Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Final Farewell to FRINGE: Thoughts From The Other Side

 A Fond Farewell to FRINGE.

- Back in 2002, The X-Files came to an end, and it felt like the end of an era. I had watched the show since it started in 1993 (I was 10 years old), and I was in college when it ended (I was 20). I could point to a variety of influences that had instilled in me a love for the fantastic, for the mind-expanding, for the weird - but The X-Files would be first and foremost. By the time it was over, I was a bonafide sci-fi geek - and just about everything else on TV at the time seemed tame, boring, and small-minded in comparison. Of course, little did I realize, at the time, that we were on the verge of a new TV renaissance. Thanks to the influence of the grittier, more mature shows on cable TV, and the risks being taken by networks to adapt to a changing, more fragmented audience, we suddenly found ourselves in a new Golden Age of daring, rich, compelling TV. In 2004, Lost premiered, and there it was - the next X-Files - the next sci-fi cult TV phenomenon. Lost put JJ Abrams on the map. It brought a new sense of scale and scope to sci-fi TV. It bombarded the viewer not just with intriguing mysteries, but also with a cast of incredibly interesting characters. Over the years, Lost lost its way a bit, and the time was ripe in 2008 for a new sci-fi series to swoop in and steal some of Lost's buzz. Of course, this new show would also come from producer JJ Abrams, and it would debut with the same sort of excitement and buzz that Lost did years earlier. This was to be the next big thing, the next X-Files, the next must-watch show. This was FRINGE.

FRINGE was one of the first big new shows that I followed after moving to LA in 2005. True, it didn't premiere until 2008, but long before that, I had my eyes on it. I remember getting a hold of the pilot script when it first surfaced. I printed it at work and had a giddy smile on my face - I walked past one of the few co-workers who I thought might share my excitement over it, and proclaimed: "I've got it. The new JJ Abrams pilot. Fringe!" I eagerly paged through the pilot, discovering a tense, ambitious story about a mad scientist freed from a mental ward - reunited with his con-man son in order to help save the world. Joined by a stony FBI Agent, the trio investigated super-science phenomena while uncovering a deeper mystery at the heart of it all. This was great stuff. But one thought kept rolling through my mind: "man, whoever they get to play this mad-scientist guy ... he had better be *good.*"

As it turned out, John Noble was more than good as Dr. Walter Bishop - he was awesome. From Episode 1 of Fringe, I loved Noble's portrayal of a broken man, a science genius with a fractured psyche who had risked his sanity - and the world's safety - to save his son long ago. Even when I had my doubts about Fringe in its early episodes - when I questioned Anna Torv as FBI agent Olivia Dunham, when I wondered if the show was just a sleek would-be X-Files, when I bemoaned the fact that the "monsters-of-the-week" often felt half-heartedly conceived - the thing that always kept me coming back, the reason why I never for a moment considered dropping the show, was John Noble as Walter Bishop.

After five years and countless memorable moments, I think it's time to officially place Dr. Bishop in the category of all-time great, iconic sci-fi characters. Move over Mulder, Scully, Sawyer, and Spock - and make room for the good doctor in all his whacked-out glory. John Noble may have consistently, inexplicably gotten overlooked by the Emmys year after year, but what he did as Walter was nothing short of award-worthy. He crafted a character who was at times side-splittingly funny, but who could also be absolutely terrifying. Walter Bishop could make you laugh, make you shudder, and break your heart in the span of minutes. In middle-age, Walter could come across as a goofy grandfather - an eccentric, good-natured man who loved strawberry milkshakes, Red Vines, fart jokes, and the occasional drug-fueled trip. But his goofiness is also what made him a hero both lovable and tragic. In his youth, Bishop was a hard man - a man of science, a man of hubris, a man who never let morality get in the way of his quest for knowledge. Along with his partner, William Bell (played by Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy), Walter started a program in which he experimented on young children with mind and body-altering chemical compounds - the Cortexifan trials. He developed all sorts of weaponizable things for the government - interested more so with the science behind them than the dangerous implications of their existence. But Walter's ultimate test came when his young son Peter died. Desperate for a way to get his son back, Walter devised a plan to cross-over to another, parallel universe. He found his own doppelganger, and that of his son. He stole the other Peter and brought him back to our world - in doing so, forever damaging the structural integrity of both worlds. Devastated by what he'd done, Walter ended up experimenting on his own brain. He fractured his own mind - robbing himself of his own steely intelligence and becoming mad in the process. And so Fringe, in which we join Walter - not just on his journey to repair his relationship with his son, but to repair the very world he helped to damage - became the epic story of Walter Bishop's redemption.

