Would you hand Judge Clark Douglas that scalpel? Oh, and a cinnamon roll, if you've got one.
Our reviews of Fringe: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published September 8th, 2009), Fringe: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) (published September 27th, 2010), and Fringe: The Complete Third Season (published September 15th, 2011) are also available.
Ask. Imagine. Investigate.
"This is wonderful, don't you agree? It's like a good detective movie."
Facts of the Case
FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv, Young Lions) and her partner John Scott (Mark Valley, Boston Legal) have been assigned to a particularly unusual case. It seems that some horrible tragedy took place aboard a commercial airliner carrying hundreds of passengers. The plane was equipped with an advanced autopilot program that enabled it to land safely, but all that remains of the passengers are warped skeletons. Shortly after the investigation begins, John Scott is attacked by the same sort of advanced technology that killed the passengers on the plane. He isn't killed, but his skin slowly begins to turn transparent and gooey. It becomes clear that Olivia must find a solution quickly.
She believes the key to her success is a man named Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). The first problem: Bishop has been locked in a mental institution for over 17 years. The second problem: despite her high-level position, Olivia is unable to free Walter from the institution without the consent and supervision of a direct family member. Her only hope is Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson, Dawson's Creek), Walter's estranged and embittered son who happens to be nearly as brilliant as his father. It takes some considerable efforts, but eventually Olivia manages to convince Peter and Walter to work with her.
The answers to the case are eventually found, but unfortunately the answers simply provide more questions. It seems that John Scott isn't quite the man Olivia believed him to be. The strange case of the dead airline passengers is only one of many seemingly paranormal cases in a string of events the F.B.I. is calling "the pattern." Many of these cases seem to have ties to a huge research and development named Massive Dynamic. The company is run by a mysterious figure named William Bell, who just so happens to be Walter's former lab partner. The F.B.I. recognizes that science and technology are quickly growing beyond their reach. Olivia, Walter, and Peter are tapped as key players in a new branch of the organization dedicated to investigating and resolving issues that could be described as…well, inexplicably weird. Welcome to the world of Fringe.
All 20 episodes are spread out across seven discs.
A tragedy involving a commercial airliner serves as the starting point for a J.J. Abrams sci-fi show involving strange events and conspiracy theories? Hmmm, what does that remind me of? You'd be forgiven for finding Fringe a rather derivative program after checking out the first few episodes. Early on, it certainly seems to be a grab-bag of elements none-too-subtly borrowed not only from Lost, but also from The X-Files, Smallville, and other shows. It does take its time finding its way, but eventually Fringe discovers its own groove and distinguishes itself as one of the stronger new television programs of the 2008/2009 season.
Much like the aforementioned X-Files, Fringe attempts to find a balance between done-in-one "freak of the week" episodes and episodes that provide clues to the longer story arcs and the mysterious "mythology" of the program. There are occasions (such as the double-length pilot) that manage to fuse both into the fabric rather seamlessly, but there is usually an emphasis on either one or the other. Fringe may mimic The X-Files at times, but it also seems to have learned a thing or two from the mistakes that show made. The mythology elements are fascinating, but there are enough questions answered and mysteries solved in this season to prevent viewers from becoming exasperated. The big payoff comes in the season finale, which delivers one heck of a wallop.
The "freak of the week" episodes could have felt like filler merely padding the time between important developments, but thankfully the overall craftsmanship of Fringe is strong enough to prevent these installments from feeling noticeably inferior. On the contrary, the absurd Frankenscience that inspires these plots is immensely fun, partially because most of us who don't have advanced science degrees aren't capable of authoritatively refuting the pseudo-science on display. For instance, we see a bowl of rice with a plastic soldier standing atop placed on a vibrating table. Slowly but surely, the soldier sinks to the bottom of the bowl. If that's possible, why would it be so difficult for a man to develop technology that allows him to vibrate through the molecules of walls, doors, and other obstacles in a similar manner? It's that kind of thinking that fuels almost every odd development here. It may be preposterous, but it is preposterousness casually rooted in a combination of well-known facts and bastardized versions of Stephen Hawking's theories. Plus, there are lots of monsters, mutants and good old-fashioned TV-14 blood and guts.
