The Peter Bishop principle: Checking in on ‘Fringe’ season 4

Senior Television Writer
10.21.11 54 Comments

We’re at the start of that awkward post-premiere, pre-sweeps period of the TV season where networks start sprinkling in repeats(*), which means there’s no new “Fringe” tonight. But that gives me an excuse to offer some overall thoughts on the first four episodes and how I’m feeling about the season to date, coming up just as soon as I get all my ideas from watching “The Matrix” fight scenes…

(*) Basic TV scheduling math: there are about 39 weeks in the broadcast network TV season, and most network shows only produce 22 episodes (24 at most). On top of that, you usually need to set aside at least four of those episodes for the start of the season to get people into the habit of watching (or watching again), and another four each for the sweeps months of November, February, and May. (Though sometimes shows only air 3 new episodes in May.) So that leaves 8 or 9 episodes to spread over October, January, March and April, which is why there are either a lot of repeats in those months or else shows temporarily go off the air for a mid-season fill-in. Most of this involves an outmoded system that the networks would love to get rid of but can’t, because their local affiliates still depend on the sweeps periods to set their ad rates.

Okay, so Peter’s back and remembers everything, but has arrived in a world where he drowned in the lake as a kid. That’s an interesting starting point for the next phase of the season, and one that I frankly wish we had gotten to a few episodes sooner.

There have been some good episodes in this batch – I particularly liked the second one, with John Pyper-Ferguson trying to help his serial killer counterpart from the alt-universe – but overall I haven’t loved the whole Peter-less universe idea. It’s not so much that I miss Peter – I like Joshua Jackson a lot, but of the three leads, he’s the one the show has had the most trouble using over the years – as that I feel the new status quo has required far too much effort without enough payoff.

The changes between the old reality and this one are both subtle and myriad, which means the show has had to frequently pause its storytelling to explain why a character or situation is slightly different from how we remembered them last season, and a lot of those explanations have felt shoehorned in, especially since the end results are still largely the same. Walter’s more fearful and guilt-ridden, and Olivia’s more assertive, but they’re largely unchanged from the versions we know. Peter’s absence from their lives hasn’t made them different enough to make four episodes without him, and with constant anvils being dropped into the dialogue about how hard it is to be without the most important person in your life, worth all the bother.

I’m not saying that I wanted to come back to the new season with all the regular characters so transformed that it would be like getting a third parallel dimension. (Maybe in that one, Olivia could have an eyepatch and Walter a mustache!) We’ve already been there, done that, and it would have felt lazy and like a step back – like Pinkner and Wyman had discovered this one trick that worked and were going to keep doing variations of it over and over until everyone got bored. But at the same time, I don’t think these episodes have given me quite the sense of what Peter means to these characters as I think was intended. His absence has allowed us to focus on other relationships – like last week’s take on how Olivia and Walter both feel about the cortexiphan trials all these years later – but I think those kinds of stories could have been told even if Peter still existed. (It wouldn’t be hard to contrive an excuse for Peter to stay in the lab for an episode while Olivia and Walter are in the field.)

We’ll see how things work now that Peter is back – and as the Observers try once again to remove him from the timestream for their own mysterious reasons – and in hindsight it may turn out that there was more value to this extended prologue than I found at the time. At the moment, though, I’m concerned. The first half of last season was terrific, and seemed like “Fringe” had finally taken The Leap. But the second half wasn’t nearly as tight, and I didn’t like the finale, and have now had major issues with the start of this season. There’s still plenty of time in this season to right the ship creatively, but I do begin to wonder whether the Olivia/Fauxlivia storyline wasn’t so much a show taking The Leap as surging to a brief creative peak before settling back down at its previous, interesting but uneven earlier level.

There’ll be a new episode next week – which Ryan McGee will once again be reviewing for us, as he’s been doing so well for a while – and I’ll try to check back in a bit deeper into the season, maybe after the November sweeps episodes are done.

In the meantime, how’s everyone else feeling about the season to date? Have you been happier with the slightly new universe, or would you have rather Peter turned up much earlier? Or not disappeared at all? Have at it.

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