And that ... that is what made FRINGE such a great show. Through all of the strange twists and turns that its narrative took, it was always held together by a common thematic underpinning. So many of the great shows lost their way over time because they strayed from their central themes, deciding suddenly that the show was *actually* about something entirely different than what was originally intended. But Fringe never went off the rails in that way, because Noble as Bishop was so sturdy an anchor.

John Noble did some of the best acting I've ever seen on Fringe. His "Walterisms," were classic - nonsensical rants of righteous anger ("Potassium Bromate! Do you know what you're putting into our bodies? Death! Delicious, STRAWWWBERRY-flavored death!"), and absurdist asides that would have me rolling with laughter. But Noble's face was also just a well of emotion - sadness, determination, fear, love - the man could do it all. When he played his more with-it alternate from Earth 2, we saw a glimpse of the more tyrannical "Walter That Was." But "our" Walter was a thunderstorm of humor, heart, and emotion - and Noble never failed to nail it.

Of course, this was also Anna Torv's show. Torv was justifiably singled out as a weak link when the show began. As damaged, determined agent Olivian Dunham, Torv often came off as stilted and bland in those early episodes. But she got better. Way better. And over time, Agent Dunham became one of the best and most badass characters on TV - a kickass woman who was smart, fearless, and a crack shot. Over the last few years, there's been a lot of talk about the portrayal of women in TV and film, and the need for strong female characters who aren't just window dressing. Olivia became Exhibit A for how to do a great, strong, legitimately badass female character on television. And Anna Torv, man, she just kept surprising me. When she was asked to play her own alternate (dubbed "Fauxlivia" by fans), she stepped up to the challenge with aplomb. The Earth 2 Olivia shared some of the same traits as her Earth 1 counterpart, but was less restrained - cockier, less empathetic, operating with swagger and a smile. The show kept throwing crazy plot points at Torv, and each time she rose to the occasion. Against all odds, she pulled off a storyline in which Olivia was possessed by the spirit of Nimoy's William Bell, and made it work. In Season 5, she shifted her character to become more subdued, more maternal. Through it all, she made Agent Dunham into one of the absolute best characters on TV. Anna Torv made me a believer.

Joshua Jackson, also. Few took him seriously as an actor before Fringe - but now, you've got to. As Peter Bishop, Jackson began his time on Fringe as a shifty smart-ass, but evolved into a brave, quick-thinking hero who both honored his father and learned from his sins. And you've also got to mention Lance Reddick as Broyles - the no-nonsense, uber-badass leader of Fringe Division, the elite group that Walter, Peter, and Olivia would come to work for. Reddick is so full of gravitas that it hurts. No one else could have given the show the kind of regal, resolute dosage of awesome that he did, week in and week out. There's also Jasika Nicole as Astrid, Walter's loyal lab assistant. Astrid could have been a one-note character, but Jasika made her an integral part of the show, and gave Fringe some of its most heart-filled and touching moments. Her relationship with Walter was so good, so real-seeming, that there may have been no more moving scene in the series finale than their final exchange. Throughout the show, a running gag was that brain-addled Walter could never quite get her name right - calling her everything from Astro to Ashcan. But in the finale, when Walter, in a moment of clarity, looks up at his steadfast partner and remarks "Astrid ... it's a beautiful name" ... my god - amazing.

