Studying Storytelling: Fringe

April 16, 2015
This post is Volume 3 in an ongoing series called “Studying Storytelling.” 
Read here for more on this series.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI). This is the real-life scientific concept that suggests that parallel worlds may exist and might even be observable. Writing that post makes this month’s Studying Storytelling subject an easy choice.

Fringe was a science fiction show that ran for five seasons on Fox, wrapping up just about two years ago. I’ve already given a little something away about the show in referencing my MWI post above, but Fringe delivered one of the more satisfying “parallel worlds” stories that I’ve seen. I always try to avoid revealing key plot points in Studying Storytelling, but in this case it’s a revelation that comes fairly early in the series, and I’m confident I won’t derail anyone’s enjoyment by mentioning it here.

By the standards of network television, Fringe never achieved a huge audience and lost viewer share each season. This was partly due to being moved into the so-called “Friday night death slot,”* but a show doesn’t get moved there if it’s reeling in the eyeballs. It survived for as long as it did because of a devoted following. I was not a member of that devoted following when Fringe was on the air, and you probably were not either. But it was on my radar for a long time, and I burned through it fairly quickly on Amazon Prime Video on Demand once the show finished. I’m glad I did, and here’s why.

Relatable Science Fiction

If you do not enjoy science fiction at all, I doubt Fringe will be the show that changes your mind. On the other hand, if you only enjoy hard science fiction, this ain’t that either. But if you’re somewhere between, I think Fringe did a great job of making its sci-fi underpinnings understandable and relatable.

A big part of the reason it works is that, like The X-Files, the show unfolds very much as a police procedural show à la Law and Order. FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) begins working with the “Fringe Division” of the bureau which is responsible for investigating (and often covering up) cases that involve strange scientific phenomena. Walter Bishop (John Noble), is a brilliant but unstable scientist who is able to help with these cases but requires oversight from his previously estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), who is also quite intelligent but a bit of a troublemaker. Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) serves as Walter’s lab assistant and co-caretaker with Peter.

flasks-606612_1920The show struck the right balance between knowing which bits of sci-fi really needed deep explanation for the audience to follow the overarching plot and which could afford to be expedited a little more to keep the story humming along. Because many episodes worked like a police procedural, there was usually a “monster/villain of the week” that required Walter to explain the scientific reason for why something terrible happened or why some phenomena made sense. When the explanation did not involve a concept that critically served the endgame of the show, the viewer could pretty comfortably tune out Walter’s explanation, treat it as handwaving if you wanted, and just enjoy the mystery being solved.** If you wanted to pay closer attention, those explanations held pretty solid internal coherence to the world of the show, but they were not necessarily critical to following the story.

By contrast, the big concepts received more attention to ensure the show brought the audience along. I think this is key for keeping a general audience interested in sci-fi. Yes, there are things that remain mysterious for a long time, but not at the expense of confusing the audience with convoluted explanations. By the time a mystery is revealed, your reaction is likely to be “ahh, so that’s why” as opposed to “what the…?”

Its handling of parallel worlds was especially strong. As an audience member, you came to understand (reasonably well) how it became possible to see and then interact with the parallel world. The existence of this parallel world went on to serve as a believable explanation for a lot of the strange phenomena the Fringe Team was investigating and why the characters made the decisions they did.

The idea of parallel worlds is a popular science fiction trope for some obvious reasons. It offers interesting and challenging story possibilities. For example, what happens if you meet yourself? Will you be the same or different? How will you be different if you are? So much of science fiction deals with choices and consequences. Granted, all storytelling deals with those things, but in sci-fi it’s often elevated to level of world or universe survival. If the button exists that will undo creation, will someone push it?

But it’s a messy topic as well. It can quickly become convoluted and hard to follow. Fringe gets you there gradually, shows you why it serves the story, and stays grounded in the story rather than simply trying to wow the audience with crazier and crazier sci-fi ideas. Though, to be sure, it has plenty of crazy sci-fi ideas as well.

The Story Remained about the Characters

For most people, this might be the most important element of what makes Fringe successful. The science fiction served the story instead of the story serving the science fiction. Sci-fi was a device for telling you more about the characters and why they are who they are, what matters about them and why they matter to each other. I loved the weird and crazy sci-fi stuff they did on the show. There were great special effects, crazy ideas, and stuff that was just cool.***

I did not keep watching the show because of the sci-fi. I kept watching because of the characters and because I wanted to know what happened to them. The eventual outcome of the story depends on events from the past, the present, the future and the parallel world. That’s a lot going on and a lot that can go wrong. But I stayed with it because I cared about the characters. I wanted to know how what happened 20-30 years before the show began would influence what those characters did in the show. Would lessons be learned or would their flaws be inescapable? What would that mean for the future? What was the fate of the parallel world?

