Monday, November 24, 2008

What's the matter with Fringe?

Everything that's wrong with Fringe, Fox's newest drama hit (though I use that term pretty loosely) is eminently fixable if the producers will just look back to the show's most obvious influence -- The X-Files. However, I don't really expect anyone to actually go and fix Fringe, because it's just good enough that it can probably skate by for years and years and years without anyone ever turning it off. It's solid B television, which we can definitely use more of in a world of Knight Rider and Deal or No Deal and 'Til Death. But the sad thing about Fringe is that it doesn't even seem to be bothered with attempting greatness, instead settling for being a solid, middle-of-the-road programmer. I enjoy the show from week to week, but it evaporates as soon as it's over. This is a disappointment, mainly because of the people behind the show (it's J.J. Abrams' first official creation since Lost -- before that, he created Felicity and Alias, two highly addicting shows in their own ways). If Fringe came from the producers of October Road (as the surprisingly compelling Life on Mars does), we might all be hailing it as a solid step up. But that's the price you pay when you're a TV supergenius producer. David Sims and I will be dealing more directly with Abrams in a future chat here, but for now, let's take a look at the five biggest things wrong with Fringe and see if we can't fix them to turn this B show into an A show that keeps us riveted from week to week.

Anna Torv is too bland to be the lead of this show. This is kind of a hard thing to just fix because Torv's character -- Olivia -- is pretty central to the premise of the show (there's just no good way to have all of these characters come together without her as the focal point. On another show, you MIGHT be able to kill her off and have some other character fill the same role, but since this is a hit, presumably we're going to just tweak the formula, not upend it. I don't know if Torv is struggling with the accent, or if the character is just really underwritten. I suspect it's both (Abrams tends to write types in the early going of his shows and then let the actors play the hell out of them -- he just didn't manage to find the actor to breathe life into this one).

How do we fix this? This is the one I just don't know about. We've got Darin Morgan on the show, and he was good at finding the odder angles of the glum Fox Mulder on The X-Files. Maybe we turn him loose on her. Either that or we elevate another character to work alongside her more consistently. Maybe Joshua Jackson?

In general, the ensemble is too overpopulated. This show has way too many characters. You've got Olivia. Then you have the Bishop boys. All three of these characters are probably necessary (unless you can figure out how to make the show work without Olivia -- I can't). Then you've got Lt. Cedric Daniels, who is pretty good as an authority figure but probably doesn't need to be in EVERY episode (he'd make a good recurring, Skinner figure, if we're looking at X-Files again). THEN you have assistant girl, who is fun (and David's favorite character, I think) but also incredibly unnecessary. THEN you have Massive Dynamics lady and Olivia's dead boyfriend, both of whom are effectively recurring but could be in a LOT fewer episodes. And finally, you have Kirk Acevedo who turns up every so often to do one or two random things. Trying to service all of these characters takes away from the cases, which, in general, are the best thing on the show (I've quite liked the crazy stuff in the last couple of episodes).

How do we fix this? Bump Daniels down to 13 episodes or so and take him out of the main credits. Take Massive Dynamics lady and dead boyfriend down to 4-6 episodes each. Dump Kirk Acevedo entirely (I like the actor, but the character is a non-starter). Keep assistant girl around to make David happy. I know that the writers probably have massive plans for all of these characters, but they're kinda sapping the show's energy right now. And, in general, the stuff they're attached too (The Pattern) is too thin to be strung out piecemeal week to week. It's certainly no Lost metaphysical hooey.

The show has too few commercials. I actually do really like this idea of Fox's to have some of its more anticipated shows have fewer commercials (the running-time bumps up against 50 minutes, which is closer to how long shows ran in the early '80s). But this tends to slow the show's pace down a little bit too much, and that means the series is constantly inserting these scenes where everyone talks about what's happened or what's about to happen or the things that the series science is based in. This means lots of exposition that would probably be cut in a 44 minute cut (which would run about the length of every other show on TV) gets left in, and it tends to slow the show down. I suspect that Joss Whedon will know exactly what to do with this extra real estate on Dollhouse (a show I remain optimistic for, despite the bad signs), but the writers on Fringe are still writing to the 44-minute template and then vamping to fill the extra room.

How do we fix this? I suspect this will take care of itself in season two. The limited commercials experiment has been a success for Fox, but not enough of one that they probably won't go back to standard-length episodes come next year. While 22 minutes is too short to do an episode of comedy in, generally, 44 minutes is often close to just about right for an episode of drama on broadcast network.

