October 15, 2010
It’s that time of year again. Time to max out the DVD recorder with the new fall shows, and then try frantically to sample all of them before (a) nobody’s talking about them any more, and therefore everyone will care even less about what I think of them than they might have a short time earlier, and (b) the DVD recorder fills up.
But not this year. This year I’m celebrating the new fall season by canceling my cable.
I’ll catch up with the season’s survivors on DVD, and as for the ever narrower roster of shows that flop so ignominiously that they don’t net a home video release … well, c’est la guerre. It’s only mid-October and so far there are three goners – Lone Star, My Generation, and Outlaw – that will probably never resurface outside the private libraries of obsessive collectors.
It’s not that I think new television is bad and old television is good and you should all get off my lawn now. As I think I’ve said before, I had always planned to fudge the definition of “classic” and write about modern television on this blog, too. I’ve done that once or twice, but the networks foiled my plans somewhat by taking a bit of a dip creatively just I was planning to start reporting here on the new fall seasons. Other than Mad Men, I haven’t seen many new series that are as energetic and intelligent as some of the shows that bowed out around the time this blog debuted in 2007: The Wire, The Sopranos, Veronica Mars, Boston Legal, The Shield. Since the very beginning, the relative density of good television has been cyclical – and I think that right now we’re in the middle of one of the dry spells.
Also, I’m kind of busy these days, with (among other things) some projects that will be noted here in the coming months. I try not to let real life intrude upon the watching of television, but the threat looms.
That’s a partial explanation for why I’ve only just started on Fringe, which is now entering its third season. The other part is that since I’ve shifted to watching new stuff on DVD rather than “live,” I have fallen behind to the point that I now define “new” as “less than three years old.”
By that arithmetic, Fringe is Fox’s “new” clone of its big hit from the nineties, The X-Files. It was created, if that’s the word, by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci. All three were writer-producers on Alias, a clever genre series that recombined the DNA of a dozen or so espionage, fantasy, and serial melodrama shows into something original. So it’s a disappointment and a surprise that their latest effort is so uninventive.
Fringe is shocking in how extensively it copies from a single antecedent. It is also surgical in its skill: it manages to remove the best things about The X-Files and replace them with new things that don’t work at all. It’s as if Abrams et. al. took some old X-Files scripts and tried to play that Price Is Right game with them, the one where the contestant tries to match a bunch of price tags to a set of corresponding prizes. Then he or she runs over and pulls a lever, and a big sign next to Bob Barker lights up and indicates how many prices are correct. If it’s less than all four, the contestant hurries back and switches the tags around before the clock runs out. In the worst case scenario, a contestant might start out with three right and end up with zero. Fringe is a zero.
(That game is one of my favorite television-derived metaphors for life, incidentally.)
Fringe centers on two crime-solvers, a female FBI agent and a “consultant” with a checkered past, who investigate mysterious phenomena as part of the Bureau’s “fringe” division. Some of those phenomena appear to be related; these are collectively referred to as “the Pattern,” and they may trace back to a conspiracy involving the government and a sinister Microsoft-like corporation called (ever so subtly) Massive Dynamic. Unspoken sexual tension flourishes between the two leads.
I told you: it’s The X-Files with the nametags switched. In the second season premiere, there’s a throwaway line which establishes that the Fringe division “used to carry the X designation” – in other words, the writers have puckishly placed both shows in the same fictional universe. That is what we goyim call chutzpah, and unless cameos by Mulder or Scully or even Walter Skinner are in the offing, it was a very bad idea.
I realize now that one of the key ingredients of The X-Files was that Mulder and Scully operated alone in the darkness. They had no anchor to anything consistent or comforting, at least not that we saw. Mulder had a backstory, but the supporting characters in the series – like Agent Skinner, Mr. X, and the cigarette-smoking man – were introduced gradually, and always as part of the ever-expanding conspiracy plotline that made up the show’s “mythology.” And there was a high mortality rate among these characters. Their purpose was to up the stakes, to insist that we remain invested in material that was, after all, the stuff of supermarket tabloids.
Perhaps in an attempt to mitigate their blandness, Fringe burdens its Mulder and Scully wannabes, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), with a large roster of full-time tag-alongs. There’s an FBI partner, an FBI boss, another FBI partner who may or may not be dead (long story), a lady from Massive Dynamic with a spooky robot hand, a lovably eccentric scientist, his adorable lab assistant, and so on. A few of these characters prove so disposable that the writers kill them off. Others exist mainly to offer comic relief of a variety so persistent, repetitive, and unfunny – the mad scientist has a pregnant woman’s weird food cravings, only it’s a different craving in each episode! – that they would be better suited to Scooby Doo.
