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Reviewed by Will Harris
s Bullz-Eye wrote in its 2008 Fall TV Preview, “It’s a fine line to walk between being excited about a new J.J. Abrams production and knowing that not everything bearing Abrams’ name is worth getting excited about,” but in the case of “Fringe,” the promise of the characters and concepts made it impossible for sci-fi fans to ignore the series when it premiered on Fox last fall.
“Fringe” centers around FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who was thrust into the world of the fringe sciences – teleportation, alternate universes, psychic abilities, genetic mutations, and so forth – after an unexplained event on an airliner led to an attack on her fellow agent / boyfriend John Scott (Mark Valley). By the end of the pilot, Scott has left the building, so to speak, but his memory lives on. Actually, scratch that: his memories live on – in Olivia’s head. In the process of attempting to save Agent Scott’s life, Dunham teams up with eccentric scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a man doomed to a lifetime of institutionalization due to a combination of mental instability and an accusation of manslaughter. Fortunately, Walter is able to re-enter the “real world” when his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), takes him into his custody, though it quickly becomes evident that Walter is often out of touch with reality and Peter has little patience for his father’s flights into weirdness.
When “Fringe” first kicked off, Torv seemed like a poor choice for the show’s lead, offering attractiveness to spare but with what seemed to be a limited emotional palate. As the series progressed, however, and we saw more sides of Agent Dunham, it became plausible to presume that Torv was approaching her character as a confused woman who’d just had her reality turned upside down and was struggling to come to terms with it all. Similarly, it took some time to get the hang of Jackson’s wisecracking nature and not feel like he was uttering a steady stream of Pacey-isms (that’s a reference to his character on “Dawson’s Creek,” in case you’re not a fan), but he quickly offered up a measured performance which showed Peter’s frustration with his father, not only in the present but in his past actions as well. And so we come to Walter Bishop, the cornerstone of “Fringe.” John Noble’s performance makes the series, slipping from a devilish grin to a snarl in the blink of an eye and successfully portraying a man whose intelligence has left him forever teetering on the brink of madness. Few actors could manage to deliver Walter’s non sequitur one-liners as well, and it’s a testament to the Emmy Awards’ ignorance of the sci-fi genre that Noble didn’t receive a nomination for Best Actor in a Drama.
The mythology of “Fringe” is such that those who watch the show from week to week are rewarded with a series of comments and clues which help unfold the greater mystery of the series, but Abrams has made good on his remarks to TV critics when the series began and kept it from being impenetrable to casual viewers. The ongoing storylines about the mysterious corporation known as Massive Dynamic, its COE, Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), and its rarely-seen founder, William Bell, are generally still set up with just enough explanation in each episode that old viewers won’t be bored but those who are tuning in for the first time can be brought up to speed enough to get by. Otherwise, it’s still predominantly a “case of the week” situation, giving Dunham the opportunity to work in tandem with her supervisor at Homeland Security, Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick), and her associate Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo), who also works with her within the Fringe Division.
It’s tempting to say that “Fringe” is a show that’s more about its special effects than its drama, since man, oh man, are the effects good, but there’s considerable depth to these characters. Obviously, Walter is about as complex as they come, but Olivia’s emotional arc as a result of her connection to Agent Scott is highly trying, and as the season progresses, we realize that there’s a heck of a secret in Peter’s past – one that even he isn’t aware of. And when the long-gestating mystery of William Bell finally comes to fruition in the final moments of season finale, it’s a case where you find yourself releasing a breath you didn’t even know you’d been holding. Now that’s good TV.
If you’ve been avoiding “Fringe” because you thought it was just a knock-off of “The X-Files,” you’ve been mistaken. It’s solid sci-fi drama, and it’s must-see viewing for genre fans.
Special Features: Given that a show like “Fringe” is designed to appeal to an audience that lives and breathes for its favorite television series, it’s no wonder that Warner Brothers would make a point of offering up a plethora of bonus material for the DVD release. First off, there are three audio commentaries, variously featuring the contributions of series creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, writers David H. Goodman, J.R. Orci and Akiva Goldsman, and executive producers Bryan Burk and Jeff Pinkner. From there, every episode is accompanied by a “Deciphering the Scene” featurette, tackling some scene or other within that episode, and there are several “Massive Undertaking” featurettes spread throughout the set, detailing the particularly difficult special effect sequences. But wait, there’s more! Other featurettes include “Robert Orci’s Production Diary,” “Evolution: The Genesis of ‘Fringe,’” “The Casting of ‘Fringe,’” “Gene the Cow,” “Behind the Science of ‘Fringe,’” and “‘Fringe’ Visual Effects.” Plus, you also get a handful of deleted scenes as well as “Unusual Side Effects,” a.k.a. the Season One gag reel. Not a bad haul.