Tuesday, October 9, 2012

'Fringe' Season Four (2011)

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

The war between the universes has been averted, but at a terrible cost.  Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) has been erased from the timeline.  But as the Fringe teams in both universes continue to deal with strange events connected to the degradation of the universes and the fracturing of the timeline, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and crackpot scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) have visions and dreams of a strange man neither one can identify.

And then, suddenly, Peter Bishop winks into back into existence.  Convinced he's found himself in another alternate universe or timeline, Peter focuses himself on finding a way home, back to his Olivia. Meanwhile, in this altered timeline, Peter wasn't able to stop David Robert Jones (Jared Harris) from crossing over years earlier, and now the radical terrorist is back.  He's employing a new variety of shapeshifters that are harder to spot in order to advance his plans for destruction.

Now Peter must use his knowledge and memories that no one else has to help both universes join forces to stop Jones from enacting his awful plan: to collapse both universes and create a third new one, one that he can design and control to his will.

I've never before encountered a show that so simply decided to ditch its entire three-season backstory and literally reboot itself.  The fourth season of "Fringe" is, in a word, frustrating.  It completely wipes away the big steps and revelations of the third season, and blandly starts from scratch to rebuild the relationships between Olivia, Peter and Walter.

In this new timeline, Olivia has never met Peter.  Instead, the Peter Bishops of both universes died as children - the Prime Peter died of a sickness, and Walter crossed over to the alternate universe to rescue the other, but when he returned with him and the two fell into the lake, the Observer didn't rescue them, killing the second Peter.  Years later, Olivia is the one who got Walter out of a mental institution in order to help her solve fringe cases, and they still work with Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole).  They've worked many of the same cases, just without Peter.

But now here comes Peter, this mysterious man out of nowhere who seems to know an awful lot of classified information, and an awful lot of personal information about Olivia and Walter and the others. So the show basically just rehashes them forming their relationships.  Peter and Olivia grow closer over the course of the season and eventually rekindle their romantic relationship. Peter and Walter learn to love each other as father and son, and Walter once again makes strides toward being able to take care of himself in a limited respect, thanks to Peter's presence.

But the problem is that we've seen this all before.  We spent three seasons watching these characters go through these motions, and now the show expects us to enjoy watching it again when we were already headed in a different and better direction.  There were so many concepts in season three that deserved to be explored, such as (for example) the fact that Peter had a child with Fauxlivia which are simply wiped clean for the sake of what was essentially just a shock-value cliffhanger.

The return of David Robert Jones is fun, and Jared Harris does a splendid job, but I can't help but feel like it should have been done a different way.  The ongoing storyline is worthwhile, but it came at too high a price.  The show has veered drastically off course, and by the time it rights itself, the season is over.  The alternate universe storyline gets shoved aside unsatisfactorily, and the season finale feels rushed and small-scale.  It closes out many of the show's ongoing storylines, apparently having been written with the intention of it being a series finale as the show's fifth-season pickup was not guaranteed.

The episodes themselves are still fairly entertaining, and some are even great.  One episode features the team in a town that is merging with its alternate counterpart, and slowly destroying itself, which is great fun, and features some excellent special effects work.  That this episode feels bigger and more apocalyptic than the season finale is disappointing to say the least.  But the tendency for "Fringe" to tell us things instead of show them to us rears its ugly head on that one.

The cast is still as game as ever.  John Noble gets to play an even crazier version of Walter in the new timeline, one who has become a shut-in who never leaves his lab.  He investigates crime scenes by viewing video footage taken by Astrid, who gets to go out into the field more.  While this is fun in the sense that Walter is always entertaining to watch, it's still a character arc we've already seen for him, and like everything else this season, feels like a step back and a retread.

Agent Lincoln Lee (Seth Grabel) is added as a series regular, and gets one of the more interesting storylines simply because it's the only one that doesn't feel like we've seen it before.  The show hints that he's falling for Olivia, but she's obviously got feelings for Peter.  The show never really develops it as a love triangle, but then Lincoln starts to feel a tug toward the alternate universe.  He spends a good amount of time there, and I enjoyed the episodes featuring him helping the alternate Fringe Division.

There's entertainment here, but season four of "Fringe" stumbles hard.  Throwing out the direction the show had been headed at the end of season three was a huge mistake, forcing these episodes to waste too much time and effort trying to get the audience to care about something we've already seen instead of going somewhere new.