Was the second episode of Fringe better than the pilot? Well…I guess so. The writing for Joshua Jackson’s Peter Bishop wasn’t nearly so abysmal, allowing for the show’s one really interesting relationship (between Peter and his mad scientist father [John Noble]) to take on some added depth and poignancy. Although she didn’t have as much to do this week, at least the cow stuck around.
Aside from that, there’s just a disappointing amount of either sizzle or steak in Fringe. We’ve seen investigations before. We’ve seen interrogations of obviously lying suspects before. We’ve seen government conspiracies before and questionable science before (from co-creator Abrams, no less). We’ve seen budding romantic tension between leads before. If a show is going to go down such worn roads it’s going to have to execute almost perfectly, and the execution of Fringe has yet to create anything special.
This is perhaps most disappointing when it comes to atmosphere. We’ve seen creepy atmosphere before, and Fringe just isn’t very scary. It is occasionally yucky (thanks so much for the hanging eyeball), but it lacks the goosebump factor. With the exception of Dunham’s unsettling daydream backed by giant tulips, the way the show was imagined and shot didn’t add anything to a story that would have been bargain bin X-Files, Supernatural, or Smallville material.
We’ve compared Fringe to The X-Files before, and nowhere was this more apparent than in “The Same Old Story”‘s denouement. Walter Bishop and cronies once tried to invent super-soldiers by creating embryos that could age to maturity within three years, but they could never figure out how to turn off the aging. A serial killer who steals pituitary glands–a case on which Dunham just happened to work in the past, of course–turns out to be one of these experiments, ingesting the glands to prevent rapid aging (don’t ask). Our heroes stop the bad guys in the middle of an extraction, chasing the weird guy through a darkened warehouse before he can suck down his latest pituitary. As the villain sinks to the ground, the only light bulb in the entire place begins to sway, coming closer and closer to revealing his face as he spends his last moments on Earth helpfully filling in plot holes. Each swing of the light bulb is meant to build tension, but we already know what’s happening: [swing] He’s old. [swing] Yes, we know–he’s old. [swing] We get it–he didn’t get the pituitary, so his aging sped up. [swing] Oh, for the love of John Bartley! He’s going to be old! Get on with it! Old-school X-Files may not have had any money to show its scary stuff, but it found a way to make its atmosphere the scariest thing on TV, just by turning out the lights. On Fringe, they play with the lights as an excuse to let the villain dump a bunch of exposition so the investigation won’t go past the 43-minute mark. If Fringe doesn’t find a way to do something fresh–or at least make something old creepy–we might be changing the channel to be scared by rich teenagers on Privileged.
I’ve been burned by J.J. Abrams before. The pilot of Alias was a hoot, but the series fell into the realm of the ludicrous by the end of the first season. The pilot of Lost was so much fun I spent my flight the next day imagining who would help me stitch up our fellow passengers and who we would eat, but the show has been a roller coaster ride since (thank goodness last season was an up). I’m not sure what this means for Fringe–since the pilot was a little slow and derivative, will it be in the toilet by the end of the year, or will it have room, free of hype and expectations, to breathe?
The show gets off to an eyebrow-raising start, not because of the airline passengers (here we go again) whose faces are melting off, but because it is so very reminiscent of its superior progenitor, The X-Files. They even use a handprint in the credits and break out the super-powered flashlights. This time around, the troubled FBI agent who believes in the possibilities of the impossible is a woman (newcomer Anna Torv, who, depending on the lighting, looks either like Cate Blanchett or Laura Prepon). The science-genius skeptic is a man in this version, and a gambling addict to boot (Joshua Jackson). The superscientist (and the skeptic’s father) who provides the key insights to their cases was driven mad by his forays into fringe science, meaning Mulder and Scul…er, Dunham and Bishop have to babysit the over-the-edge combination of Frohike, Byers, and Langley. Their version of Assistant Director Skinner might actually be the Cigarette Smoking Man (Lance Reddick of Lost and The Wire). Their version of The Syndicate is a super-corporation run by a woman with a robotic arm. And they revealed their Krycek awfully early in the game.
Also, there is a cow.
The best part (aside from the cow) is John Noble‘s (The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) nutty professor. While the pilot had nice production values and an Abrams-esque twist, it lacked humor aside from Noble’s attempts to interact with the world outside his mental institution. While Jackson was woeful in this episode, perhaps suggesting he is miscast, he did have some truly atrocious dialogue to sell. If the writing for his character settles in, the relationship between Dunham!Mulder and Bishop!Scully might rise to be nearly as interesting as the senior Bishop’s tenuous hold on reality. They shot frighteningly high right from the top, though–it took even the notoriously reckless Mulder four full seasons to undergo experimental craziness to access untapped regions of his brain. Dunham went for it in the pilot. Where can you go from there?
Still, we have such a soft spot for The X-Files (and for Abrams, who weaves a fun yarn and looks like he could shop in the juniors section) that we’re willing to see where this ride takes us, at least for a while. If the cow turns out to be Dunham’s long-lost sister, however, we’re gone.