Warner Bros. // 2008 // 1028 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 8th, 2009
"And that's the point isn't it? To keep us all asking questions...chasing our tails." -- FBI special agent Olivia Dunham
Fringe is a product of the vibrant minds of J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, the team behind the blockbuster feature film reinvention of Star Trek, which should have been absolutely awful but somehow managed to be dazzling fun. Tailor-made for television's episodic, serial structure, Fringe is a twisted science fiction/forensics/crime/mystery/adventure/drama series built on a bafflingly rich concept that is more entertaining than it has a right to be. In other words, it's exactly what we've come to expect from Abrams and his partners in crime.
After losing her partner and lover to a flesh-eating poison of unknown origins, FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv, The Pacific) is assigned to a special "fringe" science team under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. The purpose of the team is to investigate a sudden rise in cases involving unexplained phenomena like telepathy, teleportation, and bizarre parasites and diseases. Assisting Dunham is Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), an eccentric genius who has spent the last 17 years in a mental hospital. Bishop's son Peter (Joshua Jackson, Dawson's Creek), an MIT graduate and odd-jobber, is dragged into the intrigue against his will because he's the only person who can communicate with his father.
Each of the team's cases brings them back to research performed by Walter prior to his mental break. The interconnectedness of the various strange phenomena they witness leads them to believe that a shadowy group of some sort is conducting a series of fringe science experiments the team dubs "the pattern." Dunham and her partners work diligently to discover the purpose of the experiments. Their only clue is that their investigations frequently cross paths with a powerful multi-national conglomerate called Massive Dynamic. Coincidentally (or not), the company's CEO is Walter's former lab partner, William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek).
This Blu-ray box set spreads the 20 episodes of Fringe's first season across five discs:
* "The Same Old Story"
* "The Ghost Network"
* "The Arrival"
* "Power Hungry"
* "The Cure"
* "In Which We Meet Mr. Jones"
* "The Equation"
* "The Dreamscape"
* "The No-Brainer"
* "The Transformation"
* "Inner Child"
* "Bad Dreams"
* "The Road Not Taken"
* "There's More Than One of Everything"
I honestly didn't expect to enjoy Fringe. Yes, I requested the review copy of this complete season Blu-ray set, but that doesn't mean I thought I'd like the show. It's a watercooler series and I was curious to check it out because I'd never seen even five minutes of it during its broadcasts on Fox. The promos I'd seen made it look like an unapologetically derivative cross between House, M.D. and CSI. And, honestly, who needs that? Sure, the promos were misleading, but even if I'd known the show was a science fiction serial built on a smart and convoluted narrative schema, it's doubtful that I would have tuned in. I've already been through the whole mind-bending sci-fi thing in the form of The X-Files' multi-season mythology storyline -- and I still bear the psychic scars from when that one crashed and burned. No, nothing about Fringeled me to believe that it would be my cup of tea. Still, I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Imagine my surprise when the show's pilot -- which kicks off with a hideous disaster aboard a commercial airliner -- proved a viciously entertaining two hours of grue, gore, suspense, not-so-subtle evocations of post-9/11 anxiety, and absolutely incredible production values. The rest of the season follows suit with a bizarre web of ostensibly related plotlines involving precognition, pyrokinesis, a teleportation device, a heart-crushing parasite, spontaneous combustion, liquefied brains, killer butterflies, parallel universes, double-agents, nefarious corporate executives, mean-spirited asylum wardens, hateful bureaucrats, and a bald telepath called The Observer. It's enormous fun even if the episodes are structurally formulaic and there's a constant nagging sense that we've seen it all before in shows like The Twilight Zone, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and especially The X-Files. From his big-screen re-imaging of Star Trek to his riffs on The Prisoner in Lost, J.J. Abrams has made a career of repackaging old stories and styles for the new millennium. It would all be trite and annoying except that he does it so well. Fringe is somehow excitingly fresh and comfortably familiar at the same time.
One of the things that makes the show so enjoyable is its glossy production design and often shockingly graphic (for network television) special effects. The amount of blood and guts in any given episode of Fringe will make you think you're watching an HBO or Showtime production. The violence and horror is set in a high-tech world in which our heroes bounce around the globe, providing opportunities for an impressive array of sets and exteriors in Boston and elsewhere. All of it is beautifully lighted and shot with a cinematic flair that makes full use of the 16:9 frame. Television productions have generally become more cinematic with the advent of high definition, but in the style department Fringe occupies a tier above most of its peers.
The fine cinematography comes across well in this set's 1080p/VC-1 transfer of the 20 Season One episodes. Detail varies from mildly impressive in medium shots to razor sharp in close-ups. Helicopter shots of Boston are absolutely gorgeous. Colors are accurate with solid black levels that never stray into muddy over-saturation. Audio is presented in a Dolby 5.1 mix that is full-bodied for a television series even if it doesn't compare with a Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD lossless mix of a big-budget theatrical feature.
In addition to the 20 episodes of the show, the five discs contain a solid slate of extras. Audio commentaries are provided for three of the episodes. Series creators Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci do a track for "Pilot," co-writers David H. Goodman and J.R. Orci, and producer Bryan Burke provide a track for "The Ghost Network," and writer Akiva Goldsman and executive producer Jeff Pinkner deliver the goods on "Bad Dreams." There is a brief, scene-specific making-of featurette called "Fringe: Deciphering the Scene" for every episode of the season. "Pilot," "The Ghost Network," "The Transformation," and "There's More Than One of Everything" are coupled with more elaborate making-of featurettes called "The Massive Undertaking." Five of the episodes include deleted scenes. In addition to these episode-specific supplements, the discs contain a gag reel, featurettes about the cast, the visual effects, and the science behind the show, and a production diary by Roberto Orci. The discs are also BD-Live enabled. The supplements appear more numerous and impressive on paper than onscreen, but there's no arguing that Warner Brothers has put together a satisfying TV box set in Fringe: The Complete First Season.
Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of Fringe. The monster-of-the-week stories were a blast, and the production was top-notch. Will I be tuning in for the show's second season? Not likely. Despite its quality, Fringe has the stink of a show that may fly off the rails at any moment. It's one bad vampire story, or an unrequited romance between Peter and Olivia away from a horrifying narrative train-wreck. The last thing I want is to relive the trauma I suffered at the hands of The X-Files. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll content myself with listening to the water-cooler scuttlebutt. Come next fall, if it sounds like Fringe didn't go down in flames during its second season, I'll check it out on Blu-ray. That's as much commitment as I can make.
One additional caveat: While Fringe is loads of fun, watching the show in large doses tends to reveal its seams. Watch three or four episodes in a single evening and the plots begin to feel rote, the characters' quirks a little too pat. If you're going to grab Fringe on Blu-ray, plan on watching the episodes slowly.
There's no telling whether Fringe will become a long-running classic or soon collapse under the weight of its own premise. Either way, the show's first season is a solidly entertaining science fiction spectacle. If you're inclined to buy Fringe: The Complete First Season on a disc-based medium, make it Blu-ray.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 1028 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Official Site
* Massive Dynamic