Sep 20 2008 9:52am

The Raveled Fringe

One of the problems with being an editor is that the part of my mind that picks stories apart rarely shuts down completely.  Occasionally, if there’s interesting visual input or strong acting in a movie, tv show, or play, I get absorbed and the analytical engine goes into idle (this does not mean that I won’t be picking the thing apart half an hour after it’s over).

But usually, especially if I’m only half-watching (because I’m reading, working on a puzzle, doing needlework, or gaming), I find that I get stuck on flaws and inconsistencies and plain old silliness.

Sometimes this puts me at odds with reviewers.  Case in point, J.J. Abrams’ new series, Fringe.  From the publicity and pre-broadcast reviews, this is supposedly the best new series on broadcast tv this season.

It’s my personal policy not to make a judgment on a series based on the pilot or first episode alone; often the initial outing is padded to fill additional time or so stuffed with commercials that you can’t get a sense of the pace and style of the real thing.

But now I’ve seen two episodes, and in my opinion, if this is the best new show of the Fall, the rest of the season is going to be pretty lousy.  (Which might be true anyway, oy. [Caveat: I don’t have cable.])

I suspect that Fringe is not really my kind of show.  I never liked The X-Files either, which this is being likened to.  But I follow Lost religiously, so I figured I’d give Abrams’ new show a try.

Much of Fringe feels familiar, especially the protagonists, who come across as pretty off-the-shelf.  There’s the federal agent who’ll play fast and loose with rules and regulations when she feels that’s the only way to get to the truth.  There’s the hot-tempered outsider who doesn’t trust the government or any authority, the guy whose cynical attitude conceals a heart of gold.  The third main character screams “plot device”—a half-mad scientist whose messed-up memory will undoubtedly provide numerous rabbits out of hats in the course of the season.

The flesh-melting “disease” in the first episode was a cool concept, and I liked the bit where the heroine had to perform a drug-induced mind-meld with her unconscious lover and FBI partner via a sensory-deprivation tank.  Blair Brown’s artificial arm was a nice bit of CGI.

But . . . how come the super-secret government agency had to arrange for the mad scientist’s son to have legal custody of him to get the old man out of the mental institution?  Surely the govt. could have concocted some sort of legal mumbo-jumbo to lay claim to the guy, or done a black op and just made him “disappear?”

And in the second episode, why did the rapidly-aging serial killer have to kill to get pituitary hormone?  There are synthetics.  And why were all his victims pretty young women?  If he’s just after hormones, anyone would do . . . .

Little things like that keep me from enjoying myself.

I might watch a few more episodes—Joshua Jackson’s kind of cute—but only until something better comes along or I give into the temptation to watch that week’s House immediately after it finishes recording (I don’t watch tv between 8 and 9 because that’s family/homework time).

[Image by Flickr user Jenny Downing, CC licensed for commercial use.]

Gary Gibson
1. garygibson
I think what bothered me more was the question of where the 'old baby's' body mass came from, given he apparently grew to adult size in a matter of minutes. Where did it come from? I can forgive many things, but this one stretched my sense of disbelief a little bit too far. But then again, perhaps Brown's cyborg arm is an indication we should be thinking of this as more of a live action comic-book than a science fiction series.
2. sirkenneth
Maybe my evening vino is playing tricks on my brain, but it seems like many of this season's shows are morphing together. E.g., I watch Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles back-to-back and then afterward my memories merge as to what happened on which show--because they look, feel, seem so similar.
James Nicoll
3. JamesDavisNicoll
I stopped watching the pilot fairly early on but this bit

And in the second episode, why did the rapidly-aging serial killer have to kill to get pituitary hormone? There are synthetics. And why were all his victims pretty young women? If he’s just after hormones, anyone would do . . . .

seems very similar to portions of 1973's The Night Strangler.
Bruce Cohen
4. SpeakerToManagers
I've given up on expecting scientific plausibility, or even decent logic when it comes to the MacGuffin on these shows, but I just can't forgive formula characters and plots. And I could tell immediately from the first show that they were going to make the same mistake that the X-Files made, and that finally screwed up Lost: not having explanations for the mysteries they introduced at first, and trying to cover by dumping more unexplained mysteries on us.

My advice is to get cable, real quick. After 2 episodes of True Blood, I'm addicted to it. Alan Ball has put the same kind of quirky perception he used to make Six Feet Under a terrific work of episodic drama into it, but the characters, the locale, and the plot are totally different. If I had to describe it for Variety I might say something like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets the X-Men in Louisiana". And there are enough other shows that are a lot of fun (Burn Notice, Eureka, even Generation Kill in it's own horrifying way) that you can ignore all the crappy formula shows.
Darren Hawkins
5. wincingatlight
I've thought from the beginning that the best part of _Fringe_ by far is the interaction between Joshua Jackson's character and his father. Some of their dialogue just crackles (and I mean crackles in a realistic way, not in a hopped-up-on-espresso/we-rehearse-our-conversations-in-front-of-our-bedroom-mirrors-until-they-look-spontaneous way, ala _Gilmore Girls_.)
Melissa Ann Singer
6. masinger
Speaker to Managers:

No cable for me. In NYC, it's pretty much a monopoly and I will not pay the outrageous rates demanded in my area.

Not for 2 hours/day of tv, kwim?

And especially not in a year when my apt. bldg. is replacing its elevators and increasing maintenance fees as a result.
C.D. Thomas
7. cdthomas
I just cain't suspend my disbelief that a psycho wacked-out mad scientist would be allowed to a) keep his mad scientist skunk-and-cow works dormant on Harvard's campus and b) be allowed to reopen his lab and work after being imprisoned, without parole or pardon.

A man's got to run a black-ops group or a significant DOD project before the Harvard Risk Management greenlights that sort of thing....
Lydia Sharp
8. Lydia
"It’s my personal policy not to make a judgment on a series based on the pilot or first episode alone."

I disagree. The pilot is meant to hook you. If it doesn't, why bother with another episode? How can the rest of a series be any good if that first episode doesn't interest you? That would be like continuing to read a book after the first chapter bored you to tears. Why would you expect the rest of the book to be any different?
Melissa Ann Singer
9. masinger
@8: It's precisely because the first episode is designed to "hook" you that it's not actually a fair measure of a series or characters' potential(s). Sometimes the producers/writers/director have put so many "hooks" into that first episode that you can't actually tell how characters are going to relate to each other over time or if a different plot will make more (or less) sense.

Assuming we're talking about standard episodic television here, which means that most of the time, the series is not telling an ongoing story in the foreground (as opposed to whatever ongoing story might be told by character interaction or development in the background over time). For instance, an individual episode of Homicide: Life on the Street might be "about" solving a particular crime, but, for the long-term viewer, the episode might actually be "about" one character's obsession with another case entirely.

A tv show pilot serves a very different function from the first chapter of a novel, in that the first chapter is not intended to have a Major Payoff at the end (as most episodic television does). The first chapter of a novel _might_ end with a cliffhanger, but doesn't have to (and it rarely ends with any kind of resolution). The first chapter of a book is not required to introduce all of the book's major characters, including the villain--many times important characters don't appear until several chapters in.

First chapters and pilots are not analogous, in my mind. Prologues and pilots are a little more analogous, which may be why I have a tendency to remove prologues from books I'm editing whenever possible. Prologues often consist of some of the weakest writing in a book, precisely because the author is attempting to "tease" the novel, and because it's hard to do that in the constricted space of a prologue.

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