Liane Hentscher/Fox
Ken Tucker
May 04, 2012 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Now that Fringe has been renewed for a fifth season, John Noble has 13 more chances to score that Emmy nomination he so deserves. But more than that, the baker’s-dozen season will provide an opportunity to conclude what became, in its fourth year, one of television’s most romantic, soulful, and idealistic dramas. And — oh, right — it’s also had alternate timelines, main-character doppelgängers, and ruthless shape-shifters. One reason Fringe has had a tough time attracting a larger number of viewers is that the mass audience who might really enjoy it doesn’t realize how much heart and soul and well-wrought romanticism have been poured into this series. Meanwhile, its hardcore cult audience is regularly grumpy that Fringe declines to turn into the vast sci-fi epic some seem to want it to be.

I know this season’s timeline switcheroo — in which Anna Torv’s Olivia Dunham and John Noble’s Walter Bishop are alternate-universe versions of themselves, and Joshua Jackson’s Peter Bishop tries to make sense of it all right along with us — has alienated some viewers. But even when the show veers off into mythology complexities that start to give me the megrims, I’ve kept faith that Fringe will always bring its stories back to the heart of what matters, and the series has never failed me in this regard.

What’s important, in pure storytelling terms, are the core relationships between Olivia, Peter, and Walter, with Jasika Nicole’s Astrid currently making a strong surge to the fore. And now, with the closing of ”the bridge” — the time hole that connected the two universes — Fringe is clearing the decks for a season finale that will connect many satisfying dots, including new insights into the motives of Walter’s old partner, William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, we miss your spectral appearance).

As the current season ends, showrunners/writers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman have explored the ideas of identity, self, and image. Specifically, how do you want to present yourself to the world? (Walter, for example, struggles with a lack of self-confidence that’s always colliding with potential arrogance.) How can you create yourself on your own terms, lest you be re-created by someone else into something you don’t want to be? Fringe is fearless — at a time when it’s assumed that cutting-edge television is supposed to be dark/edgy/pessimistic — about asserting the notion that life is a never-ending wonder, capable of healing souls and bringing people together in inexplicable ways. Or to switch to the Beatle-speak that Walter enjoys lapsing into: Life flows on within you and without you. For one more season, anyway. A-

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