FRINGE: Red Hair is the New Goatee

With LOST now over (at least until the DVD with the 20 minutes of extra footage comes out) attention can turn to the season finale of that other JJ Abrams show, the conceptually smaller, more formulaic, and more consistently enjoyable FRINGE.

Unlike LOST, FRINGE keeps its mysteries less philosophical and allows its answers to arrive with greater frequency. The show is largely formulaic – each week there’s a new mystery involving wacky science, the team (Olivia, Pacey, Denethor) investigates, Astrid stays in the lab, Broyles acts mean but lets Olivia do whatever she wants, Olivia threatens Nina but then relies on her help, Walter has trouble doing something ordinary, Walter has no trouble doing something extraordinary, there’s a handful of references to Spock, the mystery is solved, and some hint or clue about the larger story of the impending war between the two universes is dropped.

The nature of formulaic television is, of course, to simply keep feeding you the same basic meal over and over again. It’s comfort food, and while the producers might change up the toppings of the pizza from week to week, they’re still serving you a pizza. The result is that people who like pizza keep coming back for more of the same, so the show winds up with a more satisfied fan base and consistent audience. FRINGE has spent a good deal of time in the just concluded Season 2 advancing the larger story of the alternate universe by tying it in with that ep’s mystery of the week, which is like giving you breadsticks with your pizza.

In the 2-part season finale, Olivia, Walter and three people who apparently show up just to die go to the “Other Side” to rescue Peter, who went over to the alternate universe to be with his real father, a less frumpy, more successful Walter. There’s alternate versions of Olivia, Broyles, and Charlie and they work for FRINGE division, too, except it’s a military organization, which means they kick more ass and wear darker clothes. Peter even prefers Alt-Olivia’s dyed red-hair look, though I’m going to hazard a guess and say the tighter clothes don’t hurt, either. (You can’t really blame him; if I left this universe behind and an alternate version of the woman I dug showed up with a hotter look and kick-asser attitude I’d stare, too.) That none of the alternate versions of the men have goatees is bull, but at least Trek fans get more Leonard Nimoy.

There’s a bunch of running around and incredibly predictable identity hopping with Olivia and Alt-Olivia, and a really painful admission from Olivia to Peter that she loves him. It’s one of those scenes that makes you cringe because the dialogue is so bad (she tells Peter he should come back with them because “you belong with me”) and yet works because Olivia really would be bad at this sort of thing. They smooch, which lets you know (if you hadn’t already guessed) that Olivia will get left behind and Alt-Olivia will come back to join our Fringe division unit because, you know, God forbid one of these “will they or won’t they” plots actually develops into a burgeoning relationship amidst all the craziness.

(Seriously, I love CASTLE, but that ending was complete crap. Castle makes googly eyes at Beckett all season as he watches every little thing she does, and then one phone call with his ex-wife turns him oblivious to Beckett’s weepy eyed private talk? Crap.)

Where was I? Right, the less than satisfying FRINGE finale.

Here’s what I find so disappointing about FRINGE: I love the formula, and I dislike the serial. I’m usually the other way, but for me FRINGE is at its best when its a sci-fi version of HOUSE or CSI: MIAMI, and at its worst when it’s a police procedural HEROES. When they delve heavy into the whole two universes colliding story, the show loses something. When that larger plot is brought in on a small scale (when we have a single-episode colliding universe mystery) it usually works for me, but whenever FRINGE goes all Earth-2 it works far less successfully.

All of which could be forgiven if the finale was a solid story, executed well, but it isn’t. Despite the gravity of the situation, there’s little urgency, and the two-part story at times feels like it would’ve been better played as a single episode (to heighten tension) or a larger multi-part story (to further explore the characters’ emotions and motivations).

Of course, let me remind/inform you that the episode was written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, who wrote those two colossal stinkbombs BATMAN AND ROBIN and BATMAN FOREVER (and produced the horse crap CONSTANTINE), so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he wrote a crappy superhero episode of a TV show. However, the guy also wrote A BEAUTIFUL MIND and CINDERELLA MAN, so he has some real talent. Just try not to remember he also wrote the screenplay for I, ROBOT. And DA VINCI CODE. And ANGELS AND DEMONS. All of which suffered from unemotional characters in uninvolved stories that attempted to pass off characters running around as plot.

Unfortunately, this finale of FRINGE was too much like I, ROBOT and the Dan Brown adaptations – too much running around without any real tension being created or any of the emotional scenes having any impact. Peter and Olivia’s kiss comes off as cold and perfunctory, not romantic and passionate, and the ending is both obvious in its approach and clumsy in its execution. We’re supposed to believe that Peter and Olivia finally have their kiss, then come back from the alternate universe and then … don’t talk? Don’t hook up? Don’t have any kind of contact that would allow Peter to realize the wrong Olivia came back with them? It’s silly and disappointing.

Honestly, I think the show made a mistake including the rescue of Peter in this season. I think a far better choice would have been for season 2 to end with Peter crossing over, and season 3 to start with the rescue attempt which could stretch out over a half-season. Wondering what Walternate’s plans for Peter are, where Peter’s head is at, and how Olivia would go get him would have made for much more fruitful off-season speculation. As it is, we’re left knowing Olivia is a prisoner in a cell and Alt-Olivia is getting comfortable in Olivia’s skin and where it’s going just seems so obvious.

Maybe it won’t be when we get there, but I’m going to need someone to remind me when Season 3 starts, because I won’t be waiting for it.

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