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Finding the Pattern, Part Two: An Update of Those Five Suggestions to Improve "Fringe"

I'm hoping that last night's episode of Fringe ("Safe") points the way towards a little more serialization than we've seen so far on the series to date. After ten episodes, the self-contained storylines are drawing a little thin for my taste and I keep hoping for some real character development and overarching plot week to week.

However, this week's episode did feature several returning characters (a real first for Fringe) and left us on an actual cliffhanger for a change as David Robert Jones is freed from prison using a piece of technology stolen from Walter Bishop (and hidden 23 years ago in safe deposit boxes all over New England) and he quickly moves to question the abducted Olivia Dunham, last seen being stuffed into Loeb's car... while Nina Sharp expresses dismay that Broyles would suspect that she had anything to do with Olivia's disappearance, even though we know that Massive is after John Scott's missing memories, which just happen to be tucked into Olivia's subconscious.

Meanwhile, the blue flare reappeared again several times this week. Just what does it mean? Also watching the transportation of David Robert Jones from Germany to Little Hill, I couldn't help but think of the fact that he would likely have undergone massive amounts of radiation (he did, after all, subvert the laws of physics) during the process. Which makes me wonder: was it via this technology that The Observer first appeared and could the radiation account for his hairless visage? Hmmm.

Whew.

Back in October, I offered up five suggestions on how to improve Fringe, which I found was slipping in quality and not following through on the promise and potential offered in the pilot episode. So has the series fixed the problems I pinpointed earlier this season? Let's discuss.

(1) Break the--no pun intended--pattern that's been displayed so far.

This item was a call to the series' producers to stop following the same plot line week after week: bizarre incident is discovered, Broyles says it follows the Pattern and was seen before, etc., Olivia investigates, and Walter works on some stuff at the lab while making outlandish demands for cows, milkshakes, whatever. After ten episodes, this pattern still hasn't be altered all that much.

Yes, Walter had to return to the mental institution and do some investigation of his own. Yes, Broyles is being less secretive about certain elements (and at least Lance Reddick doesn't have to keep saying, "This is identical to an incident in Japan three years ago"), but still I want the producers to further stray a little from the incident/investigation/research/conclusion angle and stir things up a bit. Why not have an episode in which the gang doesn't have access to their fancy lab? Or have an episode where the incident doesn't actually have anything to do with any research or equipment previously owned or seen by Bishop?

(2) Let Josh Jackson's Peter Bishop do... something.

Peter has been given a little more depth and scope over the last few episodes, which have allowed him to develop as a three-dimensional character. Last week's episode gave us a small glimpse into his life before Iraq as he runs into a woman from his past and alerts Big Eddie to his presence in Boston. Last night's episode allowed him to actually question a suspect and notice that his hands were shaking (and diagnose radiation sickness) before any one else did. We're told in the pilot that Peter is meant to be able to read people and it's still an ability that we've seen him use only a few times over the course of the ten episodes that have aired so far.

I did love the barroom scene between Peter and Olivia, however, in last night's episode in which they dazzled each other with card tricks and found a common link between them in the deck. I loved that Peter loved that Olivia could count cards and Josh Jackson gave Peter a knowing glint in his eyes as he watched Olivia's trick unfold. It also underlined the fact that these two are clearly meant to be love interests for one another and yet this was the first time we've really seen a sexual spark between them.

(3) Develop your leads.

Sadly, Fringe is still falling short on this account. Yes, we now know that Olivia shot her stepfather when she was nine and he sends her cards every year on her birthday to remind her that he's still out there, but it's not enough for Olivia or the rest of the leads. Peter nearly died as a boy from some sort of bird flu AND nearly drowned when Walter drove off the road into a frozen lake... which could point to his erratic behavior as an adult if he wasn't so cool and collected. Walter is still a mystery, but he's clearly meant to be: he can't seem to remember most of his life so one of the hallmarks of the series is his effort to attempt to reclaim his life and his experiences. But Peter and Olivia still need some defter brushstrokes in their characterizations, even after the writers have teased us with a little bit of their backstories.

(4) Speaking of characters, flesh out your supporting cast, who remain complete ciphers at this point.

