Having been a die-hard fan of Chris Carter’s The X Files when it premiered on Fox TV, I’d always been a fan of programs that explored the truth “out there.” Yes, I sat through all nine seasons of FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, even that God-awful ninth season. Even the disappointment of their final season didn’t turn me off of all things supernatural, so I was more than ready for Fringe when it premiered in the fall of 2008.
Of course, it looked like “the son of The X Files.” You bet, it looked like a carbon copy meant to fill the void left with another show’s departure. Yes, it brought practically all of the same elements – shadowy government agencies, rogue federal agents doing their own thing, weird esoteric explanations for things that go bump in the night – and that’s probably what it was supposed to do.
Fringe was the brainchild of JJ Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, and it followed the investigations of FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (played by the lovely Anna Torv) working on a task force for the Department of Homeland Security properly called ‘Fringe Division.’ Joining her in her quest to know the unknowable was Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) – the prototypical mad scientist – and his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson).
The show struggled a bit right out of the gate. The pilot received some noticeable critical praise, but ratings were never gangbusters in the way the network clearly hoped. The performances were almost universally praised – critics thought the pairing of a rational, no-nonsense federal agent with a whacked out-of-his-mind LSD addict / scientist was inspired – but the “mystery of the week” storytelling found little leverage on which to attract audiences for the long haul.
However, things changed in the second season when regular story contributor Akiva Goldsman was brought in to ‘talk shop’ in the Fringe’s writers room. There, Goldsman learned from the showrunners the tale-in-the making – the core mythology involving Dr. Bishop’s experiments on a young Olivia, the kidnap of the boy Peter from a parallel dimension, and the ultimate war between two worlds. The current crop of writers had been spacing out the episodes exploring that mythology, much in the same way The X Files spaced theirs out, but Goldsman told them that was a mistake.
“This is the story you should be giving audiences,” he said.
The modest tweaking worked, and Fringe – now that it was fully committed to a single, overwhelming story – won over most of its harshest critics. In 2010, The A.V. Club ranked it in the top twenty television programs for that year; and, in 2012, Entertainment Weekly put it on their list of the best ‘cult’ shows of the last 25 years. (Hat/tip: Wikipedia) It still wasn’t a ratings giant, but, in its own subtle ways, it became a force to be reckoned with.
In April, 2012, Kevin Reilly – President of Fox Entertainment – worked out a deal wherein Fringe would be allowed a fifth and final season. Respectful of the fans and the showrunners, Reilly wanted to allow these characters some closure to a massive, time-traveling adventure that started four seasons ago.
Today, baring no unforeseen circumstances, marks the end of all things Fringe.
Well, that may not be true.
After all, the X Files has been allowed to limp on in a stand-alone lackluster film (The X Files: I Want to Believe). Programs like CBS’s apocalypse-drama ‘Jericho’ and the Joss Whedon-created ‘Buffy, the Vampire Slayer’ have found life-after-death (and about the same level of success) in comic book fashion. Stargate SG1 and Babylon 5 have found additional stories to tell in subsequent tele-films and/or direct-to-DVD releases. TV’s Star Trek continues to live long and prosper in the format of novels … so it isn’t that far outside the realm of possibility that a property like Fringe could see a return to form some day. No, I haven’t heard of anything yet in the offing, but I’ll hold out hope, like any true fan would.
For my two cents, the fifth season hasn’t been all that special.
Without spoiling it too much for those still nursing from their DVRs, the team has been reduced to basically following up on Walter’s “grand plan” to collapse reality, bringing these various universe’s to fold in on themselves, and reset time to the pivotal moment when all things were right where they were destined to be. They’ve spent the bulk of this 13-episode commitment on a bizarre scavenger hunt to collect oddities necessary to build a machine that could accomplish the task. Tonight’s two-hour finale promises to answer all lingering doubts while giving audiences the emotional climax they deserve for having invested 100 episodes of watching, worrying, and wondering.
It isn’t that I’ve disliked this season because, truth be told, I haven’t.
The characters were redefined a bit, based on the circumstances of the future, and that’s given these talented actors and actresses something new to explore after all this time. The grim, dystopian ‘tomorrow’ is a staple in all good science fiction – think Soylent Green, I Am Legend, or Logan’s Run as examples – so it’s perfectly acceptable for Fringe to take a stab at it. It’s just that the greatness of seasons three and four – the creation of alternate timelines, the re-uniting of Peter and Olivia, and the discovery of just who the Observers are – is a hard act to follow. By comparison, season five felt like a show winding down, while season four felt like a show revving up.
Perhaps it’s natural for the show to come to an end. Indeed, maybe it’s time has come.
Like it or not, tonight’s 120 minutes will be the last Fringe ever so far as any one of us knows at present. I’ll be there to say goodbye to Olivia, Peter, Walter, and Astrid (the underrated Jasika Nicole), and I hope you are, too.
Let’s give Fringe the genre send off it definitely deserves.