How Fringe Broke the Mold (and Our Hearts)
By Brandon Crnkovic
Author Disclaimer: Minor to moderate spoilers for Fringe below. If you haven’t seen it, do so immediately. The article will still be here, really. Go watch it. It’s just 100 episodes of high-quality television. Like and save the article link so you can find it again, of course. You should probably share the link with your friends too just in case you need help finding it later. If you haven’t liked Nerd HQ’s page yet, that’s easily your first and best step to finding this article again. Seriously, though, even if you can’t help but read a retrospective on a show you never watched before watching said show, watch it anyway. The information presented below is just the tip of the ICEBERG OF WONDER (patent pending) that is one of my all-time favorite shows.
In 2008, J.J. Abams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci brought a very special television show into the world: Fringe. They created a new type of program which combined the best storytelling elements and techniques from many genres and mediums and even pioneered a few of their own. It was a series made for everyone but also for no one in that it was not meant to conform to any established genres. It was undoubtedly a brave show and the creators were not afraid to gamble on big plot twists or rely on emotional and character-driven arcs amidst the more commonly acceptable procedural fare through which most of the plotlines were delivered. Fringe attempted to be many things and succeeded at most of them. It was groundbreaking at the time and there has not been anything like it since it went off the air in 2013.
Fringe has something for everyone and although the adage about serving too many masters has endured for a reason, Abrams and company managed to find a successful balance (though they admit it took about a half season do so). In a pre-Westworld or Game of Thrones world, “mainstream” science fiction and fantasy shows had not enjoyed overwhelming success. Exceptions like Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone, and The X Files had paved the way but most sci-fi series were either short-lived or limited to expanded cable networks like the SciFi Channel (now SyFy).
To remain accessible to Fox’s audience, the pilot eased viewers into a world which, at first blush, perfectly resembled our own (give or take a certain highly advanced prosthesis). This episode presents as a procedural with admittedly wacky evidence and follows a no-nonsense agent with a personal stake in the investigation. As you would expect, the agent quickly begins a tumble down the rabbit hole and takes the viewers along for the ride. Besides the colorful characters which round out the remainder of the cast, “The Pattern” (a series of strange events unexplained by common scientific understanding) is introduced along with the fictional Fringe Division: A group within the FBI and under the supervision of Homeland Security dedicated to the investigation and prevention of said events. The pilot even manages to include heaping helpings of drama, mystery, conspiracy, and action. Future episodes tackle weekly monsters, mutants, and other mysterious events while introducing romantic tension, exploring familial dynamics, and creating far more laugh-out-loud moments than you would expect all while slowly unveiling conspiracy, backstory, and an accompanying sense of impending and meaningful conflict.
A show with such innate strangeness needed a stellar cast to balance the weight of the plot with the absurdity of many story elements and this group handled the task in a way that was a joy to watch. To mitigate the risk of becoming farce, the show needed a mostly-normal lead character to act as an audience surrogate. Protagonist Olivia Dunham was played brilliantly by Anna Torv as a too-serious but deeply passionate champion for good whose persistent skepticism kept the narrative grounded in relatable realism. As Olivia is developed over time, Torv shows admirable range; especially as the character relives childhood traumas and crippling present-day losses. The status quo is ever-changing for Dunham and the actress gets a chance to explore every possible shade of Olivia’s emotional spectrum even before taking a crack at other versions of her character (more on that later).
Peter Bishop, autodidact, polymath, and witty-banter guy (If you aren’t a die-hard fan, that means self-learner and broadly educated/skilled so think Sheldon Cooper + Howard Walowitz but cool and not a product of traditional academia and you pretty much nailed it), is played with great aplomb by Joshua Jackson. This character is often given the task of explaining the science jargon on the show as well as reacting to things the way “normal” people would (as opposed to the stuffy and stoic agents or wacky mad scientists around him). An argument can be made that Peter has the largest arc of all the characters from pilot to finale and his scenes with his father shape much of the show. Their dynamic brings many of the most poignant and memorable scenes to the program.
The aforementioned father, Walter Bishop, is the breakout character of the series and one of the best characters (and performances) in television history. As his story unfolds over the course of five seasons, John Noble brings authority, humor, mischievousness, malice, and more to the screen; sometimes within moments of each other. His portrayal of a mad scientist whose secrets make him harder and harder to love forces the audience to embrace him all the more as they watch him struggle with the consequences of those secrets and the attempt (often failure) to make things right. His ability to instantly swap gravitas for vulnerability keeps viewers on their toes and makes Walter that much more endearing.
