As regular readers of this blog know, my relationship with broadcast television is sketchy. I had hardly heard of Fringe, the science-fiction drama on the Fox Network. It sounded like something I would like, so this last month I have Netflixed the first season, twenty episodes in its entirety.
It was co-created by J.J. Abrams, who created Lost, so the pedigree was strong. And I must say I enjoyed the show, but I couldn't help feeling I'd seen it before. It labors under the long, dark shadow of The X-Files.
Like that show, which was brilliant television, Fringe deals with the FBI. We even have an attractive, red-haired female agent. But in Fringe, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is not a doctor. She's a determined law enforcer who is brought onto a task force, overseen by the sepulchral Lance Reddick, that is investigating a series of unusual biological occurrences, which have been dubbed "the pattern." The event that gets Torv involved is a plane that lands with all aboard dead, their bodies gooey. The one man who may know what happened is in a mental institution, a Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble). Torv tracks down his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), and they get Noble released.
This is the team that makes up the first season, and the template is established. Each week, pre-credits, some bizarre medical event takes place, whether it's a woman bursting into flames, another woman emitting microwaves and cooking the customers in a diner, a man hallucinating that he's being attacked by butterflies with razor-sharp wings, a teenager getting his brain liquefied by watching a video on the Internet, a man transforming into a monster on an airplane, or a newsstand worker dying from accelerated skin growth, which covers all of his orifices. Then, after the first commercial, Dunham and the Bishops investigate.
Some of this is a lot of macabre fun, but there's a pointed subtext. Much of the plots concern the evils of science run amok, of the unethical use of humans as guinea pigs in drug trials. It develops over the course of the season that Dunham herself was the subject of a drug trial as a small child, and it was conducted by Bishop himself. The show both embraces the possibilities of science, as well as its horrifying outcomes if in the wrong hands. The bad guys are a group of bio-terrorists following the manifesto of a reclusive billionaire (who appears in the closing moments of the last episode of the season, played by Leonard Nimoy).
So, instead of Fox Mulder, one of the great TV characters of the last twenty years, we have Walter Bishop. He's no Mulder, but he's close. Noble is an Australian actor who rumbles like an old Shakespearean actor. I had trouble placing him, but then realized he was in the final Lord of the Rings picture (he was the one who took a fiery swan dive), and he delivers each line with relish. Bishop is a badly damaged man who has only some of his marbles. He still is a brilliant scientist, but with the focus of a small child. He'll go from figuring out a way to extract thoughts from the dead, and then demand cotton candy--"Pink, not blue!" In fact, almost every episode contains some reference to a craving for food, whether it's coffee ice cream or Frankenberry cereal. Beyond the humor, Bishop is well-written in his lingering grief over the mistakes he made earlier in his life.
Part of that extends to his son. Jackson's role is much thinner--he's most frequently called upon to make sarcastic asides after his father's bizarre statements. A reveal at the end of the first season offers that there's more to him, but I'll find that out when I watch the second season.
As for Torv, she's a Cate Blanchett look-alike (and she's also Australian). Her character gains heft as the season goes on, as she's given the backstory of the medical experiments. I found the subplot involving her sister and niece to be cloying, though.
The one big difference between Fringe and The X-Files is that Fringe has no reference to aliens from space. There is the similarity that a dark conspiracy lies at the bottom of what's going on. We see some shady nasties, most prevalently Jared Harris as a creepy guy who gets transported from a German prison cell to a field in Massachusetts (the Star Trek references are rampant, even beyond Nimoy's presence). Unlike The X-Files, which had bad guys constantly eluding Mulder and Scully's justice, the evil-doers come to hideous ends in Fringe, which is more keeping in the traditions of broadcast TV. And much more satisfying, to be frank.