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The 'Fringe' fourth-season renewal: 'It has begun,' and what 'it' means

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The news that Fringe has been renewed for a fourth season came as a shock: When was the last time a network saved a quality cult show it had heretofore shown little sign of even understanding, let alone promoting? But then, the renewal is in keeping with the spirit of the series itself, with its themes of life everlasting and hope springing eternal.

Whatever the combination of factors that went into this Fox decision (my guesses are, in order: the devil we know may be at least as good as Terra Nova; we can’t only renew just our 20th Century Fox-produced shows, can we?; those pesky critics and more people than those who watch Smallville and Supernatural seem to like this damn thing; why not generate some publicity as kindly, benevolent suits instead of clueless, heartless ones for once?), the bottom line is, a glorious mindf— of a family drama got the nod, and I wonder what the admirable Shawn Ryan is thinking now about the chances for his interesting The Chicago Code, given Fox’s limited prime-time space?

So what can we expect from the producers’ opportunity to play out toward Fringe‘s endgame? Beats me, I say happily, with qualifications. What I mean by that is, I’m not invested in the games of “here’s what the show needs to do” or “here’s where the show is headed” for my pleasure. I like to let a show I love wash over me every week, like a piece of new music or the next chapter in a novel I’m enjoying. In those last two examples, I don’t sit around with my finger hovering over my latest iPod song download or fretting in the midst of reading a long piece of fiction, pondering what I want the musician or the author to do, trying to second-guess the creators — I just get on with it, and enjoy the critical thinking afterward, not measuring whether the show/music/book has lived up to my predictions/wishes/dreams for it. Like the best pop culture, Fringe compels all of us, not just me and my colleagues, to respond as critics in the broadest sense — as discriminating consumers who like to tease out the meanings of what gives us pleasure (or frustrates us) in the show.

With this in mind, I feel as though, as an Observer has said, “it has begun” — that is, I’ve no doubt Fringe is well on its way to doing what few other TV shows have done. It deals in common realities and fantasies in a form that provides immediate pleasure; it is vital aesthetically, as a work that rewards both casual viewing and repeated investigation.

We each like Fringe for different reasons. You might be invested in the Peter-Olivia relationship, while others are happy just to tune in and see how eccentrically amusing Walter is going to be this week. Some fans want their Fringe more hardcore sci-fi, and to place it in the context of the history of speculative fiction, both literary and pop-culturally. (There are, for sure, papers to be written about Fringe as the inverse of the Robert Heinlein approach to sci-fi, or the layering of its Philip K. Dick/Samuel R. Delany/Cyberpunk synthesis.)

Me, I’m in it for the show’s persistent fascination with real history — with its overarching metaphors for the ways that the baby-boomer, counterculture-leaning generation as embodied most assiduously by Walter Bishop altered America’s thinking, and the rewards it gave, and traps it set, for future generations (i.e., Peter and Olivia’s, and perhaps their child’s).

Any way you look at it, however, Fringe has 22 fresh chances to make us think differently, not just about its own characters and its own stories, but our own characters, and our own lives.

Oh, and not to seem ungrateful or churlish, but one more thing: Fox, if you’re going to leave the show on Fridays next fall, will you please give it a more compatible lead-in than Gordon-bloody-Ramsay?

Agree? Disagree?

For more: ‘Fringe’ renewed for a fourth season

Twitter: @kentucker

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