Besides the big three, Lance Reddick of The Wire fame turns in a powerful performance as Olivia’s supervisor Phillip Broyles, Jasika Nicole’s portrayal of junior agent Astrid Farnsworth includes priceless reactions to Walter’s antics, a calm voice of reason, and the occasional cryptology or IT support while Blair Brown keeps the audience guessing at her character Nina Sharp’s motivations and endgame, and Mark Valley, Kirk Acevedo, and Seth Gabel portray Olivia’s partners at the FBI over the course of the series: John Scott, Charlie Francis, and Lincoln Lee. Fringe also benefitted from terrific guest stars including but not limited to Kevin Corrigan, Sebastian Roche, and the great Leonard Nimoy in some of his final televised appearances.
A cast is only as good as their material and the writers gave them plenty to work with. There are several creator interviews scattered across the internet describing the writing process on Fringe. To contrast other J.J. Abrams properties like Lost, the writers planned the major twists and turns from the very beginning. Even though the details shifted over time and many of the story points were a risk, the show stayed true to the original plans. Audiences are notoriously fickle and if a show becomes too hard to follow, all but the most invested viewers may become disenfranchised. Despite this, Fringe used flashbacks, flash-forwards, time jumps, alternate realities, and parallel universes to tell the story. The Fringe team was not afraid to erase romantic relationships from existence (permanently), make your favorite good characters suddenly evil, or dangle Walter’s redemption by a thread again and again only to reveal some new (or newly remembered) atrocity that he may or may not have intentionally committed.
The plot continuity succeeded on many levels as well and production included many callbacks to earlier episodes. Furthermore, the various opening credits, musical cues, and lighting and sound profiles as well as other creative choices created vibrant and solidly constructed worlds and timelines populated by complete and complex characters. As the world of the show grew more and more specific, the continuity remained airtight. No show is perfect but the errors are very few and just when you think the show has contradicted itself unintentionally, it shows you that you don’t know what you think you do. While many shows have attempted to tell stories involving doppelgangers from parallel realities, Fringe’s doubles feel fully realized and thoroughly developed while the world from which they hail is just as solid.
In hindsight, the typical Fox viewer wasn’t necessarily ready for Fringe. Some wanted another Lost while others wanted an epic end-of-the-world-and/or-universe tale. Many wanted more focus on the Peter/Olivia paring and a few even wanted a straight-up retread of The X Files. While the program at least partially delivered in these areas, Fringe blazed its own trail in the service of some amazing storytelling. However, some of the things that kept the show fresh and different from the competition fell flat with certain parts of the viewership. The season 5 time jump and the alternate timeline introduced in season 4 were huge risks that changed the reality of the show and some of the more invested viewers felt shortchanged out of the continuity over which they had obsessed for years.
The show also suffered from unfortunate timing. Fringe was broadcast during the beginning of what many now call the cable-cutting movement. At the time, Nielsen ratings only counted live network viewings so, despite the fact that Fringe was voraciously consumed via DVR, iTunes, and other post-live mediums, it struggled to achieve the ratings and subsequent advertising dollars needed to push past 5 seasons. Thankfully, it made business sense for the studios to let the show reach 100 episodes: The typical number required for a show to be considered viable for syndication. The ratings system was modified shortly after Fringe’s cancellation but Fringe was given an end date with plenty of time to prepare a fitting final season. Fringe had a much larger audience than the ratings showed and the networks allowed the writers to close out the story the way they had always intended.
Looking back, the length of the show seems fitting. If it had grown more complicated it would have become even more problematic for certain factions of the audience. Sometimes creative people need an editor or a deadline to force perspective or call an end to a project. Fringe was always on the dreaded cancellation bubble and it must have come as a relief to the cast and crew to stop contemplating the future and finish telling their story. As endings go, none ever satisfy everyone but the Fringe finale checked a lot of boxes: Nostalgia, emotion, high stakes, sacrifice, the cost of evil and the cost of good, redemption, vindication, and closure. Even if you don’t love the direction they chose, you can’t help but respect the attempt.
In conclusion, if you love cops catching bad guys, this show might be for you. If you love cops catching evil scientists from parallel worlds committing acts of terrorism on ours using advanced and physics-defying means only to be stopped by a sometimes-hilarious-but-also-terrifying mad scientist with a twisty past (that may or may not justify said terrorism) along with a crack team of FBI agents, a sarcastic but brilliant son, and a cow named Jean (Jean!!!!), then this show is REALLY for you. Episodes like “White Tulip”, “Peter”, “Worlds Apart”, and “There’s More Than One of Everything” shock and surprise but also carry great emotional weight. Memorable characters, emotional moments, relevant sub textual reflection on technology’s role in society, ethical conundrums, a great musical score, and sweet special effects made this a favorite for many of us. Fringe really broke the mold. When it ended, and probably even a few times before that, it also broke our hearts.