Producing a television show is a tricky thing. There are so many ways to go wrong that it”s a miracle when anything goes right. Starting around the halfway point of Season 1, and stretching through the penultimate episode of Season 3, “Fringe” did almost everything right. Moreover, they did it in a way that gave the illusion that television is in fact quite easy to pull off. Nothing could be further from the truth, and not for a single second would I ever retroactively take back anything positive I had to say about those two and a half years. But this fourth season is a prime example of how quickly a show can go off the rails.
In some ways, “Enemy of My Enemy” was a strong episode of television, if you took out all surrounding context and saw this as a stand-alone episode of an anthology series. All the promise laid out at the end of Season 3 came to a head with the formation of a dual-universe coalition to deal with a common threat. Said threat was a crafty bugger with seemingly endless connections and yet a fatal flaw that gave us hope that our heroes could ultimately win. There were some moments of genuine human emotion laid out amidst vastly complex scientific ideas. But just like this version of David Robert Jones, “Fringe” has a fatal flaw: the entire fourth season is, in and of itself, out of context.
Now, I”ve said this every week. And I”ll keep saying it every week. Why? Because it”s often more instructive to talk about what a show does wrong than what it does right. Talking about the former is a path towards better understanding the latter, ostensibly. That”s not to say that Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman will read this and think, “By Jove, that McGee is onto something! Halt production immediately!” Heck no. But there”s a difference between saying, “This show isn”t working anymore,” and, “This is why it”s no longer working.” The latter is what I try to do, since there”s no use throwing up an opinion without back up. (That won”t stop many people. But still.) If you don”t agree with what I espouse, that”s fine. More than fine. But so long as I explain my feelings in words rather than embedding a YouTube clip of a “Footloose”-esque angry dance, then hopefully we can have a rational discussion about our differences.
Here”s the thing: this would have probably been one of my favorite episodes of “Fringe” of all time had it taken place in the reality of the first three seasons. For years now, I have posited that the two universes would learn to mutual coexist rather than one “winning” over the other. Why? Not because I”m smart. Rather, I posited that because I watch the show, and it”s one of the most romantic shows (in the classic sense) on television. I love how big the show”s heart is, and if it occasionally drops into diabetes-inducing sugary sweetness…well, I”d rather err that way than veer into clinical detachment. But that detachment is what I feel anytime someone other than Peter Bishop does anything on this show this season.
Because of him, stuff kept coming SO CLOSE to actually working, only to asymptotically approach the third rail that is this new reality. Let”s take the Over There Elizabeth Bishop* talking with Over Here Walter*. I put an asterisk next to their names because those are still recent creations from our perspective. They walk like ducks, and quack like ducks, but they are not OUR ducks. Even when we got two universes thrown into the mix in Season 3, they were still “ours” in that they belonged to a consistent reality, albeit a different slice of bread in the same loaf of reality. (It”s been a long week. Don”t mind my metaphors.) They were always real. We just hadn”t met them yet. Had I watched THAT Over There Elizabeth and THAT Over Here Walter discuss Peter in this fashion, I would have lost my damn mind from excitement and all of the tears that probably would have flowed.
Instead, all we saw was the emotional aftermath of Peter”s experiences with them. And that”s not nothing, by a long shot. And I do appreciate the way the show is trying to show how Peter is “waking them up,” so to speak. (Don”t worry: I won”t invoke any past J.J. Abrams shows here, even if tonight”s episode dropped numbers like “47” and “16” ever so blatantly.) Scenes such as Elizabeth/Walter, or even Walter/Peter at the end, are meant to make us long for what we at home and those on screen have lost. I get it. I get it completely. But what sounds good on paper doesn”t always translate on onscreen. What we”re talking about here is a concept, and a concept is something you can debate endlessly. But I”m not sure you”d want to WATCH that debate play out over a 22-episode season. You can dramatize a concept over the course of an episode if you”re really, really smart. But anytime you based a season around a concept rather than a character journey, then you”re doomed to fail. I am willing to bet that those behind “Fringe” sought out to make this season a character journey. But that”s not what”s actually happened.
And so, we”re left with a plot that”s interesting in theory yet all but dead on arrival. I”m just not sure why we should care that another version of Nina Sharpe* is taking samples of another Olivia Dunham”s* blood so another David Robert Jones* can crisscross two other versions of our two universes*. If the point of “Fringe” is akin to that of “Battlestar: Galactica” (namely, that everything has happened before, and that everything will happen again), then I think they are sorely mistaking the audience”s appetite for that type of show. I”m not watching to see the theoretical replay of every possible permutation of these people coming into contact with each other. I wanted to follow specific people on a specific, and discreet, portion of their lives. I would have been content to eventually leave those people, so long as I had a sense of what might happen after the final credits rolled. Now? I don”t even know if those people will ever come back, what they will remember, and what anything is Season 4 of “Fringe” is supposed to mean. It”s a hellacious shame.
* You get the point by now, yes?
And it”s primarily a shame because if Season 3 simply ended with Peter in between the two versions of everyone, just like he was at the end of tonight”s episode across from Walternate, this could have been an incredible season of television. Had he simply done the work of fusing the two universes, without knowing how to make them actually co-exist, I would have been giddy. “One Night in October” hinted at the possibilities inherent in the show”s newly combined universes. With an easy-to-use bridge linking each one, the show could have had all the fun it did tonight in mixing/matching versions of people as they solved crimes laced with moral and philosophical implications. People coming face to face with the roads not taken might have produced results as powerful as those concerning John McClennan. Instead, no one in either universe realizes that they are on a road that didn”t even exist a few scant months ago. As such, “Fringe” itself is taking us down a long, winding road that seems with each passing week to be leading us closer to a dead end.
What did you think of tonight”s “Fringe”? Are you on board with this road trip, or have you slammed into the wall bridging the two worlds like Olivia? Does the Jones stuff interest you, or are you as distant from the proceedings as I am? Sound off below!