On the Fringes

I really thought that I’d like the Fringe pilot more than I did. It’s a big-budget genre show created by J.J. Abrams inspired by The X-Files with Joshua Jackson knocking around, and yet I felt that it was pretty disappointing. I never got into Alias or Lost much, the latter seems stupid to me but the former certainly potentially had my interest. My impression from both these shows was always that J.J. Abrams was probably a good writer and director, but that his style isn’t something that really suits me. I can appreciate a love of twisty storylines, but I don’t like it when the twists exist just for the sake of it. Call me old fashioned but I like story-arcs which make sense, and I want some subtle foreshadowing. I don’t like the idea of writers going “hey, here’s a neat idea!” and just chucking it in. Still, I was prepared to give Fringe a chance, especially since there’s been so much positive buzz about it.

First off, I think the pilot was too long. I was bored and squirmy by the time it finished. Secondly, it was way too X-Files. I have some small gripes with The X-Files (and some huge ones with the new film, but I think I ought to leave that rant for another time) but it did its thing well. As in did it already. I don’t really get what the point of Fringe is; it basically seemed like The X-Files with a larger budget, more annoying characters and stupider ideas. Joy. I mean even the name Fringe was derived from a marginalised government project. Sounds familiar? I was annoyed by the title sequence, the names of several supposedly fringe theories, such as ‘dark matter’; ‘psychokinesis’; ‘artificial intelligence’; ‘precognition’ etc, float around in block capitals. Not only did it seem like a desperate attempt to over-emphasise the point that this is an über-cool science-fiction/genre show that you’re really gonna love, it seriously looked like a (slightly prettier and less cheap) rip off of The X-Files‘ opening credits.

Also I noticed that consistently throughout the episode the humour didn’t quite work, it was as if the pacing was somehow a little off all the time.

The pilot began with a really gross scene involving the passengers of a flight being afflicted by some plague type thing. Asides from the fact that having a pilot episode start with a plane pilot’s troubles is a little amusing it mostly just annoyed me. I’m just not the biggest straight up sci-fi fan I guess. I like the genre sometimes, mostly when it’s either just plain awesome (as with Sliders) or where it’s being utilised in a semi-allegorical way (like with Firefly or Dune). I’ll tolerate science fiction and its elements most of the time, but I do vastly prefer fantasy series. While The X-Files had the whole alien obsession thang, at least they embraced a lot of stock fantasy series elements, which I somehow can’t see Fringe doing.

The main character, Olivia, was pretty annoying. I’m not sure how much that was just the actress though. Olivia is played by Anna Torv, who could almost be the lovechild of Blake Lively and Ellen Pompeo i.e. strangely attractive, blonde, not a very good actress and somewhat irritating. Possibly I found her especially grating simply because she’s Australian. I find it kind of strange that an actress from The Secret Life of Us got cast in the main role. Now I’m not saying that trashy Australian soaps don’t have their place, they gave the world Jesse Spencer and thus gave House Dr Chase, and even The Secret Life of Us was ocasionally amusing (did Evan and Alex ever get together?).

Comparatively Brookside gave us Anna Friel, and some cheesy Mexican telenovela or other launched Salma Hayek’s career. Nonetheless I find the choice to cast the unknown Anna Torv in the lead role puzzling, since her acting was vexingly bad. Certainly Olivia’s overly-pissy attitude at just about everything didn’t help her case, and neither did the really lame romance with her co-worker, John, she was having fun with at the start of the episode. The way that she randomly brought up the fact that he’d said that he loves her all proud and beaming turned me off, and the cliché nature of her “I was so bad at relationships until you” simper-athon made me adamant that if John wasn’t killed off in the first episode I wouldn’t be sticking around. Luckily I was also pretty sure that he would be killed off post haste, but did they really need to make it so obvious?

Kirk Alcevedo turning up was awesome though, and not only because I have a strange affection for the way that he says ‘liaison’. I really liked him in Oz, which is a show that I must get around to finishing one day. I’m seeing alums around the place quite often these days, Lauren Vélez is in Dexter and J.K. Simmons turns up in pretty much everything these days (including Juno) and mostly as sympathetic characters which always throws me off because I can’t shake the feeling that he really is a terrifying neo-Nazi. If I wasn’t certain that Lost would definitely annoy the shit out of me, since it seems utterly stupid especially as the writers are apparently just making it up as they go along, I would be seriously tempted to watch it just because of Harold Perrineau.

