Peter: One guy becomes one of the wealthiest men on the planet; the other guy becomes an institutionalized psychopath.
Walter: Oh my!
Olivia: What?! What happened?
Walter: Oh...I just pissed myself.
That short snippet of dialogue between the three leads of "Fringe" is an oddly fitting summary of what a viewer could expect from episode to episode. The show opens with a bang aboard a plane, much like another series from co-creator J.J. Abrams. The twist is, this plane doesn't crash land on an island; instead it autopilots itself to a local tarmac, leaving the grimy bones of its crew and passengers to be discovered by federal authorities. When the series fades to black twenty episodes later, ending this initial season, a plane full of skeletons is a distant memory of more normal occurrences.
"Fringe" is a series that will arguably draw comparisons by many to two major sources: the previously mentioned J.J. Abrams creation, LOST as well as "The X-Files." The latter is very well justified as one of our heroic trio is FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) who is partnered to (secret) lover Agent John Scott (Mark Valley). The duo is assigned to investigate just what caused the mysterious deaths by Department of Homeland Security agent, Phillip Broyles. However, just as the pilot begins to hand us what looks to be a Mulder and Scully knockoff, things flip on us. Agent Scott is exposed to chemicals that cause his body to undergo the same horrific decomposition; while hooked to life support that will slow the process, Agent Dunham finds the only glimmer of hope in Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a genius polymath. The snag is Dr. Bishop has been in a mental institution for nearly two decades and only his son, the equally brilliant, but morally ambiguous, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) can help Dunham gain access to his father.
I will spare any further detail in regards to the events of the pilot, but as the second episode begins, our heroic trio has been assembled in the form of Dunham, Dr. Bishop and son, also known as Fringe Division. The cases of the course of the season run the gambit from terrorist attacks that leave buses of people encased in amber like substances to your everyday, garden variety, genetic monsters. Dunham is the viewer's connection to this new and strange world and as she becomes more familiar with the growing oddities, so do we, and luckily for all parties, Walter is there to explain things (often because his past, pre-institution research has connections to it).
If there is one constant in every episode of "Fringe" it's that the viewer is going to get a nice mystery, generally solved by the end of the hour, but new questions relating to the mythology of the series will arise. The mythology is what will largely draw comparisons to LOST as well as "The X-Files", but I would personally say these comparisons are poor. "Fringe" has a great mythology, but it's nowhere as obtuse as LOST or as sparsely integrated as "The X-Files." In fact, I would say the total number of unanswered mysteries at the end of season one is only slightly greater than the mysteries left at the end of a top tier episode of LOST. This allows for viewers to enjoy the show at a manageable pace and not feel cheated by an hour of nothing (hey, I absolutely love LOST but that series has its fair share of "nothing" episodes); the only downside to this, is the formula can often kill a last minute twist, because the viewer knows one is coming if it hasn't already occurred earlier in the episode.
It's impossible to say much more about the mythology of the series without giving away some great surprises. Still, a lot can be said about the quality of the show by discussing the actors. As any moviegoer who has seen an adaptation of previously written material knows, a great script or great story is only a great movie or series when performed by a competent cast, and the cast of "Fringe"
is extremely competent.
Anna Torv is easily the star of the show, although without the supporting cast, the effectiveness of her character would suffer. Her portrayal as Dunham is enjoyable and she convincingly plays the role of a confident FBI agent determined to solve the mysteries thrown at her. There are some great moments for her to show vulnerability once Dunham leaves the working world and gains a rare quiet moment all for herself. As the series progresses her relationship with Peter and Walter grows deeper and a credible bond between all three is cemented.
Peter Bishop serves as a great middle ground between the viewer/Anna and Walter. Joshua Jackson easily pulls of a memorable performance as the equally brilliant son of a brilliant scientist, struggling to make sense of the oddities popping up from week to week, not to mention his extremely odd, estranged father. As brilliant as Walter is in the lab, Peter is on the streets. His sarcasm is often utilized to ease the tension in a scene or provide a much-needed laugh during a gruesome discovery.
Walter Bishop by all intents is a supporting character, but the case could easily be made that without Walter's presence in any episode, the episode isn't worth watching. John Noble's absolutely brilliant performance as a man driven mad by a questionable imprisonment in a mental institution is criminally underrated. When the Emmy nominations came out this year and I saw Noble had been snubbed, I was not pleased, to say the least. Walter is the man who solves many of the mysteries thrown at Dunham, but never in a conventional fashion. She and Peter must rely on Walter's decades old and often ethically questionable knowledge of fringe science to solve the case and often, save lives. Walter's institutionalization plays an important part in making him such a human and likable character despite his utterly morbid fascinations. Noble does the impossible of making a mad scientist come alive on screen in a very convincing fashion. His character development, while not as large in quantity as Dunham's is by far the most impressive in the quality department. It's tremendously enjoyable to watch Walter go from a babbling madman in the pilot to a dignified scientist struggling to stay focused on the task at hand, all while trying to regain lost years with an estranged son. Fortunately, Walter's tendencies to shift mental focus mid sentence provide some great comedic moments and Walter's realizations of his peculiar behavior let us not feel guilty for laughing along with him. The bottom line is this is a role to pay attention to in the future as it deserves every bet of acclaim possible.
Finally, one must mention the supporting cast, who all play crucial roles both in the story and progression of our main characters. First and foremost is Lance Reddick as the de-facto authority figure Philip Broyles. His initial appearance in the series sets up some great conflict due to a past encounter with Dunham, but despite his imposing physical presence on screen, viewers are likely to be fans a quarter of the way through the season. Mark Valley, who was sorely missed after leaving "Boston Legal" does some great work here, that I can't go into detail about without spoiling major story arcs; his screen time is limited compared to other supporting cast members, but it's great stuff and the on-screen chemistry between himself and real-life wife Anna Torv is natural.
