I loved Fringe when it first aired in 2008-2013! Created by J.J. Abrams midway through Lost, it is a show that got low ratings and never the love it deserves. Perhaps it’s because it’s Science-Fiction and it gets lazilyly pitched as a rip off of The X Files but it is so much more than that! I do love The X Files but I really think objectively that Fringe is better!
When I found that Fringe was on Now TV in the UK, and I had to rewatch it. I wanted to know if it was a good as I ‘membered and whether I’d still feel as disappointed by the final season as I was in 2013. While Fringe was originally conceived for 6 seasons it only got 4 full ones and a short 13 episode season 5. This meant that the writers had to cram in a season or more of the final piece of the story into less than half the amount of episodes. On the one hand, the fans are super fortunate that we got a collusion (which is satisfying even if very rushed), but on the other it is disappointing that we never got to see the story unfold in a more natural way.
On re-watching Fringe I honestly think it was better than I ‘membered it! For all its wacky science shenanigans it keeps grounded in reality, and the core of the show is an amazing team of characters and the idea that it is love above all else that keeps us together. The writing is, for the most part tight (except for maybe season 4…) and steadily unfolds the mysteries at an increasing pace that works really well. Unlike The X Files, Fringe doesn’t really have any filler episodes. Each one offers a little piece of the puzzle whether the audience can recognise it yet or not.
Here are some of the reasons I recommend Fringe to you.
In The X Files mould our main character is an FBI agent, Olivia Dunham played by Anna Torv. You may recognise her from Mindhunters or The Last Of Us, in fact it was my joy at seeing her in The Last of Us that made me decided to rewatch Fringe. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since Olivia Dunham.
As a character Olivia is a perfect balance of cool headed determination, stoicism, vulnerability, empathy and has an open mind for accepting the world of Fringe. She also gets a practical wardrobe of colourless business suite with flat, sensible shoes. Her hair is usually in a simple ponytail, and she has minimal make up. In TV land of this era where female characters, even agents, can be seen running around in full make-up, coiffed hair-styles and heels I really appreciate it!
I love everything about Olivia Dunham.
A procedural show like this requires Olivia to have a partner, and this role is filled by ex-con-man with a genius level IQ Peter Bishop played by Joshua Jackson, who truly breaks out off the shackles of Pacey from Dawsons Creek. Olivia originally needs Peter to gain access to his father, but predictably he ends up staying to form the new team in Fringe Division. Peter’s role initially is to provide the more level-headed commentary to balance out Walter, but he is revealed to be a talented engineer and while he can be hot-headed he is at this heart a deeply compassionate man. Peter is estranged from his father, and the exploration and reparation of their complex relation is at the core of the show and the source of countless truly touching moments.
Then there is Dr Walter Bishop the quite literally mad scientist that Olivia pulls out of a mental institution in the first episode. As the hippie, drug-loving, sugar addicted scientist John Nobel (Denethor in LOTR) steals every scene, and is often the source of the lighter moments of comedy as well as the deepest emotional scenes. It is a really incredible performance. Through his work with the FBI Fringe Division Walter must uncover his own past actions and the devastating and far reaching consequences.
I don’t want to forget Astrid Farnsworth, though she may be easily overlooked. She is a quieter but no less essential member of the team usually left in the lab rather than out in the fields. Astrid is also an FBI Agent but her role is initially as a kind of wrangler and lab assistant for Walter, though we she is also a talented code breaker and researcher. She is incredibly sweet with Walter, and an endless well of compassion and patience even though she will give the odd eye roll and complain (affectionately) about Walter making yet another mess of the lab.
There are also some other excellent support characters in Colonel Broyels, Olivia’s boss, and Nina Sharpe the severely bobbed head of futurist scientist mega-corp Massive Dynamic who knew Walter in his younger days. We also have the mysterious founder of Massive Dynamic, and Walter’s ex-lab partner-in-crime William “Belly” Bell memorably played by Leonard Nimoy. Countless recognisable faces pop in, including Jared Harris playing a fantastic villain.
It has a little bit of everything
It is a science-fiction procedural show so it obviously has plenty of mystery and fantastic elements. There is suspense, action and drama in spades. And its funny! It knows when to break the tension (and that it is a little bit ridiculous at times) with light relief, which usually comes from Walter. And somehow it stays grounded somewhat in reality as they stretch some real science concepts out into the weird science events. It feels possible.
It also looks great, and I’ve already mentioned the cast but every single person in this is fantastic.
It also takes risks that many TV shows don’t, I don’t want to give spoilers but several seasons have major upheavals that upend the story. It knows how to keep things interesting!
It’s about love
Now don’t get me wrong, the episodes are full of wacky science, time travel, parallel universes, porcupine-men hybrids, telekinesis, interrogating corpses and countless body horror events, but when you distill all of that this is actually a show about love. That is what makes it so special. I’ve already described almost all the characters as empathetic people and that’s important.
At it’s very core Fringe is about love and the connections between us. While I want to avoid spoilers, Walter’s past actions along with countless “of the week” mad scientists are almost always motivated by the loss or lack of love. Our characters – in particular Olivia and Peter – survive incredible phenomena due to the strength of their connections. That is what makes the Fringe Division work.
I don’t think this is a spoiler as it’s so predictable to anyone who has ever seen television – but the romance between Olivia and Peter is maybe the best slow burn I’ve seen, although the writers do through some truly heart-breaking obstacles in their path, through open and honest communication they are able to work through it all.
The future the Fringe optimistically works towards is one that does not sacrifice empathy for the sake of intellect and progress. This comes up time and again in the episodic procedural mysteries and especially season 5, but it is also at the very core of the character of Walter.
If you like procedural shows, if you like weird science and science fiction, if you just like well made TV, if you already think Anna Torv is awesome… I highly recommend Fringe!