Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Farewell To Fringe

A Show That Brought New Meaning To The Term "Cool"

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Last night, after five seasons and one hundred episodes, Fringe said goodbye forever. This was one of those shows that gained a cult following over the years, to the point that when it was in danger of being cancelled, the fans were able to keep it on the air. It was also - regardless of whether or not you're a science fiction nerd - one of the most unique shows to ever air on television.

For the uninitiated, Fringe was about an F.B.I. Agent named Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) who is selected by her superior, Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), to be part of the Fringe Division at the F.B.I. Olivia recruits Walter Bishop (John Noble, who is absolutely brilliant), a scientist responsible for many experiments which have lead to the so called "Fringe Events", the result of which led to his incarceration in a mental institution. Lastly, Walter's son, Peter (Joshua Jackson, bringing more to the character with each season), is brought in to "translate" his father's often gibberish-like musings.

It started off slow - the first season being heavily overseen by its creators, J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci - and, as a result, was a mixed bag of goodies that first year. Abrams had stated that he wanted to have a less serialized show on the air (referring to Alias and Lost), which would usually mean that there would be a handful of mythology episodes with the rest being standalone, mystery-of-the-week type episodes. Not so. Instead, (according to Abrams) there would be plot points in every episode that propelled the overall story for those who were watching every week. For those that weren't, the episodes could be viewed as their own self-contained story. In other words, Fringe began as something of a hybrid, if we're using the typical model most shows follow.

Starting with season two, however, Fringe became something more. Abrams helped map the season out, but the showrunning duties fell to Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman. (Pinkner had been selected as showrunner during season one and he later promoted Wyman to co-run the show with him). From this point on, the stories - from the cases the Fringe team would investigate to the character and season arcs - became unbelievably inventive. The groundwork had been laid toward the end of season one for certain storylines that became part of the show's charm, not the least of which was the relationship between Walter and Peter.

Noble and Jackson became the perfect dynamic-duo, if you will, their characters not having anything in common at first and evolving into depending on one another. Walter, a flawed father in many ways during Peter's childhood, tries to make amends with his past. Peter, reluctant to even talk to Walter in those early episodes, comes to respect, admire and yes, love, his father. In an odd way these two become a metaphor for the show itself: learn to accept the unknown rather than reject or be afraid of it.

In addition, Olivia herself was something of a unique heroine on television. She was never exploited for her beauty, never relied on men to save her, and also never portrayed as a tomboy, a trap many shows with female leads tend to fall into. She simply was Olivia Dunham: the agent who saved the world time and time again with her Fringe-like abilities. It's not too often that writers can get a female lead so right - shows like Alias and Chuck, for example, had strong female leads but each week managed to find ways to put them in revealing clothing of some kind - and praise should be given to Pinkner, Wyman and rest of the writing staff of Fringe for creating, and maintaining, such a great character.

A show with this many plot-twists demands grounded characters like these to keep us engaged. That was never more evident than in this final season, which jumped ahead twenty years to a time when the Observers - the bald-headed, fedora-wearing, albinos who could travel through time and space to "observe" major events in human history - had taken over and where our characters, frozen in amber for 21 years, had to find a way to stop them. This final year was very much a dystopian cautionary tale, by far the darkest year of the entire series. But I, like so many others, stayed with it because no matter how dark and tragic things got, Olivia, Peter, Walter and Astrid (Jasika Nicole, Walter's assistant) were there to anchor me in some degree of familiarity.

After everything these characters lost, particularly this season, the finale episode entitled "An Enemy of Fate" was moving, action-packed, rewarding and quite simply, perfect. This was a show that was in danger of being cancelled after season two and on. Each year Fringe took more risks, exploring alternate realities, reset timelines, shape-shifters, and future insurrections. Like Peter himself, the show (by conventional standards) should have never existed, but it did, and it fought back from the brink of death each season. It was wacky, it was dark, it was funny and at times devastatingly sad.

The best way to describe the tone of this beloved show of mine can be found in a line from last night's finale, in which Peter and Walter are arming themselves to fight the Observers. Walter instructs Peter to hold on to bullets which, when they hit an Observer, will cause them to "float away like balloons". Peter asks, "If we shoot them, they're dead. Why would we want them to float away?" Walter replies (with perfect delivery by Noble), "Because it's cool."

From now on, when I'm asked why I have such affection for Fringe, that perfect line will be my response.

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