These things are only interesting if the people are interesting. When Walter Bishop wasn’t busy building some crazy contraption or discovering the antidote to some terrible poison, he was eating red licorice and being silly, daffy and funny. Or sad and tragic. Olivia Dunham’s difficult childhood explains much about why she is who she is, and when she meets her parallel universe self, it’s a fascinating mirror into what she might have been like under other circumstances.

Fringe had moments of being cheesy. It fell back on sentimentality and the importance of love and trust, which are not exactly original ideas in storytelling. But I didn’t mind. To a certain extent, I’m not sure there was anyway around this for a network television show, but I thought Fringe succeeded in using those old ideas as appropriate counterweights to the science fiction.

Lance Reddick, Leonard Nimoy, Jared Harris

Other than that one in the middle (RIP Mr. Spock), there’s a good chance you’re reading those names and saying, “who?” So I’ll rephrase the heading. Do you like The Wire? Do you like Mad Men? Yeah, you probably do because those are great shows, and Lance Reddick and Jared Harris had big roles in each of them, respectively.

To be sure, the leads in Fringe are great. John Noble as Walter Bishop is spectacular and was easily my favorite character in the show.**** But one of Fringe’s secret weapons was its supporting cast. Of the names above, Lance Reddick had the largest role as Phillip Broyles. You may remember him as Cedric Daniels from The Wire. If you watch Fringe, you would not be crazy to think that Reddick’s character is not much of a stretch from The Wire. That is correct and also who cares because he is GREAT as a hard ass with a heart of gold. His stern face and booming voice bring gravity to everything he says.

Nimoy and Harris have much smaller roles in terms of screen time, but are every bit as important for the show. Jared Harris is probably better known for his role as Lane Pryce on Mad Men, a flawed but mostly affable Brit who struggles to make his life work in New York while serving as the financial officer for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Unlike Reddick’s role, his character on Fringe is very different from his more famous one. He’s intelligent, cunning, and ruthless, and it’s the ruthlessness that seems to set him apart. When you believes someone is capable of doing anything, how do you defeat them?

In the case of Nimoy, he plays Dr. William Bell, and it’s the last recurring role he had. It would be easy to enjoy his role only for the nostalgia of seeing Spock on a great sci-fi show, but Nimoy was not just going through the motions. Dr. Bell is Walter Bishop’s former partner and friend, and Nimoy makes the friendship real.

Their relationship underpins much of what happens in the show even though Nimoy only appears in 11 episodes. There’s great ambiguity in Dr. Bell. Is he good or bad? Brilliant or insane? Kind or cruel? All of the above? I’m still not sure. That’s the kind of thing that great supporting actors — and well written supporting characters — add to a show.

Bonus!

One final cool feature of Fringe: At each cut for commercials, a mysterious image was shown. The combination of images became known as the “glyph code,” and it held a secret message. The message was not critical to enjoying the story, but once it was deciphered it did add to it. Each glyph represented a letter and the letters spelled words which often reflected the theme of a given episode or some key element from it.

It’s this kind of attention to detail and cleverness that set Fringe apart. It reflects a real love for the show on the part of the writers and creators. Why go to the lengths of creating such a thing unless you really felt you had something special? It’s doubtful anyone needs more stuff on their Netflix or Amazon queues, but if you’ve got an open slot I think Fringe is well worth consideration.

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*There’s a paragraph on Fringe in particular on this page. It talks about how a huge portion of the show’s audience “time-shifted,” meaning it was watched heavily on DVR or over web services like Hulu.

**As it’s used here, “handwaving” is super common in sci-fi TV. I don’t mean it as a put down with respect to Fringe. It’s somewhat unavoidable. There’s only so much time available, and the audience probably does not want to spend all of it understanding a complicated concept in great detail if it may never show up in the story again.

***Like anti-gravity bullets that make you float when you’re shot with them. Makes zero sense. The ENTIRE justification for them was that it would be cool. Yup.

****Followed by Jasika Nicole as Astrid. The relationship between Walter and Astrid is really sweet, and Astrid’s parallel universe self is such a funny juxtaposition to the version of her from “our” world.

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