “lighten”) as “Dih-ton”, showing a skyscraper that is not in Boston and calling it the “Boston Federal Building” (which got replaced by the John Hancock tower, which while not a federal building, is at least in Boston!), or driving from Boston to Acton (a good hour ride without traffic), doing some door to door canvassing, and driving back to Boston in the same morning.

There are some things that have really stood out to me the whole time, though.  The relationship between Peter and Walter has been continuously fabulous.  Peter is open to a lot of the crazy things they find, but is more pragmatic and less open than his father wants him to be.  Walter is equal parts enthusiastic child needing to be taken care of and genius scientist who can resolve just about any problem.  Often times he’s both in the same conversation, which is fun.  And the banter between them is great.  In one scene, Walter is examining a body that had its spinal fluid drained (not an out of the ordinary kind of scene for the show), and Peter suggested it was a vampire.  Walter got so excited that Peter was opening his mind to other possibilities, but ended the conversation by lamenting “no, vampires don’t really exist….  sadly.”

The writing, especially the dialog has been consistently excellent.  I explained to C at one point while watching a scene with Peter on the phone that it was one of the most realistic phone conversations I’d ever seen on TV.  It was almost a throw away, as the call was used to make him distracted in the scene, but it was just a normal, informal conversation that you would hear one of your friends or coworkers have on a daily basis.  And that’s just an example of their attention to detail, and willingness to apply misdirection.  In another of my favorite scenes, Peter and Olivia are sitting in Walter’s hotel room discussing the science of the case, while Walter, in his bathrobe and slippers, is literally shuffling around the room.  For most of the scene, which took up a good two minutes, you can barely see him, as he is not the focus of the shot and is in the background or off to the side.  Then, at exactly the right moment in Peter and Olivia’s conversation, he uses the static electricity that he’s built up shuffling on the carpet to zap Peter, and uses that to transition into explaining the scientific point that finishes their conversation.

Like E said, the writers began to better develop the Pattern, too.  They added a group called ZFT that was working to fight or begin a vaguely described pending war based on science and technology.  ZFT has a manifesto that they were using like a Bible, and at one point you think that Walter is the author of it.  They developed a back story for Olivia that includes her having been part of an experiment that Walter and William Bell conducted when she was a child (E: Hello, X-Files).  They used a hairless, taste bud-less, creepy-yet-potentially-benevolent character known only as “The Observer” to move the plot of the Pattern along in spots.  They wrote in, then in the finale killed off, a principle adversary in David Robert Jones (Jared Harris), who was at least close to on par with Walter scientifically, and sufficiently evil.

Most episodes were taught, filled with a lot of tension, and well balanced between creature of the weeks and over-arching mythology.  This, combined with the premise, led to lots of comparisons to The X Files, as I mentioned above.  Well, in the season premiere last week, Fringe decided rather than avoiding them, to embrace the comparisons.  In one scene we pass by a TV that is showing good old FBI agent Fox Mulder staring up at the sky.  Later, when Broyles is in front of a congressional sub-committee, one of the Senators refers to their division as well as “the old ‘X’ designation”, referring the the filing system that gave X Files its name. (E: I geeked out all over that one – best moment of the premiere for me.) Oh, and Broyles was in front of the senate because they completely borrowed the plot from the beginning of X Files second season, where the team is threatened with being shut down.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because the season finale?  HOO-WAH!  The tension of the season had been building, with Jones becoming more and more of a bad guy, and Bell and Massive Dynamic seeming more and more involved, and possible behind it all.  Right before the finale Walter disappeared with the Observer, and Massive Dynamic’s second in command, the mysterious Nina Sharp (Blair Brown) was attacked.  In the finale, we find that she was attacked by Jones, who is covered in bandages like the Invisible Man, and is trying to open a hole between this universe and another that is very similar to this one, and in the process of trying to find the right spot slices in half a tractor trailer truck, and a teenage soccer player (ick!).  Walter, we find, has been taken to his old beach house/cabin, where he is frantically searching for something he can’t remember.

Olivia, with the help of Charlie, Broyles and Sharp (who is recovering nicely, and reveals that Jones was Bell’s protege, but was too evil and was let go, so his actions have all been to try to impress Bell, and get at him), put to together where Jones is heading, while Peter joins Walter at the cabin, where they share stories of Peter’s childhood that neither remember at first, Walter sharing about when Peter was gravely ill as a child, and Peter about coming to the cabin and Walter making wave shaped pancakes.  Peter’s story eventually trips Walter’s memory, and he remembers what he’s looking for, a device he made to close holes between universes.  Everyone races to Jones’ location to try to stop him, and when they meet Walter delivers one of his best lines.  Olivia is surprised to see them, and asks what they’re doing there.  Walter replies frantically “We’re trying to plug a hole in the universe!  What are you doing here?!?”

They do stop Jones, splitting him in half as Walter plugs the hole…  but that’s just where the shockers began.  Sharp sets up a meeting for Olivia with Bell, who we’re told is in an alternate universe.  While she’s headed there, Walter slips out to a graveyard we saw him at earlier near the cabin.  We find him looking at a gravestone that is engraved “Peter Bishop 1978 – 1985”, leading us to the conclusion that the Peter we’ve been watching is one that Walter “stole” from an alternate universe after the “real” Peter died as a child!  (E: Which may be destabilizing the two universes – will Walter have to tell Peter and send him back?) In the wake of that shocker, Olivia appears to get stood up by Bell, but then has a funky elevator ride that takes her into the alternate universe where she meets Bell, played by Mr Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy.  We see a newspaper which lets us know that in this universe JFK wasn’t assassinated, Len Bias never overdosed, and the White House was rebuilt for unspecified reasons.  As the season ends, Olivia looks out the window, and the camera pans back revealing that she is in one of the two towers of the clearly not destroyed World Trade Center. (E: You can imagine the emotional punch that one packed.)

With multiple chilling moments and many things we didn’t see coming despite spoilers being out there, it was everything you hope for in a season finale.  It wrapped up what turned out to be a really stellar first season.

E: We begin the second season with Olivia unable to remember her conversation with Bell (only that she talked to someone about something); she’s suffering head trauma from being specactually returned to our reality via the windshield of a stopped (and empty) car.  Even worse, our old favorite, Charlie Francis, has been murdered and impersonated by some sort of shape shifting servant of someone in the other universe.  Now he’s a spy in their midst.  Charlie!  No!  And Peter helped Broyles convinced Congress to continue funding the initiative by handing over a broken device once used by the shape shifter in order to steal the physical appearance of the dead, so that it could be developed into a weapon.  Nice.  (It’s also a nice illustration of Peter’s willingness to cross moral lines in order to protect those he loves.)  All in all, we are really looking forward to seeing where the new season takes us.

5 comments on “Fringe Primer

  1. linab243 says:

    For the last time, Peter is played by J.O.S.H.U.A J.A.C.K.S.O.N. NOT FREAKING PACEY!

    • M says:

      Having (intentionally) never watched Dawson’s I’m with you…. but (and there is a but), if that was for the last time, why don’t I recall there being a first time? 🙂

  2. […] can see our previous post from this time last year, the season two primer, for more details of the first season, but here goes.  Fringe is a show following FBI agent Olivia […]

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