There are so many other fantastic actors that made an impact on Fringe. Blair Brown made Nina Sharp's ambiguous agenda endlessly fascinating. Nina's company - Massive Dynamic - was surely one of the most intriguing and downright coolest parts of Fringe's sci-fi mythology. Seth Gabel joined the show late as Lincoln Lee, but he immediately became a fan-favorite. On Earth 1, he was shy and geeky, harboring a hopeless crush on Olivia. But on Earth 2, he was a charismatic hotshot - a leader of that world's militaristic version of Fringe Division. Leonard Nimoy, of course, was always a welcome sight as William Bell. But it was the great Jared Harris who became the show's breakout villain - the scarred, hate-filled, universe-hopping David Robert Jones. Kirk Acevedo was also a big part of the show's run, as Olivia's FBI mentor Charlie Francis. For most of Fringe's lifetime, Michael Cervaris was otherworldly as The Observer - even when we found out his name, September, he still was alien-like and mysterious. But in Season 5, humanized and transformed, September became an unexpectedly integral figure in the finale - made all the more great by Cervaris' nuanced performance. As Etta, the grown-up future daughter of Peter and Olivia, Georgina Haig was the fresh-faced hero of Season 5 - the vision of goodness in a world gone mad. Conversely, Michael Kopsa's menacing Captain Windmark was the expressionless face of a dystopian future robbed of light and joy.

You've also got to give a well-deserved shoutout to showrunners J.H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner. Often overlooked, these two have done what many have not been able to - steer an ambitious sci-fi series through five seasons and let it grow and change while never spiraling out of control. Wyman and Pinkner and the rest of the Fringe team deserve a lot of credit - for a show that told a cohesive big-picture story, but that also delivered some of the finest individual hour-long episodes we've seen on TV over the last decade, period.

Fringe evolved a ton over the years. Looking back, it's hard to believe that the show began life with Torv's Agent Dunham paired with Mark Valley's ill-fated Agent Scott. Or that Ari Graynor was once a series regular as Olivia's sister. Or that Kevin Corrigan's enigmatic Sam Weiss was once thought to be the key to the series' then-numerous mysteries. I never expected that the show's final season would take place in a dystopian future where the once harmless-seeming beings called The Observers ruled the earth with an iron fist. But through it all, FRINGE stayed true to it core themes and characters. Somehow, it took us to other dimensions and other times - from monster-of-the-week procedural to sci-fi serialization - and yet held together as a cohesive narrative that could still be boiled down to its basic thematic tenets.

Fringe adopted many of the best aesthetic qualities of shows like The X-Files and Lost. It had a great atmosphere of foreboding, tinged with an offbeat sense of humor and a surprising amount of heart. The show almost always looked amazing - and featured some truly inspired design for its creatures, characters, and worlds. The music was always a highlight. Especially in the dystopian setting of Season 5, I've loved the John Carpenter-esque score used to maximum dramatic effect. What was so remarkable though was the detail put into these worlds to distinguish, say, our world from the colder, more futuristic Earth 2. Earth 2 felt different, distinct, and of course the details big and small drove that home - from its flying zeppelin ships to its bronze Statue of Liberty to little, fanboy-friendly details like the "alternate" versions of classic comic book covers, glimpsed on the walls of Peter's Earth 2 bedroom. And I'll say it again - the way that the actors on the show portrayed multiple versions of their characters was nothing short of amazing. John Noble as the grimly ruthless "Walternate," Jasika Nicole as autistic savant Earth 2 Astrid, and of course Anna Torv and the multiple versions of Olivia - all amazing. They were so good that when an episode was partially set in Earth 2, you half expected to see other actors' names pop up as special guest stars in the credits.

One thing that I also always loved about Fringe is that Fringe loved science. Lost went off the rails in large part when it abandoned science fiction for all-you-need-is-love spirituality, but FRINGE took joy in science and pseudo-science right up until the very end. Yes, the show did at times infuse its science-y core with a mild dose of hokey "love is the answer" sentimentality, but that never stopped Fringe from being a show that reveled in science in a way that few other shows, ever (okay, maybe Star Trek: The Next Generation), have done. Some of the most joyous moments on Fringe were those in which Walter or Peter giddily explained some neat-o bit of science, often with few visual aids but a chalk or dry-erase board. Fringe was often about the dangers of unchecked science, but it was also very much about the joy of scientific knowledge and discovery. Often, the show would seem to say that there was no problem that couldn't be solved, no jam that these characters couldn't get out of, by using the power of their brains to think outside the box. Fringe celebrated science, intelligence, and creativity. Not to get too political, but in a world in which science, facts, knowledge, and smarts often seem to be viewed with a skeptical eye by the masses, it was awesome to see a show that reminded us of the wonder and awe to be found through brainpower, through innovation, through boundary-pushing ideas.

