How does a writer propel a show past the doldrums of your average police procedural? By proposing the simple question; ‘What If?’
On a daily basis, my kids play the “What If” game; “Mom what if we walked on the sky instead of the ground?” Or, “Mom what if I finish my vitamin drink, and then I could fly?” The possibilities never end.
That’s because kids are inherently curious, they have yet to lose the wonders of life that as adults we’ve abandoned, because there’s no room for that kind of thinking when we have to work to pay bills, and provide for our families. Luckily for us, the writers of Fringe weren’t afraid to tap into the wonders of their imaginations, as they continually proposed to their audience that age old question, “What If.”
What if Olivia was more than just an FBI agent? What if the strange events taking place were all connected to some bigger event? What if there was an alternate universe just like ours?” Doesn’t that just take you back to those days, barefoot and lying in the grass with your friends, spouting all sorts of wild ideas?
Fringe centers around FBI agent Olivia Dunham, and a small team of investigators that include her boss Agent Phillip Broyles, Junior FBI agent Astrid Farnsworth, enigmatic, and partly mad Dr. Walter Bishop, and his handler and son Peter Bishop. They all work closely together on unexplained phenomena, in the classified division called Fringe.
The writers of Fringe took what could’ve been a tired re-tread of “The X-Files,” and made it its own separate animal; superseding their predecessor by leaps and bounds. But I really didn’t see the genius of Fringe, until I viewed the series in its entirety many years after it bid its final farewell.
When I first began watching Fringe in September of 2008, I was not that impressed. I’ll chalk it up to my obsession with the series Lost, which left little room in my tiny brain for another show that demanded so much of my attention.
Fast forward a few years, my kids, the ones who play the “What If” game every day at breakfast, decided that they wanted to see the other show created by the same person behind Lost. ‘Damn that J.J Abrams!’ Now I was going to have to sit through 5 whole seasons of Fringe —again. Thank goodness for the little rugrats though, because after watching the show with fresh eyes, I was able to see what a brilliant show it truly was.
Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking; my last blog post was about a J.J Abrams show as well, but let’s face it, that dude knows how to entertain. This time around, I was more open to Fringe, and not unfairly comparing it to Lost. It’s hard not to see the inevitable similarities to The X-Files however. But where that Chris Carter series droned on and on about whether FBI Agent Fox Mulder’s sister was or was not taken by aliens, dragging it out for so long, without any hint of a resolution, by season 6, I just didn’t care anymore; and that series went on for 3 more years after I stopped watching.
Fringe is succinct in its pacing, it has something to say and someplace to go, and you better keep up, or it will leave you behind. It plays like a beautifully composed piece of music. One that begins softly, then the rhythm builds as newer instruments are introduced, adding to its pacing, and giving it a frenetic feel that doesn’t stop until it reaches the end. Then it brings you back to its mellifluous beginnings.
In my other life, I write movie reviews, and I spend a lot of time digging into what makes them work —or not work. What I’ve learned is this: as important as the general story is, character development is probably even more integral to a show, book, or film resonating with audiences. Fringe does what Lost did, but better. Because where Lost had dozens of main characters to get to know, Fringe is able to focus on 5 deeply flawed, and horribly mismatched people, who manage to become family to one another. And as we experience all the strange goings on with them in the cramped quarters of the Fringe offices, located in the basement of Harvard University, that closeness gives us a far more intimate relationship with these characters than Lost ever could.
Fringe goes through a lot in 5 seasons, it’s a rollercoaster ride that appears to be a simple paranormal mystery of the week at first; but you realize right away that nothing is ever simple about Fringe. The writing is superb, you don’t really have to suspend disbelief, because everything is presented in a manner that makes the “What Ifs” seem quite plausible. The unexplained is explained, or revealed from week to week, and season to season. And each episode delves further into the mystery that binds them all together.
I must touch on something I was asked about a few weeks ago. A regular visitor to the SFB site wanted to know what I thought about season 4 of Fringe. They thought the writers “lost confidence in the story line they originally constructed, thereby losing touch with the entire set up they had artfully constructed in the first 3 and a half seasons.” Although I completely understand why they think this, I have to disagree with their assessment.
Season 4 is the “Bridge” season, in my estimation. The year that connects the first three seasons to the revelations of the 5th and final one. It is the path that begins answering some of the most important questions that built up over the entire series’ run. I won’t ruin it for you by giving any spoilers. If you haven’t seen Fringe —shame on you, but you really need to see it unadulterated. When you get to season 4 it does shift gears dramatically, but not, in my humble opinion, because the writers lost their way. Season 4 shows that Fringe is about the people. People who must trust one another in the most harrowing of situations. Who, regardless of the changing circumstances of their lives, realize that they are meant to be together; that when you have loved and cared for someone, nothing can erase them from your memory.
It is the key season in making the final one work. Would they go through such strife and difficulty in the final season, if they had not experienced the trials of Season 4? Well it would’ve been harder for writers to make that leap believable, it was through the difficulties of Fringe’s 4th season, that helps Olivia, Peter, and Walter see how they desperately need one another; and that they can only succeed in their mission if all of them are present.
This is a brilliant show, with fearless writing, and a finale that isn’t forced, but highly satisfying. Even though it leaves lingering questions about the whereabouts of one of the characters, it works in a way where you don’t feel cheated.
Thank goodness that Netflix is giving us all another chance to watch and appreciate Fringe the way it should’ve been appreciated in its original run. It is another writer’s showcase that doesn’t get lost in the weeds, or tripped up by its own attempts to be clever. Fringe is a program that allows us to return to the days when we weren’t afraid to ask, What If.
~Welcome to a monthly look at the art of creative writing from all kinds of mediums: Books, music, movies, television, and anything else I can think of. If you have any ideas please feel free to offer them in the comments below. I hope you find it helpful as well as entertaining ~AN