Monday, September 17, 2012

'Fringe' Season One (2008)

Starring Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and John Noble
Created by JJ Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman

FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is assigned a case unlike anything she's seen before: a plane has landed at Logan Airport in Boston, and all the passengers are dead - and their skin has turned translucent.  Dunham and her partner and lover, Agent John Scott (Mark Valley) follow a lead to a local storage facility where Scott is caught in an explosion and exposed to a biological agent that begins to turn his skin translucent.

Desperate to find a cure, Dunham tracks down a scientist named Walter Bishop (John Noble) who decades earlier had worked in the areas of "fringe science," performing radical experiments on subjects like telekinesis, teleportation, and so on.  Unfortunately, Bishop has been committed to a mental institution for the last 17 years.  The only way to speak to him is to get permission from Bishop's son, Peter (Joshua Jackson) who is currently working in Baghdad.

Unfortunately, though Walter is able to cure Agent Scott, Dunham discovers that he is, in fact, a traitor. Dunham's boss, SAC Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick) tells Dunham that he has been investigating something called The Pattern, and that Scott was apparently involved.  The Pattern, Broyles explains, is a series of strange events that have been occurring which all seem to be macabre scientific experiments. Dunham, along with Peter and Walter and Dunham's friend Agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo) form the FBI's new Fringe Division.  Their job is to investigate these strange cases, and hopefully figure out what the Pattern truly is, and who is behind it.

In the 1990s, "The X-Files" was a huge hit and a personal favorite of mine.  Though that show went pretty far off the rails in its last couple year (I can't even say for certain that I've watched any episodes of the show's 8th season, and I remember the pointed disappointment of the series finale) I've long hoped for a show that would come along and fill the same sort of niche as the adventures of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

On a surface level, "Fringe" does that.  In fact, it seems almost specifically designed to do so.  It features FBI agents investigating strange goings-on, spinning wildly between the horror and sci-fi genres.  The tone of the show is also similar, albeit with a much faster pace.  While "X-Files" was often slow and ponderous, with lots of speculative, almost poetic narration from its characters, "Fringe" rockets along like the Michael Bay version of "X-Files."

This is where the show falters.  It seems so intent on throwing out shocking events that it doesn't often seem to stop and think about whether those twists make much sense.  To be fair, the mythology of "The X-Files" got similarly muddled later on.  Still, there's not a lot of consistency here.  In early episodes, Dunham and the others occasionally introduce themselves as being from the Department of Homeland Security rather than the FBI.  There's also mention of a variety of factions regarding the Pattern, and we're alternately led to believe that some are good and some are evil, but sometimes they seem to switch sides.

Ultimately, it feels like "Fringe" is throwing a ton of concepts at the viewers just to see which ones stick, and then hoping no one notices.  The characters don't get much development, since they're so busy getting thrown around into one crazy situation after another.  It's really the strength of the cast that makes any of them work.

Of the bunch, John Noble is easily the one most worth your attention.  Walter Bishop is insane, barely able to focus, but a certifiable genius.  Over time we will see more and more how much he cares for his son, and regrets his past as an absent father.  Noble is able to handle the quick-second turns from lucidity to random that the character requires, making Walter Bishop funny and endearing.  And yet, there's also an undercurrent of something dangerous in Bishop.  As much as you end up liking him, there's always a sense that Walter Bishop's knowledge is something to be feared.

Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson do fine jobs as Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop, though neither of them are quite as gripping as Noble's performance.  All three of them have good chemistry together, though Jackson's line deliveries are sometimes flatter than they need be - Frankly I blame that on the scripts he's handed.  Sometimes he's trying to be flippant, but the line is longer than the tone allows.  Jackson has always had a bit of a fun, sarcastic streak in his performances, and here he's no different.  Torv does a good job making Dunham a capable female agent, but also having a bit of vulnerability.

On a technical level, the first season of "Fringe" looks fantastic.  Though the show is set in Boston, it wasn't filmed there.  It's obvious to me as a local, but people elsewhere probably won't notice these problems.  One thing they will notice, however, is that the location of the Boston Federal Building changes halfway through season.  In the latter half of the season, the FBI's office is suddenly located within the John Hancock Tower (which, in reality, has no FBI field office) even though it's the same office.  The show's photography is great, with lots of sharp images and great colors.  In the early episodes, sequences involving strange happenings are given a thick coating of lens flares, though this drops off considerably as the season progresses.

The end of the season finally feels like the writers have gotten their stuff together, and the finale is a blisteringly paced episode that seems to rocket the show forward.  The final shot is the sort of cliffhanger material that would make me burn to watch the next episode.  And yet... it left me feeling oddly cold.  I just can't shake the fact that "Fringe" is a subpar "X-Files" knock-off.  Even if it does have some intriguing ideas propping it up and even some great casting and dialogue, overall this first season leaves a lot to be desired.