Olivia and John were sent off to a storage facility after a tip-off that they place might reveal something about the plane catastrophe. For some reason FBI agents on television don’t always question whether it’s alright if they bust into locked property, or in this case a locked garage. In fact they often only bother to when stalling would be a handy plot device. In some cases this seems in character, I pretty much buy Mulder doing it and one thing that I think that Bones does pretty well is have Booth fretting about playing by the rules, but still attempting to protect his non-FBI partner Brennan when she willingly flouts them- thus she doesn’t fuss about warrants and so on all that much and so he gets dragged along in her wake. Olivia then spent quite a lot of time running about chasing a suspect and later trying to avoid being exploded. During this relatively short time I was irked by: her long hair flapping about everywhere instead of being tied up, the fact that she perpetually seemed somehow frail and had a deeply concerned expression on her face most of the time, and the fact that she runs like a girl. Give me Scully any day.

John being a victim of the explosion was kind of cool, at least it meant less of the staring into each other’s eyes soulfully. I think that the hospital scene was shot well, and I did like the technique of having the flashes rather than showing things in detail. However, I think that Supernatural did put this to better effect in ‘Lazarus Rising’, and without spending $10 million.

I found the revelation that Olivia had previously basically been in charge of defending the pure, innocent women against the big bad men in the Old Boy’s Club of the FBI/military rather tiresome. It’s not that I think that that’s a bad idea, but this characterisation just seemed so bland and so done already. She just seemed so righteous, and that of course grated. I don’t know how women are treated in the military and in other branches of government, but I find the idea that they’re belittled and treated as patronisingly as Fringe seemed to be ramming down my throat to be worrying. Olivia was referred to as uninventive endearments like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’ more than by her name or title I think. Give me Scully and The X-Files any day, actually fuck that: give me CJ and The West Wing, stat.

Similarly the fact that Peter Bishop, son of the crazy Dr Bishop who Olivia somewhat randomly decided might be able to save John, was living in Baghdad (and ooh could speak Farsi, how magnificent and impressive!) was delivered with a pause for the audience to be wowed. I wasn’t particularly shocked though. People live and work in Iraq, people (not me, but other people, sure) learn languages, the world outside of the US exists. I don’t really get where the surprise was. Nonetheless I think that Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop had the potential to save the show for me. I would totally have run off with him to the Caribbean in the True Love boat too. He was almost as wonderfully snarky in Fringe as in his Dawson’s days, and that did bring a smile to my face.

Dr Bishop, when Olivia got access to him after forcing Peter back to the US, looked nice ‘n’ (properly) crazy. Which made Olivia’s plan to hit him up for useful information to save her lover-boy seem pretty stupid. Also Olivia was pretty much a completely immoral bitch- and yet I still didn’t like her. Curiouser and curiouser. Maybe it’s because she was directing all this sociopathy towards Peter, who had already proved far more likable than her. She blackmailed him into helping her, and after a rubbish cursory attempt at explaining why she wanted his help she didn’t really delve into garnering sympathy. She didn’t even promise him compensation for his time, effort and emotional trauma. The interaction between Peter and his father was handled quite nicely I think, although Dr Bishop’s characterisation got tiring quickly, especially the twitching and shaking. I did understand his obsession with ginger ale, and having him develop a taste for SpongeBob later was a nice, humanising, touch.

Olivia decided to resolutely pursue her theory that Dr Bishop would be able to save John’s life, thus letting this psychopath wield a scalpel at the prone body of the man she claimed to love. Of course I understand that she was desperate and willing to try anything, but that desperation didn’t come through. If anything Olivia just seemed to be stubbornly trying to prove that she was right. There was no reasoning to her belief that pursuing, and freeing, Dr Bishop would help so she just seemed stupid. The fact that she was being such an idiot made Peter’s condescension and misogyny enjoyable and appealing, which was kind of annoying. I don’t want to be on the side of the pompous man talking down to the silly little woman and yet I am. No wonder really, since Olivia then decided to agree to being drugged (with LSD amongst other things), by a crazy man, strip and then have a probe inserted in her head. Brilliant way to grieve probably, not an excellent tactic for saving lives.

Furthermore Olivia and Peter suddenly developed this weird sexual tension as if from nowhere. She was utilising him and his father in a desperate attempt to save another man, and yet suddenly there were lingering touches and heated glances. That’s something which had the potential to have been played really well, Olivia could have been confused and conflicted about it. Instead it just served to highlight the fact that John would clearly be dead by the end of the episode and that the show wanted to shoehorn in as much tension as possible between the leads because that’s standard fare. Just from an aesthetic point of view there’s something really incongruous about the faces of Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson, they honestly look weird on screen together. Their looks seem to belong to different worlds or at least to different genres of shows- which really is odd because Dawson’s Creek and The Secret Life of Us aren’t exactly worlds apart. Some faces just don’t go together somehow, it would be like Ellen Pompeo and Ed Westwick getting cast opposite each other. Or a better example that’s currently eluding my tired mind.

