BluRay/DVD Reviews

FRINGE: SEASON ONE

By • Sep 19th, 2009 •

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First the +’s.

Good writing.

Handsomely produced.

Intriguing plots, with healthy heapings of narrative drive.

John Noble, once we get used to his odd diction.

John Noble, as Dr. Walter Bishop, has snagged himself the role of a lifetime. His cadences, his character’s need to tread ground between our sympathies for his emotional disorder, awe for his scientific mind, and delight at his humorous lapses in memory, focus, and protocol, as well as childlike desires for Root Beer Floats, etc., are juggled remarkably well by the seasoned thesp. Initially he takes some getting used to, but once you do…

If we look at the series as a demonstration of the “Hero’s Journey”, then Noble is the ‘Mentor’, except that he hangs around for the entire 20 episodes, and ends up dominating the show. He’s the one we really look forward to visiting. In a way he’s Bernard Quatermass from the Hammer sci-fi-horror series of the 1950s. In that sporadic collection of feature productions, the final installment found the Professor, played by John Mills, now clearly senile, but still sharper than anyone else the government has to offer up to solve a world-threatening problem. Dr. Bishop is introduced to us in that latter state. We never get to know him decades earlier when his mind was clearer and more focused. But that’s okay. Noble has such fun with role, it’s absolutely infectious.
And in the series’ least showy role of FBI assistant Astrid Farnsworth, Jasika Nicole is quite perfect, in both looks and delivery.

Now the neither +’s nor -‘s:
The casting of Anna Torv. She does capture the formality and hardness of what should be an FBI Agent as we’ve come to know government agents, with a soft heart hidden-but-protruding from beneath the hard-line policy. But the glimpses of softness still do not make her sympathetic…say as in Gillian Anderson. Why do I compare her to Gillian Anderson? Because halfway through the first season it stops being FRINGE and starts being THE X-FILES. But more on that later.

The pilot episode struggles to find its footing, balancing future science with rich characters. There’s a frightening, many-tentacled uber-science threat spreading across the globe known as “The Pattern.” In this introductory installment, an 11th hour revelation comes that will really stun the viewer, and whoever thought of it must be very proud of him-or-her-self.

None of the characters wins you over initially. Anna Torv we’ve discussed. John Noble as the elderly, semi-bonkers scientist, as we’ve also discussed, is the most compelling creation, since he’s both worrisome and comedic.

Joshua Jackson as Dr. Bishop’s cynical, reluctant son, has been around a while, having appeared in such lightweight fare as SCREAM 2 and in such middle-weight stuff as APT PUPIL. He hangs onto his anger and stand-offishness no matter what, only pausing now and then to let a little compassion filter through. Both he and Anna Torv are the ‘Reluctant Heros’ of the mythic paradigm.

In a role that could have gone to Elizabeth Shepherd or Barbara Steele, Blair Brown is the team’s evil nemesis, representing a mega-company – Massive Dynamics – that may in some way be behind everything that’s going wrong in the world, while promoting themselves as working ceaselessly on the answers to everything that should be going right. She brings the appropriately sinister overtones to her periodic appearances.

None of them, however, has the clout to carry a series, though together, if you stick around for three or four episodes, they form an integrated and compelling group.

Another aspect of the series that is neither positive nor negative, but left to the viewer to judge, is the use of elaborate 3D titles announcing what city they’re in, what building they’re going into, etc. While creatively designed, there’s also something a little pretentious and distracting about the white, monolithic titles, and the same can be said for some of the characters, parts of the teleplays, and the direction.

And now the Negativos: In terms of casting – and I don’t want to trash this actor, he’s a strong presence – but 6′ 4″ Lance Reddick (formerly of LOST, THE WIRE and OZ), who plays Ms. Torv’s cold, manipulative boss, is uncomfortable to listen to. The kindest thing I can say about his vocal delivery is that it evokes Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE intros in its enunciation. The worst…well, do you remember George Pal’s original THE TIME MACHINE? In that film, one of the friendly Eloi said, in answer to Rod Taylor’s questions about man’s history, “Books… Yes, we have books.” Remember that guy? Really weird voice. Good for about six lines. After that, one would get really disturbed at having to listen to him. Same thing here. Like he’s always wetting and smacking his lips. As Orson Welles would say: “Unrewarding.”

And then there’s the issue of narrative drive. One should answer a certain amount of questions for the viewer, and leave a few unanswered, so that the viewer staggers on to the next scene, curious to fill in the blanks. David Mamet is fabulous at that, as is John Sayles. But there’s an imbalance in the answers-to-questions ratio in FRINGE, especially as the season progresses. We’re often left with so many blanks that, looking back at each episode, the logic and satisfaction dwindles in our minds.
The arc of the season is interesting. The first three episodes are very much their own special breed of animal. Episode 4 contains (perhaps unintentially) a nod to Quatermass, with an object found in a building site, sort of like the motivating discovery in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. By episode 5 onwards, FRINGE has become X-FILES REVISITED, only without strong resolutions. The odd phenomena in these mid-episodes seem unconnected to Blair’s company, and actually unworthy of her company’s intense interest – hardly a blip in the larger ‘Pattern’ of things. And the writers’ generally adept balance of facts given and facts withheld goes really off-kilter in this one. There’s just too much unresolved business.

By Episode 6 the creative team behind the series are ramping up the silly humor, I have to assume because the stories are growing more grim and, hence, less fun. Noble is made to do a few things that are beneath his character in order to get laughs. Then in Episode 7, the tone drifts back into synch with itself, featuring some excruciating suspense, and the introduction of Jared Harris as a mini Hannibal Lector, incarcerated in a maximum security mental facility. Episode 8 swings back into a bog of unanswered questions. And so it goes.

Most of the episodes give us a dollop of gore, never overt, but always enough for the squeamish to look away. Our protagonists certainly earn their triumphs on the anvil of pain. And the DVD collection has a number of supplementals: lightweight featurettes about casting and effects, chummy commentaries featuring producers and writers. The outside art on the DVD box is appropriately meaningful, and the packaging is functionally designed.

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