And here's where it gets messy. The writers have still not invested any time or energy to developing ANY of the supporting characters. Once again, Walter took to calling lab assistant Astrid Farnsworth "miss" in last night's episode. If Walter can't be bothered to remember who the hell Astrid is, why should the audience? After ten episodes, we now know just as much about Astrid as we did when we first met her and, other than some irksome attempts to make her a Mary Jane in the lab, she still has nothing to add to the plot of the series and doesn't bring any new dimension to the characters' interactions in the lab either.

And we still know precious little about Broyles or Charlie either at this point. Fringe doesn't have a huge sprawling cast like Lost, so there's no excuses after ten episodes that the writers still haven't developed the six main characters (seven if you count Mark Valley's John Scott) in the cast. For the love of all things Pattern-related, give these fantastic actors something meatier to work with; they are also so isolated (and icy) within the confines of the series' structure that it seems difficult to view them as a cohesive group of characters. They might as well all be in different series at this point.

(5) Think globally.

I was happy that Olivia had to fly to Germany a few weeks back and that David Robert Jones has seemingly become a major villain within the series... but the writers are still setting the series' mystery-of-the-week plots largely in Boston... or New York. Or Philadelphia.

Alias made due with backlot sets and it was able to be set anywhere around the world. Fringe should be opening up its vantage point to include far-flung locations both within the US and outside the country.

Overall, Fringe still seems a little narrow... and a little too coincidental (regardless of what Nina Sharp would imply) that everything seems to happen in Olivia's backyard. Sorry, guys, not buying it.

What do you think? Do you think Fringe has improved since the pilot episode? Do you still love as much or as little as you did in the past? Does Fringe still have a ways to go in order to reach its full potential? Discuss.

Fringe returns with new episodes in January.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Good call on The Observer suffering from radiation poisoning... I hadn't thought of that!

And as for #3 - I think last night's Olivia was a step in the right direction, first with the mixing of memories when visiting the widow of the guy-in-the-wall, and then the bar scene. She actually seemed like a real person then! Hooray!
Anonymous said…
I think they've made some tiny steps in the right direction but still have a long, long way to go before this series can truly live up to its potential.
Anonymous said…
I laughed in last night's episode when Walter couldn't remember Astrid's name because, apparently, she is as irrelevant to him as she is to the audience. And the fact that they haven't given Lance Reddick more to do is just shameful!
Anonymous said…
Love the theory about the Observer. Would be very cool if that's the case.

Sadly I agree with the majority of your suggestions for improving the show. Walter drives crazy and if the Pattern killed Astrid Whatshername off I'd be very happy.
Anonymous said…
I think your suggestions/comments on the holes in the show are spot on. I hope the show's writers take note.
Page48 said…
Mustn't forget that JJ found "Alias" too opaque to follow, so "Fringe" is all about keeping it simple. So simple, in fact, that there is rarely any need to check in from one week to the next. That, as I understand it, is the whole idea, KISS-TV.

Unfortunately, that leaves us with a seriously deficient substitute for "Alias".

I thought last night's episode was the best of the lot so far, placing Olivia in actual factual danger for the first time. Cliffhangers, recurring baddies are absolutely critical ingredients for a show like this to survive.

I'm annoyed by Walter's goofiness, including his weekly food craving and his bodily function issues ("I just pissed myself" and "I just had an erection"). This is much more cartoonish than anything "Alias" or "Lost" ever dished out. The weekly autopsy scenes grow weary. Less lab work, more storyline, please.

Broyles is like a high school teacher, handing out assignments each week and then buggering off to the staff room. He's hardly the key figure that the pilot led me to believe he would be. Charlie is a notch above Astrid in his importance to the show. He's pretty good at calling for backup.

Overall, I hoped for much more when this series was announced. Opting against the serial format was a bad decision which anyone could have told JJ long before the pilot aired, but I don't have the dude's cellphone number.

My own take on the recent trend of recurring thugs and an actual cliffhanger is that a lengthy midseason hiatus must be just around the corner. Until I see the serial trend continue in the 2nd half of the season, I won't get too excited.
Anonymous said…
Completely agree with your suggestions. But what is the "blue flare" that you mention???
Anonymous said…
Already gave it up. Hope it gets better and maybe I'll get the DVD set someday. Nothing to watch until True Blood comes back though.
Anonymous said…
Walter plays the part of the absent minded professor or perhaps his memory of the work he did was removed. I think that Walter is a great character and is part of what makes the Fringe a very special TV show. Good characters are what makes a story great. The Fringe has taken technology from previous science fiction movies and tv and mixed that with some new ideas and a great cast I see this show as a winner.
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