The stand-out of the cast is undoubtedly John Noble, whose portrayal of charmingly mad scientist Walter Bishop is a consistent source of fascination and entertainment. His years in the mental institution have not robbed him of his brilliance, but they have affected the way his mind works in very peculiar ways. Walter has a less-than-convenient habit of rambling about delicious foods that are on his mind during moments when food is the last thing on anyone's mind. Noble chews the scenery with joyous charisma, and as such steals pretty much every scene he appears in. Joshua Jackson plays off Noble rather well, exhibiting the quick-witted magnetism of a slightly younger, slightly grumpier George Clooney. Special mention should also be made of Blair Brown as the primary representative of Massive Dynamic in the program. Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek) makes a brief but key appearance as MD founder William Bell during the season finale. Jared Harris (Mad Men) has one of the best recurring guest roles as a dangerous criminal whose ultimate intentions remain elusive. Lance Reddick (The Wire) brings an intriguing shade of stony inscrutability to the role of Agent Phillip Broyles, Olivia's direct superior. As for Anna Torv…well, she's fine in the lead role, but honestly I find her character less interesting than most of the supporting players. Still, she carries her scenes credibly and confidently.
Fringe benefits from a top-notch DVD transfer. This is a good-looking show, with a $10 million pilot and consistently stellar special effects throughout the entire season. The transfer reflects that, perhaps partially due to the fact that Fringe is being released on Blu-ray at the same time. For those of you still stuck with standard-def, you really couldn't ask for much better in terms of detail, depth, and overall quality. The sound is also quite solid, particularly when it comes to the tantalizing Michael Giacchino score (how does this man find time to do this show, Lost and the many Hollywood features he's handling these days?). Sound design is immersive when it needs to be, but never overwhelms the dialogue.
A decent selection of goodies are scattered throughout the set, though you'll have to dig through every single disc to get to them all. First up, every episode is given a very brief making-of featurette entitled "Fringe: Deciphering the Scene." Some of these are quite interesting, others are rather throwaway, but it's an interesting idea. In addition, three audio commentaries have been included. The pilot offers a commentary with creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, "The Ghost Network" gets a commentary with David H. Goodman, J.R. Orci and Bryan Burk, and "Bad Dreams" gives you Jeff Pinkner and Akiva Goldsman. Little "docupods" titled "The Massive Undertaking" are included on four episodes. These offer a more in-depth look at the episodes than the "Deciphering the Scene" featurettes. You also get deleted scenes (or rather, "Dissected Scenes") on five different episodes. Finally, a handful of additional featurettes are spread across the discs: "Evolution: The Genesis of Fringe," "Roberto Orci's Production Diary," "The Casting of Fringe," "Gene the Cow," "Behind the Real Science of Fringe," "Unusual Side Effects: Gag Reel," and "Fringe Visual Effects." Some interesting info is included here, but your best bet might be to check out the supplemental material as you progress through the season so you won't have to go back to insert and remove every single disc again.
An odd note: The set I received for review has a sticker on the back declaring, "No Portuguese Audio," though the box itself does indeed lists Portuguese audio. I'm not sure whether this is something that only applies to my review copy, a specific batch of these sets, or all of the sets.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the only things that really nags at me is the way the show oh-so-conveniently works out ways not to give the viewer information about the big picture. Secrets are hidden within Walter's troubled mind that finally work their way out at just the right moments. In addition, the F.B.I. inexplicably decides to tell Olivia about "the pattern" one tiny piece of information at a time instead of giving information upfront that could both help and assist her. I don't mind not knowing the information they're waiting to tell us, I just wish they could have come up with a better way of hiding/dispensing some of it.
Much like Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, the conclusion of this show offers plentiful tantalizing possibilities and opportunities. Here's hoping that Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman are ready to deliver on their tremendous set-up in Season Two. In the meantime, this first batch is well worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Episode Commentaries
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