Olivia’s face annoyed me especially when she didn’t look nearly as half dead as Peter did, or as she should. This wouldn’t have mattered so much if she hadn’t been going on about how tired she was, and if she hadn’t been told that she looked like crap because she hadn’t slept. This isn’t something that only Fringe is guilty of, television and film characters are always going around looking perfectly put together when they shouldn’t, but with explicit references to her exhaustion I think that there really ought to be some indicators of it. That’s part of why I love Janel Moloney in The West Wing ep entitled ‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen’ playing the scene in which her character, Donna, rushed to the hospital upon hearing that the President had been shot only to be devastated by the discovery that Josh had been wounded far more seriously with ungroomed hair and no make-up.

At least Olivia looked pretty in her (of course) matching underwear, and her impending coma-like state promised blessed silence. The fact that an FBI liaison was bootlegging smack in a basement was pretty amusing. I think that that scene was shot pretty well, and I liked the dreamscape in which she “met” John, it looked almost like a comic book. I ought to have just watched this scene on mute, at least then I wouldn’t have been irritated by the bullshit dialogue.

The choice to title locations in large letters as if they were part of the place was a little jarring. It was nice to see a show trying to do something interesting instead of just subtitling at the bottom of the screen, but it quickly got annoying. If it wasn’t so uniform, and almost obsessive, it could have been alright. It seems like this device excuses unclear writing which doesn’t make it obvious what’s going on in a scene, or where it is, too.

I did like the character of Nina Sharp, she honestly seemed interesting and compelling. I think that Blair Brown played her wonderfully. She was almost inhuman with her prosthetic arm and her mocking grin, but she was being genuinely kind to Olivia. I had a feeling that she would be revealed to have a hidden connection to Olivia at some point, possibly even turning out to be her mother or something. Olivia’s gasping and wide eyes throughout that scene only served to frustrate me further. I feel that this whole fear of what science can create and the advancement of technology has already been done so many times, and Fringe‘s incarnation just seems so ’90s. The whole “blah blah blah, freaky things are happening a lot lately, there’s A Pattern” thing was entirely yawn-worthy.

When Olivia managed to track down Steig, the guy responsible for the virus/plague/whatever that was affecting John, there was an excessive amount of people leaping off of buildings. It was cool in terms of the way it was shot, but it hardly seemed like a sensible thing to do. At least a nice, tense sequence was created with the chase and then the interrogation. Steig seemed like a cyborg or something, and the interrogation somehow seemed reminiscent of Blade Runner. However I think he was supposed to be a run of the mill human, unless that’s something that’ll be revisited in later episodes. Peter got a chance to display his awesomeness, he sneaked into the restricted area to threaten Steig with physical violence if he didn’t provide them with the information necessary for saving John. Here Peter benefitted from much the same thing as Brennan in Bones, having been conferred some authority by association with the FBI but not being an agent and therefore not being prevented by the same rules. Olivia busted in to stop him, and Peter explicitly argued that though she couldn’t do it, he’s a nobody and can therefore get away with it. Mostly I really liked Peter, even if he was a bit too much of a genius. I’m not just jealous of his retention of information now that my memory is failing me in my old age, not at all…

Finally, at the end of the episode, came a somewhat decent twist. It transpired that Steig (well actually there were two because they were identical twins, how utterly wacky, the one on the plane and the probably-not-cyborg one they captured) had been forced into releasing the plaguey thing by someone from Olivia’s very own office. The bad guy was… John! So going through all that hassle to save him wasn’t really worth it, I bet Olivia felt pretty damn dumb after kicking up that much fuss. Maybe that’s why she got embroiled in a car chase with him, which led to him crashing his car and dying after all. Ruh-roh.

I feel that Fringe redeemed itself slightly with that ending, especially as John’s body was dragged off to Massive Dynamics (where Nina hails from, and where Steig had worked) to be questioned as he’d been dead for less than six hours, and Dr Bishop had handily set up the fact that people can be communicated with and even reanimated before that threshold is reached. It did seem that Fringe was getting ready to perhaps veer off in a different direction, and not be quite as obvious as I thought it would be. Still the last five minutes didn’t make up for the rest of this pilot. I think that if I hear really good things about this series (preferably from people who aren’t Lost fans) then I might be willing to check out more of it, but the first episode really didn’t grip or enthral me anywhere near as much as I’d expected it to and so I’m not really motivated to watch more.

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