Fringe Series Lookback: Beyond the Edge of the Universe and Back Again

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When Fringe was announced in 2008, comparisons to The X-Files weren't just appropriate, they nailed it. At that point, all we really knew about the show was that a few weirdos (including one handsome dark-haired dude and one sexy redhead) would team up to solve unexplained cases that normal FBI spooks weren't smart enough to handle. But throughout its five-season run, Fringe distinguished itself from its main influence to be something much, much more than poking gross things with a stick.

And the show ditched comparisons to The X-Files by using its greatest trait: Its ability to adapt. Like co-creator J.J. Abrams' previous series Lost, each season of Fringe was its own creature with its own unique traits, for better and worse. But it would be some time before we knew exactly what we had on our hands. In order to be as audience-friendly as it could be at the start, Season 1 was an anthology of standalone cases designed to bring in eyeballs and not upset easily upset viewers who like their television neat and tidy. Hardly novel. Serial aspects crept in the longer the season ran, but nothing much bigger than what other procedurals on network television were doing. This was Fringe at its safest and most boring; hardly indicative of what the show was capable of.

It wasn't until the end of Season 1 that Fringe began to show its hand, taking the procedural-happy hitchhikers it'd picked up on an entirely different ride and perking the ears of sci-fi nerds. I remember when the show introduced the idea of parallel universes, and I'm pretty sure I peed my pants in excitement and prayed the show would go where I hoped it would go. And it did. But seeing a potential long life to the series, Season 2 teased the alternate universe (fore me, Olivia flying out of the taxi in the Season 2 premiere was a turning point for the series) more often than visiting it, and in Season 3 Fringe went full-on bonkers, which is exactly what we were all hoping for.

Oh my god, Season 3. Everything came together brilliantly for Fringe in Season 3, which remains one of the best seasons of television, sci-fi or otherwise, that I've had the privilege of covering since I've been in this business. The back-and-forth between the two universes opened up so many possibilities, but showrunners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman made a great call when they used this new concept to focus on the romantic relationship between Peter and Olivia. It was a will-they-won't-they scenario that had no rules because there was no precedent for it on television, unless I missed the episode of Moonlighting where Maddie was cloned and her new carbon copy started a relationship with David. The addition of the second universe and a second Olivia brought Fringe into its own Age of Philosophy, with unanswerable brain-scramblers being asked weekly. Could you also love a copy of a person you already love, especially when the copy doesn't have the same hang-ups as the original? How much do one's experiences shape a person, and how much of a person is always embedded in their consistent core? Dirty blonde or redhead?

Season 3 was layered, man. So many new aspects were smooshed together that the show could've easily buckled under its own weight. But it was a unique storytelling device that glued everything together and was the real hero of the season: The concept of the "Mythalone" took the series to new creative heights. Many Season 3 episodes were telling a standalone story and working on the season's mythology, and thematically they resonated with each other. If an episode was about some creep who ripped out the hearts of his victims, it came back around when Peter had his heart crushed by Olivia. If an episode was about Fauxlivia learning about an unexpected pregnancy, the case involved parasites eating someone from the inside. And Fringe, with its out-there ideas, needed this sort of anchor. I don't know if it made it harder to write the show, creating weekly cases that reflected the set path of the mythology, but it certainly made it a lot more fun to watch.

The idea that each season was built on a new concept inherently makes each season only as good as its concept, and that's where Season 4 tumbled from the peak of Season 3. Peter was "erased" in Season 4 and didn't even show up for a good many episodes outside of being an odd flickering apparition. It was a daring move, but it was one that didn't entirely pay off. Some fans were outright PISSED, and I see their point. See, (at least) half of what made Fringe so good was its characters and their relationships with each other. We'd watched them grow from strangers into a tight-knit group that only had each other. Think about Season 1 Olivia. She was guarded, cold, joyless, and not so "quick to smile," as Peter put it. Those characteristics put many viewers off both her and the show early on, but I like to believe that her behavior was intentional all along. We saw her become someone entirely new, someone warm, someone who would finally smile, and there is no doubt that the reason it happened is that she spent time with Walter and Peter. The same can be said about Walter, whose manic moments were softened as his relationship with Peter grew stronger, and his eccentricity turned into patriarchal love. Don't get me wrong, he was still a freakshow, but an adorable freakshow.

