Monday, October 1, 2012

'Fringe' Season Two (2009)

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

FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) has finally managed to meet the elusive William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), but the truth about him and the mysterious Pattern that she's been investigating is far stranger than she imagined.  Bell now lives in an alternate universe, one which is slowly being torn apart by strange anomalies known as "Fringe Events."

Back in her home universe, Dunham's partners Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), have no idea where she's gone.  When Dunham returns, just as mysteriously as she left, but missing her memory of what happened on the other side, the team tries to figure out how to get her to remember.

Meanwhile, FBI agent Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick) continues to assign the team to investigate strange occurrences.  But more than just weird things are happening: enemies from the other side have infiltrated our universe.  What is their plan?  Why are they here? And when it's discovered that agents from the other side can take the form of anyone they meet, who can Dunham and the Bishops ultimately trust?

If you recall, I wasn't too enamored by the first season of 'Fringe.'  It was alright, even entertaining, but it was fairly hollow.  It seemed to move too fast for its own good, a pretty but not very meaty "X-Files" riff.  Season two is a definite improvement in the right direction, but still has its own problems.

For starters, one of the smarter things the series does is move away a little bit from having every case be related to Walter's old experiments and the Massive Dynamic Corporation, which makes the series feel like it has much more variety to it.  Too many episodes in the first season seemed to fall into the pattern of having Walter recognize that the weird things that were happening were perversions of his work decades prior.  Now, though, that conceit is mostly left for stories dealing specifically with the show's growing mythology, and the standalone episodes work a little better this way.

The overarching mythology of the show also works better this year than last.  It feels more plotted, less random.  Before, it was difficult to get any kind of grasp on Massive Dynamic and which side of things they were on.  This season seems clearer and more focused.  The season finale is bigger and far more satisfying this year than before, feeling less rushed and better plotted.

The characters grow closer this year, but this is problematic.  Frankly, when Broyles announces that Dunham and the Bishops are like family to him, I don't believe it.  Not in the slightest.  That's the real fault here, that the characters tell us how they feel about each other, but we rarely get to actually see it in action.  One of the only relationships in the series that seems to feel natural and not forced is between Walter and his FBI assistant/caretaker Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole).  Most of that comes from the chemistry between the actors, and also that the show sets up a number of situations where Astrid shows real concern for Walter, comforting him when he's upset, and so on.  The relationship between Walter and Peter is also explored and expanded, providing much of the emotional drama for the season.

That said, the key relationship between Olivia and Peter doesn't work as well. The show is pushing them towards a budding romance, but it just doesn't quite work.  When the writers put them in situations where they can be natural with each other and grow closer, the scenes themselves are perfectly fine, and yet somehow the relationship itself seems forced and abrupt when it seems to stumble forward.

There are other problems with this season.  There are numerous episodes that are pretty good save for one truly frustrating aspect: The characters will travel back and forth between their home base in Boston and someplace like, say, upstate New York multiple times in one episode for no real reason.  The first time this happens, Walter throws a hissy that he needs to work in his own lab at Harvard.  Fine and well, except that for the rest of the episode, Olivia and Peter go back and forth between Cambridge, MA and some town in Pennsylvania, often only for one scene.  It's completely absurd.  Eventually the show smartens up and the characters get motel rooms and learn to use cell phones, but not soon enough.

Season two is, again,  a pretty huge improvement over season one.  The storytelling and plotting are much more coherent and entertaining.  The alternate universe is a ton of fun, and the back half of the season really kicks into gear.