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.