Image Credit: Liane Hentscher/FOXThree weeks ago, in anticipation for the season 3 premiere of Fringe, I expressed hope that the sci-fi adventure series produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot team would finally fulfill its potential as TV’s next great cult pop obsession following two intermittently brilliant seasons. At the risk of being too early with a judgment after just three episodes, I’d like to state for the record that Fringe has at last become the show I wanted it to be and is set to become my new “Favorite TV Series Currently On The Air”… right after Mad Men signs off for the year on Sunday. Going into the season, NBC’s The Event seemed poised to fill the hole left behind by Lost. But it has been Fringe that has stepped up to become broadcast television’s premiere capture-the-imagination enterprise. I’ve never been more hooked.
Of course, while I’ve been slow to become all-in on Fringe, others have not. EW’s TV critic Ken Tucker has been a major champion of the show since the beginning, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’re probably also reading his recaps of each new episode. I’ve always enjoyed the show as an extremely well-produced next-gen X-Files. At the same time, I’ve always wanted the show to become less defined by its influences and find its own unique entity. Fringe began doing that late last season when the writers decided to plunge deeply into the show’s core mythological conceit: That the world that’s home to heroes Olivia Dunham, Peter Bishop, and Walter Bishop is in hostile conflict with a parallel universe version of the same world, marked by variations in history and people. Fringe has had great creative fun fleshing out this idea, and you can actually feel that fun seeping through. The writers are clearly having a ball in the playground they’ve built for themselves, and it’s clear that the actors are having a blast, too.
Anna Torv, the actress who plays Olivia, deserves special a commendation. There was a lot of criticism of her character — and by extension, Torv’s performance — in Fringe’s first season. She was alternately emotionally chilly or emotionally scattered (having your dead boyfriend’s consciousness get stuck inside your brain will do that to you), and it was hard to take Olivia seriously as an FBI agent, let alone as the key figure in an inter-dimensional war that could result in the negation of reality itself. (My interpretation.) The writers took pains to shore up the character, and Torv has always risen to the level of the material, if not surpassed it. And now, by golly, she rocks this show. Her two Olivias are distinctly different characters, both immensely appealing, and I give almost all the credit to Torv for making it work. Few actors on TV right now are being asked to do more than what Fringe asks Torv to do each week. Let the Emmy watch begin. (Ditto John Noble — but I’ll rave about him another week.)
A bolstered Olivia has made Fringe’s “(Parallel) Worlds At War” high-concept premise even more interesting and riveting. As a longtime viewer of the show, my sympathies in this cosmic crisis lie naturally with the world that most resembles our own, the one in which the Twin Towers no longer stand and blimps don’t dock atop The Empire State Building, the one that’s home to the characters that we’ve been following since the beginning. We’ve been told, however, that the reason why the “other world” has been terrorizing “our world” is because of the experiments conducted by “our world’s” Walter have imperiled the “over there” world. Combined with the appeal of the “over there” Olivia — whom the producers like to call “Bolivia” — our rooting interest is now more complicated, and the conflict is more intriguing. Obviously, I have to think “our world” will win. And given that the “other world’s” Walter — or “Walternate” — is a pretty scary guy (Dude is building a doomsday machine — and Peter, his son, is the living gas that will run it!), I guess we can all agree that “our world” should win. But the moral ambiguity — and the provocative metaphorical applications to our current global political moment — enhances and deepens the drama. (FYI, I’m not wild about the “Bolivia” nickname the producers have given the “over there” Olivia, though it’s more accurate if not as clever as than the fan-coined “Fauxlivia,” which totally misses the point the parallel world concept: The “over there” Olivia is not a fake or fraudulent person, nor is she some clone of a real-deal baseline Olivia.)
Fringe has been toggling between worlds this season — one episode here, one episode over there — creating the feeling of two separate, interlocking series; both have been really compelling. Tonight’s episode, entitled “Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?” (a play on the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the basis of the 1982 movie Blade Runner), and focuses on the morphing terrorists from the “over there” world that have infiltrated “our world.” What do you need to know about the shapeshifters? I asked Fringe exec producer Jeff Pinkner the question. Here’s his answer: “The shapeshifters are Walternate’s ‘soldiers.’ Part organic, part mechanical — they ‘bleed’ mercury — and are able to take the shape of any human that they kill. Walternate sent them here years ago (they were able to cross universes safely because they’re not human) to act as sleeper agents.”
I also asked Pinkner and his showrunning partner J.H. Wyman to elaborate a little bit on what we may see tonight. The official plot summary for tonight’s episode, per Fox, is as follows: “Newton [leader of the shapeshifter cell], concerned about the consequences of a distressing development involving a high-ranking official, is forced to call to action a sleeping shapeshifter. As Walter and the rest of the team gather evidence, they move the investigation to Massive Dynamic, where Olivia goes on high alert and Walter finds himself in a perilous situation.” Pinkner and Wyman tag-teamed on an email to add this: “In this episode, our team discovers that Walternate’s shapeshifters’ reach is further than they had first thought. After she loses an important ally, Bolivia is forced to question how far she is willing to go to ensure her mission is a success.”
I look forward to the episode — and I look forward to posting more regularly about Fringe on Thursdays when a new episode airs… beginning in three weeks. Alas, the show is getting benched until at least Nov. 4 because of Major League Baseball playoffs. (And if there’s a Game 7 of The World Series, Fringe’s return could get pushed to Nov. 11.) Ugh. Way to kill the momentum of my geek buzz, “America’s Pastime.” If it was bowling, I would understand. After all, that’s a fringe sport. Regardless: Fringe is great! And I want to see it flourish. But the question I would love to hear you guys debate is this: Do you think it’s a show that newcomers can jump aboard? Share your thoughts below. And please make a point of coming back tomorrow to read Ken Tucker’s recap of “Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?” Until then, you can find me Twittering @ewdocjensen or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.