People buy into the fringe science too easily. One of the things that made The X-Files work was its delicate interplay between skeptic and believer. Obviously, the series fell on the side of the believers (as most television inevitably will), but the dialectic between Scully and Mulder was elastic enough to sustain a whole show and play to a variety of tones. EVERYONE on Fringe has little-to-no reason to not believe in the fringe science Walter Bishop uses, so that limits the series into which kinds of tones it can use. The series is essentially backed into a gloomy corner by the fact that everyone is pretty sure fringe science is real and that The Pattern is really happening.

How do we fix this? This is another thing where the premise of the show is probably too set in stone to really fix this. I guess the thing to do would be to have Bishop's methods fail once in a while and have good, old-fashioned policework prevail. But I'm pretty stymied by this one.

In general, the tone of the show is too unvariable. As mentioned above, the show is pretty unrelentingly dark. There's some humor, but it's of the "Isn't our mad scientist wacky!?" variety, rather than the sort of character-based interplay that made The X-Files work more often than not. The X-Files was able to get away with being a different KIND of show from week to week too -- it was a monster movie one week, a serial killer thriller the next and a goofy comedy the next. Hell, they worked in love stories, comic book type things and psychological mind games along the way as well. Because Fringe seems deadset on tying itself so closely to "reality," the series CAN'T really break out of its box because it can't tell, say, a ghost story or a Bigfoot story without offering some sort of explanation at the end (The X-Files could be pretty ambiguous when it wanted to).

How do we fix this? I think you just try as you might to tell as many different kinds of stories as you can with this series. This is something the writers can probably fix on their own just by varying the TYPES of stories they're telling. Honestly, I think they could go even goofier.

Tomorrow: I dunno yet. Probably something pretty scattered, as I'm going to be out late.


Simon Crowe said...

I don't disagree with anything you've said, but the biggest problem for me is that the overarching idea of "The Pattern" is much too vague and doesn't pick up any steam from episode to episode. In all the pre-premiere hype, Abrams and the other behind-the-scenes folks practically bent over backward to ensure that the audience knew this wasn't going to be another Lost in terms of narrative complexity, and I think we're seeing the results of some awfully conservative choices.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the post!

I think after reading this I'll have to concur that there's not a lot that CAN be fixed. Odds are they won't recast Anna Torv (though I actually think she is written more interesting than the actress can perform, I can see how those lines would sizzle with someone else). You can't fix the crazy of "fringe science" (sadly). I don't really get the use of the dead boyfriend either. I wouldn't put him in much.

And yeah, "The Pattern..." well, the fact that they're being all, "Don't worry! It's not an arc show! You can watch any random episode you want without keeping track!" means that The Pattern can't actually progress or mean anything. I do not think that is an asset to a show like this at all. Why even bother having it if you can't use it for what it sounds like?

Justin said...

//...I actually think she is written more interesting than the actress can perform...//

Yeah, I'm not convinced. As far as I can tell, the character is just another one of those tough heroine-type leads that is neither tough nor heroine-like, and therefore has no business being a lead. Kind of like, say, Kate on Lost. On Lost, there were a hundred characters or whatever, so the writers could just shove Kate to the side. With only three central characters on Fringe, it's a much bigger problem.

Which isn't to say that Torv is good. Whatever the opposite of charisma is, that's what she's got. But I think the writing of her character is more a hindrance than a help.

That said, and despite all the other problems, I continue to watch. It's a solid show, and John Noble is terrific. It would just be nice if it were living up to its potential a bit more.

Carrie said...

The only reason I didn't give up on this show after the first few episodes was Joshua Jackson in HD, and I'm glad I didn't because the last three episodes have actually been good and sort of touched on what the show could be if they get their act together. In particular, the last episode was more reminiscent of an Alias episode than an X-Files episode, and I think that tone works better for the show and could lead it to an interesting place in the future. However, I'm really doubtful they will continue on this path because of how labyrinthine Alias became and their stated desire to remain more accessible to the casual viewer throughout the show's run.

I was going to do a blog post on my personal site revolving around the reasons I hate Anna Torv and the character of Olivia Dunham (including, shallowly, her hair, wardrobe and makeup) but you've pretty much nailed it here, minus the shallow reasons. Heh. My main problem is every time she delivers a line like she's halfway dead I just picture what Jennifer Garner would have done with the same line and get sad. Just a miscast, all around.

The only other thing that bothers me about the characters on the show is that Peter really has no purpose, and as a Josh Jackson fan I want something more for the character. As someone on TWoP noted, he's there simply to explain all of Walter's crazy scientific ideas so us regular folk can understand. I can see them trying to expand his character by exposing his shady past and building up a flirtation with Olivia, but beyond these little moments giving Josh Jackson a chance to actually act once in a while, what does his character do? How will he evolve? I enjoy his scenes with Walter but beyond that, there's really no there there.