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December 09, 2010 at 07:21 PM EST

Image Credit: Liane Hentscher/FoxTonight’s winter finale of Fringe brings the show to a turning point in more ways than one. In the wake of last week’s stand-out installment “Entrada,” in which the two parallel world Olivia Dunhams returned to their respective home realities, “Marionette” focuses squarely on “over here” Olivia and how she transitions back to normal life… or at least, as “normal” as life can be for an FBI agent who works out of a secret lab at Harvard University with a pastry-fixated, drug-addicted genius and his son investigating the breakdown in the physical universe and other fringe science horrors. Complicating factors: Dealing with the post-traumatic stress of being a physically and psychically abused hostage in the over there world, not mention learning that Fauxlivia made a mess of her developing relationship with Peter Bishop. In an interview with Fringe masterminds Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman, Pinkner summed up “Marionette” thusly: “The headline here is ‘Picking up the pieces.’ Olivia’s had this real Rip Van Winkle experience; while she was away, life went on without her. Now she’s back and she’s going to find out what happened while she was gone. It’s going to shatter her.”

Now that the Olivias are back where they belong, Fringe will focus on the drama in Earth Prime; no more alternating one episode “over here”/one episode “over there” storytelling… for now. “You definitely haven’t seen the last of the ‘over there’ world,” says Wyman. “We’ve established that both of these worlds are linked in a profound way. We are going to attend to that. We are going back ‘over there.’ It’s not going to be forgotten about, but we’re not going to be ‘one on, one off’ right now.” By the way, in case you’re looking at the photo and wondering “Who the hell is that guy?!” know that the episode also involves a dude who likes to swipe organs from people’s bodies because… well, that would be spoiling, but let’s just say the dude must have learned romance from either this book or that movie.

Critics have praised the season’s parallel world premise for bringing out the best in Fringe and producing a consistency of high quality stories. Pinkner says the producers’ desire to toggle between worlds with alternating episodes was “met some initial resistance“ at Fox. “They were really concerned that if the episodes didn’t have [‘over here’] Walter or Peter in them, it wouldn’t feel like our show anymore,” he says. “We said that not unlike a show like Lost, Fringe has to constantly evolve, to move and grow and go forward, otherwise we’ll get bored, the cast will get bored, the audience will get bored.” Pinkner adds that after the first several episodes, that resistance turned to affirmation from both Fox and the show’s studio, Warner Bros. Television. Adds Wyman: “The alternate world storyline really allowed us to explore the characters deeper via their doppelgängers, to illuminate characters we already know. It’s been a real gas for all of us involved in making the show.”

After tonight’s episode, Fringe will vanish from the space-time continuum for a few weeks, as most TV shows do during the holidays. When it presents itself again in our reality, it will do so on Jan. 21 (one week earlier than originally announced) in a new timeslot: Fridays at 9 p.m. What to expect when Fringe returns in January? To start, you’ll get an episode devoted to The Observers. (Back To The Future’s Christopher Lloyd will also appear in the episode as old buddy of Walter Bishop.) The producers also confirm that the mystery of The First People will get a lot of attention during the second half of the season. The move to Friday has caused many fans to worry that Fox has given up on the series, given the recent history of sci-fi programming on the night. Joss Whedon’s space western Firefly failed to find the requisite audience, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles failed to thrive when Friday became its new home during its second, last season. (Fun Fact! The Jan. 21 episode is entitled… “Firefly.” Yes, it’s sly nod, but the irony is that the episode was written before the producers knew about the timeslot change.) The great, glorious Friday night exception, The X-Files, was a long time ago. Fringe, however, is different from Firefly, in that it is an established brand with a dedicated, mobilized fanbase. And unlike Terminator, Fringe is more of a critics/media darling and will be making the move while on a creative roll. Hopefully, those factors will make a difference. Hopefully. The producers insist they’re not sweating the situation.

“It doesn’t feel loaded to us,” says Pinkner. “It’s not like Fox is saying to us: ‘We’re falling out of love with the show. We’re burning it off by moving it to Friday.’” Pinkner says that Fox execs explained the move as part of a strategic rethink of its schedule precipitated by the midseason arrival of American Idol, which now airs on Wednesday and Thursdays. In principle, the producers had no problem with being moved (“For a year and half now, we’ve been asking — and our fans have been asking — to take us off Thursday because the landscape is crowded,” Pinkner says), and the producers are confident that Fringe loyalists will move with them. “The research shows that people love the show, but they don’t really want to watch it on Thursday night. Thursday is more of a romantic comedy kind of night, not a hard science fiction night,” says Wyman. “We hope our fans follow us to Friday night. It’s a much easier marketplace, and Fox is going to really support it; they think there’s a real opportunity to reinvent the night.” Adds Pinkner: “If this felt like a vote of no confidence from Fox, I’d be concerned. But they’ve verbalized the opposite. They think we have a better chance at staying on the air for years to come, which, of course, is what we want, because by design, we have years of story left to tell.”

Look for more weekly Fringe scoop when the show returns next month — and be sure to come back tomorrow for Ken Tucker’s recap of “Marionette.” In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts on these burning questions for Fringe fans, especially those who watch the show in real time on Thursday night: Will you be watching on Friday? And does the move to Friday worry you enough to stop watching the show altogether because of fear of cancellation?

Read more:

‘Fringe’ recap: ‘Entrada’ and exits, lives saved and lost

‘Fringe’ exclusive: See the movie-style trailer for Thursday’s epic ep ‘Entrada’

Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and John Noble star in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi drama
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