Rounding out this cast is Kirk Acevdo as Charlie Francis, friend of Dunham and fellow agent. Jaskia Nicole is agent Astrid Farnsworth, the fourth member of Fringe Division who often serves as Walter's lab helper and caretaker when Peter is not around. Blair Brown handles the role of Nina Sharp, second in command at Massive Dynamic, a mysterious mega corporation in the show run by the equally mysterious William Bell, a man with a strong tie to Walter's past research. Last but not least, special mention is handed to Jared Harris who has a small number of appearances this season as the sinister David Robert Jones.
So the final question remains, "Is 'Fringe' a modern television masterpiece?" No, it has its share of faults, largely one or two uninspired cases leading up to the season finale as well a small plot shift early on in the series that while subtle may leave some viewers cheated. Viewers with weak stomachs should be forewarned though, a number of episodes feature some very grisly scenes, including (off-screen) exploding heads and (on-screen) liquefied brains oozing out orifices; while it didn't make me sick, it did shock me with what the creators got away with on network television, although with the popularity of the CSI franchise, this stuff may not be that shocking anymore.
Fortunately, the show is its own entity and does a great job at telling both a conventional science fiction story as well as a human story. I must applaud Fox for giving the series an additional ten minutes each episode to do this; on DVD the episodes run 50 minutes as opposed to the normal 40 minutes, hour-long series tend to run. This translates to half the number of commercials when the show is run on television. The best thing about this freshman season is despite leaving the viewer with some great, unanswered questions, it ends on a note that would easily allow unimpressed watchers to quit without feeling cheated. It's a great new addition to modern television and not only can I hardly wait to get some of those questions answered, but I also eagerly wait to see what the future has in store for three wonderful new characters: Olivia, Peter and Walter.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is unfortunately a minor letdown. Colors are well reproduced and detail is very striking, but there is minor edge-enhancement from time-to-time as well as some extremely distracting grain. The digital grain is most noticeable in outdoors scenes that are brightly lit. It's ugly to say the least and I highly suspect it's the result of digital cameras ala Michael Mann. It's nothing that will render the show unwatchable, but I expect a higher standard, especially from a J.J. Abrams production.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital English audio track is very solid and much more satisfying than the transfer. This is largely a dialogue heavy show and this aspect of the audio is always clearly reproduced. Surrounds are used to good effect, even during discussions, which often take place in Walter's very spacious lab. When action picks up, your system should kick in a bit more actively as one would expect. It's worth noting that despite the cover claiming a 5.1 Portuguese audio track is present, a last-minute sticker indicates that this track was scrapped, as does a brief glance at the set-up menus on each disc. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai subtitles are also included.
"Fringe" has a good-sized collection of special features, first and foremost, three commentary tracks. First up creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci set down to discuss the pilot episode. It's the most interesting track as it discusses what is both on-screen as well as some much-needed back-story regarding the show's creation. On the third season episode, "The Ghost Network" episode writers David H. Goodman, J.R. Orci, and executive producer Bryan Burk handle the commentary duties. It's not the greatest commentary track I've heard but is still worth a listen, as is the final commentary track on episode 17, "Bad Dreams" by episode writer/director Akiva Goldsman and executive producer Jeff Pinker.
"Fringe: Deciphering the Scene" is a short (two to three minutes tops) featurette that is present for each episode that focuses on some behind-the-scenes aspect of that particular episode. These are often focused on the series' great special effects. In summation, they would comprise a 40-odd minute documentary on the making of the show.
"The Massive Undertaking" is a somewhat longer (around ten minutes each) segment that is present for four episodes of the series and covers more behind-the-scenes filming aspects.
"Roberto Orci's Production Diary" is just what the title implies, a short video diary highlighting the filming of early episodes. It's by far the most uninteresting feature.
"Evolution: The Genesis of Fringe" is a standard talking heads piece giving a nice concise origin of the series and despite containing spoilers (fortunately there is a warning to viewers on the menu of this fact), feels more like a promotional piece.
"The Casting of Fringe" is a very insightful look at how all these great characters came to be. It was interesting to learn Lance Reddick was not called in to test for Broyles, but instead the much less intense Charlie. The brief audition tapes are fun to see how early on many of these actors (Noble specifically) had already nailed the tone of their characters. It is appropriately marked with a spoiler warning to be viewed after watching the complete season.
"Behind the Real Science of Fringe" features another spoiler warning as it covers almost every episode in the season briefly, discussing how the writers tried to bring some credible science to the mystery of the week. While some of their origins are very insightful and thought provoking, others are shaky and laughable at best.
"Gene the Cow" and "Unusual Side Effects" make up the last featurettes, the former being a brief look at a thankless source of comic relief, while the latter is a standard gag-reel.
Finally, on a handful of episodes are "Dissected Files" or in more common terms, deleted scenes. For a show already ten-minutes over the standard runtime, not a lot here is greatly missed. They are presented in rough looking, non-anamorphic format
Technical issues with the transfer aside, this first season release of "Fringe" is a very satisfying package. The show may take a familiar path in narrative design, but the destination the viewer is left at and the scenery along the way are original and entertaining. Olivia, Peter and Walter are all extremely likable and are wonderful travel companions for viewers on some very strange (and sometimes disturbing) trips. As one fantastic sci-fi series comes to a wrap next year (LOST), hopefully "Fringe" will shine brighter in its upcoming sophomore season and fill some of the gap that LOST will create. Highly Recommended.