It's amazing - I've been blogging now for almost 10 years, and Fringe was one of the big shows that I used to write about consistently, back when I was doing weekly TV reviews. Looking back at my initial thoughts on the show, there was indeed a lot of skepticism there at the outset. But Fringe kept evolving - making bold leaps and never failing to take narrative chances. Just as Lost was losing momentum, Fringe was quietly becoming the best show on TV. It barely cracked my Top 10 in 2008, but moved up in 2009. In 2010, I named it the Best TV Show of the Year. The show's second season saw an incredible string of episodes - as we learned about Peter's otherdimensional origins, met a time-travelling Peter Weller in the instant-classic "White Tulip" episode, and got our first glimpse of "the other side," Fringe quickly cemented itself as not just a wannabe, but as a new classic in its own right. Seasons 2 and 3 of Fringe are just off-the-chain good. And Season 5 was a nice epilogue of sorts - a self-contained, highly-serialized sci-fi story that brought things full circle for the characters.

And that finale ... while it felt rushed in parts, I will say that I enjoyed it greatly, especially in terms of how it worked as send-off for these characters, and as a tribute of sorts to the history of the show. The final raid on the Observer HQ was a gloriously insane, Cabin in the Woods-esque climax, as all manner of monsters-of-the-week were unleashed on the Observers, who never knew what hit them. "That is cool!" exclaims Walter, as one of his repossessed super-science weapons causes a hapless Observer to defy gravity and float, immobilized, into the air. And yes, it was friggin' cool. FRINGE never lost sight of the cool-factor over all these years. At the same time, that anchor that was always there - Walter and his journey - again formed the backbone of the finale. Walter, walking off into the great unknown - sad because he must leave his son, but satisfied in that he has, seemingly - and finally! - found his ultimate redemption and done his part to save the same world - the same people - that he once almost destroyed.

What's funny about this finale though is something that's true when most great stories come to an end - the sense of finality mixed with an overpowering feeling that these characters still exist, that they live on. Just as I sometimes wonder what Mulder and Scully are up to these days, I too will wonder about Walter Bishop, and Peter and Olivia, and Broyles, and Astrid. Sure, the finale ended with Walter separated from his family by centuries, and with Olivia and Peter finally at peace with their daughter Etta. But come on, this is FRINGE ... who's to say that some world-conquering threat won't prompt Walter to jump back to the present to enlist the help of his old friends? Who's to say that Peter and Olivia won't get caught up in some transdimensional hijinks that requires getting the old gang back together? Who's to day that Etta won't one day grow up to be the same sort of resourceful badass we saw in Season 5, and go off on her own universe-spanning quest? This is the power of great fiction. These character now exist. Our universe is but one in the multiverse, and only the lack of Walter's Window prevents us from peering over. But for five seasons, our screens have been our Windows. And who's to say that these characters won't continue to evolve, to grow, to persist even when we're not looking in on their lives?

FRINGE's journey undoubtedly became a highly emotional one for its fans and for its cast and crew. This summer, I sat at the Fringe panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, and watched as actors like Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Jasika Nicole - even Lance Reddick! - broke down in tears talking about the show's final season and what the show had meant to them. Donned in mass-distributed old-timey Observer hats, the audience clapped and cheered in appreciation. Fringe had become one of the Great shows, and more - a beloved fictional universe in its own right. Just as Walter Bishop had done, Fringe itself had "crossed over," through the looking glass, and here it was on the other side.

We've all been part of it - "a great adventure," as Walter might smile and say, "like The Guns of Navarone!" We all travel to different worlds and other universes every day, in our own way. But for five years, I am glad that I got to be a part of this one. Whatever comes next - whatever the next potentially great sci-fi show might be ... it will have a hell of a lot to live up to. Fringe will be missed, but it will also still be there, somewhere, in the multiverse. For us, the adventure continues.

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