And instead of dispatching to remote corners of Vancouver (er, I mean, the fifty states), these characters converge in a warmly lit, comfy-looking basement laboratory on the Harvard campus. The show’s reliance on this inviting stationary set dulls the edge of any eerie atmospherics that the writers and directors try to get going. (Remember, Mulder and Scully spent very little time at home or in the office). It also requires that most of Fringe’s unexplained happenings occur within driving distance of Boston, a nagging implausibility for which the show has yet to offer a solid explanation. At least Scooby Doo worked out of a van.
I’ve seen dumber ideas and more generic sets of characters come to life in the hands of the right creative people. But Fringe is saddled with a dull cast, and felled by one crucial performance that is so wholly ill-conceived and executed that it becomes sort of fascinating, like a forty-some hour train wreck.
John Noble (pictured above), an Australian expatriate known mainly for a role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, portrays Walter Bishop, the father of the male investigator. Walter is Fringe’s one multi-faceted character, and one of the problems with Fringe is that the writers have appended just about all of the show’s facets to a single character. Walter is the Frankenberry-munching buffoon I ridiculed above; he’s also a brilliant intellectual, a man with a tragic family history, a repentant villain, and the keeper of a lot of secrets that are doled out now and then as the series unfolds.
It’s an unplayable role, but there are a few actors who could probably pull off the wild swings between intensity and silliness that it requires; Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol (both late of Chicago Hope) come to mind. Noble doesn’t get hold of either end of the character. His craggy face and deep baritone form an unusual barrier between himself and the audience. Noble might be fine doing Gilbert and Sullivan on stage, but he has none of the approachability that most successful television actors develop.
Noble could have opted to hide behind his natural stoicism (or, dare I say it: nobility) and let us guess what he’s thinking most of the time. (William Hurt and William Peterson often hold back in this way.) Instead, Noble veers the other way, toward a bathos that smothers all the father-son scenes. Maybe because it’s the most external aspect of the character, he fixates on Walter’s uncertain mental health, deploying an exhausting repertoire of twitches, facial tics, and goofy expressions. (To be fair, some of this, such as Walter’s incessant humming and singing, is scripted.) Noble is so bold in his bad choices that I’ll bet he has some passionate fans; but all I can see is an actor far out of his depth.
On the other hand (pun intended), the robot-arm lady, Nina Sharp, is played by Blair Brown, and she’s totally captivating – sinister, sensual, mysterious, and matronly, all at once. Nina is the only major figure on the show whose motives are at all hidden or ambiguous (another smart thing about The X-Files is that it had a ton of these characters), and Fringe mostly wastes her as a purveyor of exposition. There are shows where casting doesn’t matter as much, but since almost nothing in the narrative or the look of Fringe is novel, I find myself tuning out the details of each week’s x-file (’scuse me, “fringe event”) and getting stuck on how good Brown is and how bad all of the other actors are.
Fringe succeeds in one and only one area. It offers an acceptable substitute for the extraterrestrial invasion that structured the mythology of The X-Files. By the middle of the first season, Fringe has shown most of its cards in this regard: it posits the existence of a parallel universe, and the ongoing storyline explores the potentially disastrous consequences of contact between it and our own. (Is it piling on to point out that the pattern by which Fringe alternates between self-contained “monster” episodes and fan-servicing “mythology” episodes duplicates a strategy worked out by The X-Files?)
The theory of parallel universes actually exists in quantum physics, and so it opens the door to do “hard” science fiction of a type that none of the major American fantasy series have attempted. Fringe hasn’t availed itself of this possibility nearly enough, but its few imaginative ideas have all come out of it: a mummified madman (Jared Harris) teleporting himself, and the occasional motor vehicle, through space using a set of souped-up surveying equipment; a strange bald guy (Michael Cerveris) with futuristic spyglasses who seems to pop up at important moments throughout centuries of human history; a great second-season time-paradox episode about a grief-stricken scientist (Peter Weller) who turns himself into a cyborg time-machine; and the circumstances and setting of the long-deferred initial appearance of William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), the Massive Dynamic founder who is (sort of) the mastermind behind everything.
But those are fleeting pleasures, and in between them Fringe is just video-methadone for sad addicts who have done without an X-Files fix for close to a decade.