We weren’t too nice to Fringe around here when it first premiered. I seem to recall phrases like “slow and derivative,” “disappointing,” and “bargain bin” being tossed around in our early reviews. And we weren’t wrong. The show got off to a pretty creaky start–creaky enough that we stopped tuning in altogether. But a funny thing happened while we weren’t watching: it got better.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took them most of the first season–and maybe even a good part of the second–to find their butter zone and figure out what they were good at. But once they did? Wow. And now that Doctor Who seems to have lost a lot of its mojo (a post for another day), I’m officially declaring Fringe the best sci fi show on television.
There’s no denying that lot of the first season felt like a mundane X-Files rip-off with a lot of cheap gross-outs (WARNING: Do not under any circumstances attempt to watch this show while eating. You will regret it.) and some truly ridiculous “science.” But as the show’s mytharc develops, you gradually begin to realize that all those seemingly isolated incidents were actually leading the characters somewhere pretty interesting. (The mad science, unfortunately, never gets any better, so you’ll just have to resign yourself to some serious suspension of disbelief.) And unlike its predecessor, The X-Files (or J.J. Abrams’ Lost, for that matter), the Fringe mytharc has a straightforward, linear progression that manages to be both satisfying and intriguing, while actually kind of making sense. In that respect it turns out to have a lot more in common with shows like Veronica Mars and Damages than its genre cousins.
But it’s in the second season that Fringe really hits its stride, because that’s when it really digs into the emotional lives of the characters. Monsters and supernatural phenomena are all well and good, but what gets me invested in a show is its characters. And with John Noble’s masterful turn as Walter Bishop, Fringe has managed to create one of the best characters on any drama, ever. If Walter’s tragic, fragile genius doesn’t break your heart again and again, well, you might want to check to make sure you’ve got one. And while I admit that I found Joshua Jackson’s Peter and Anna Torv’s Olivia awfully wooden at first (and Peter downright unlikable in the pilot), they’ve evolved quite a bit since then. That off-putting woodenness has transformed over time into a natural reserve that not only masks personal heartbreak but is a point of commonality that eventually draws the two characters together. Watching these two damaged, distrusting people slowly open up to one another has been an unexpected delight.
Speaking of which, that’s another thing Fringe does better than The X-Files (and almost every other show on TV with a will-they/won’t they couple, for that matter). Instead of dicking around the audience and dragging out the sexual tension between the leads interminably (*ahem* Hart Hanson *cough cough*), they let it develop steadily and naturally over the course of the first two seasons. And then they totally went for it. And then, of course, they threw some major, epic roadblocks in their way, just to keep things interesting. But something tells me these two kids aren’t going to let something as simple as the end of the world get in their way.
Fringe has a little something for every sci fi fan: star-crossed lovers, wacky mad scientists, doppelgangers from parallel universes, mysterious time-travelers, and Leonard Nimoy. There are even plenty of Easter eggs seeded throughout the show to keep hardcore conspiracy buffs busy, from the fedora-sporting Observer who’s hidden in every episode like a game of Where’s Waldo, to the cipher that appears before the commercial breaks, spelling out a new word each week. But those are just bonuses: you don’t need to devote hours of your life to searching for the clue that foreshadows the next episode or combing fan sites to see if you missed a hidden Massive Dynamic logo somewhere in order to enjoy this show. The main storyline is easy enough to follow even for casual viewers, although it’s not necessarily the sort of thing you can just jump right into the middle of.
The season three finale airs this Friday night and it looks to be another mind-blower, but if you haven’t been watching the show I honestly can’t recommend you start now. The long, hot desert of summer television is just around the corner, and what better time to give Fringe the chance it deserves? Start from the beginning on DVD (if you’re impatient you can even skip to season two, but if you’re a completist like me you’re going to want to see it all) and enjoy watching this Little Show That Could grow from a tiny caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly, albeit one with creepy finger-bone wings.