By resetting things with a new timeline and new versions of Olivia and Walter, Season 4 took the relationships we'd watched grow for three years and erased them. Given their concept, Pinkner and Wyman asked all the right questions in an attempt to replicate much of the success of Season 3, and many times that worked. But most television audiences feel that character relationships are sacred ground and shouldn't be messed with so suddenly, and Season 4 was never able to fully overcome its "erasures," despite some fantastic moments. A lot of the philosophy still remained, and some standout episodes ("One Night in October," "And Those We've Left Behind") kept the show alive in Season 4. But without the concrete relationships established over the previous 60-plus episodes, the show felt more hollow than it'd been before.

Which brings us to Season 5, and the series' biggest reboot to date. Building on the post-apocalyptic "What if?" scenario of Season 4's "Letters of Transit," Season 5, the series' last, jumped into the future and transformed Fringe entirely from an emotional near-future procedural into an epic sci-fi action movie. On its own, it was watchable with shining moments. But compared to what the show was before, I'd call it a mess. Even though Season 4 was shortened to just 13 episodes, things started off slow and laborious as Walter's scavenger hunt had us chasing items for a reason unknown to us. Peter had a dalliance with Observer technology. Walter wanted to be relobotomized. And Olivia never had much to do at all. Though a clear goal was set (kill the Observers!), several core tenets of Fringe's past were dead and gone. There was no alternate universe (well there was, we just didn't go there until very late), no philosophy, no lingering questions that kept us awake at night and remained until the next episode, and the emotional territory revolved around a new character (daughter Etta, the metaphorical and physical product of Peter and Olivia's love) who'd just been introduced.

But the final episodes of Fringe salvaged plenty; they were a service to the fans, giving us one last visit to the alternate universe and strumming the emotional chords one last time. The show may have started off as a show about three unique people who solved strange cases, but in the end it was about a father and his son, a couple, family, and the enormous sacrifices we're willing to make for the people we love.

Fringe is gone. Gone! Forever. This will likely be my last bit about the show here on TV.com, but we'll be talking about it as long as we have functioning mouths that haven't been closed over by some toxic gas. And I'll talk about it reverently because even though it wasn't perfect, its greatest accomplishments were unlike anything I'd ever seen and affected me on so many levels. Toward the end the ratings may not have been what we would have liked, but future generations will stream the series and be wowed just like we were. And in some alternate universe, Fringe definitely got the recognition it deserved.


A FEW MORE THINGS ABOUT THE SERIES THAT, TO ME, REALLY STAND OUT

The Theme: If you ask me (go ahead, I'll wait... okay thanks for asking) one of Fringe's great contributions to the Museum of Television is its theme. Written by Abrams, it's actually a clue to where the series would go. Listen to the first "verse" and it's fairly simple. The second verse adds more complexity by hitting twice as many notes, and then the final seconds are a dude pounding on a keyboard like Schroeder on bath salts. If you can process the sounds visually, it's a tip to the multiple universes. The first piano chimes represent the world we see, the second batch adds another layer (the red universe to the blue universe), and at the end you're essentially staring into the void and seeing the infinite possibilities of infinite universes, something I had hoped Fringe would approach had it lasted longer.

The Openings: As a big fan of relevant opening credits, I always admired Fringe's because they were simple enough to be altered for maximum effect. Remember when the 1980s version came out? You were like, "Holy shit this rules!" weren't you? Because that was the appropriate response. And when the credits went red, more expletives. All the way up through the Observers version of Season 5, Fringe never just threw something out without wondering what could be done to make it cooler.

The Budget: Toward the end of the series, the show's budget was a pool of lunch money. But the men and women behind the scenes stretched those Canadian Loonies as far as they possibly could for really impressive production values. Though special effects were a big part of the series, they were only used when necessary. The sets always looked great, and the backdrop of the alternate universe and 2036 became worlds all their own. Fringe created its own world(s) as well as any sci-fi property ever has.

The Acting: Do you remember being iffy on Anna Torv when the show began? The girl ended up putting it all together and delivering one of television's most unheralded performances as the bazillion iterations of Olivia. There were moments in Season 3 when I didn't even recognize Torv in Altlivia. But obviously the big to-do here is the wonderful John Noble, who went unrecognized in the awards field as Walter Bishop.


And now I leave you with this, Fringe fans. Keep hope alive.



Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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