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Finding the Pattern: Five Suggestions to Improve "Fringe"

I'll be blunt: I like Fringe. I really do. But I can't help shake the feeling that the series could be bigger, bolder, and, well, better.

I've enjoyed the five episodes of Fringe that have aired to date (especially the fourth installment, "The Arrival") but I keep finding myself wanting to be a bit more fulfilled after the end of each week's episode. Sure, part of that has to do with the series' procedural structure, which seems more intent on creating intriguing mysteries-of-the-week than on furthering the character development or the overarching mythology of a heavily serialized series. (Before I start to get angry emails, I am aware that there is a mythology at work here but it's being parceled out far too slowly for my liking.)

So rather than discuss this week's episode ("Power Hungry"), I thought I'd offer up my five suggestions on how to improve Fringe so that it reaches its full potential.

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

Each week, the plot seems to follow the same steps as the previous episodes. Something eerie and inexplicable happens (bus full of gelatin-like substance, elevator plummets, cylinder appears); Broyles turns up and explains to Olivia that something like this happened before but in a place far more exotic than Massachusetts (here's the file!); Olivia, Walter, and Peter canvas the scene; Walter runs some experiments in the lab; Olivia investigates some leads; Walter makes a breakthrough using some fringe science; Olivia nabs the bad guy. Which is fine but I want to see the series break its reliance on this formula, which could grow tired very quickly. (At least, Massive Dynamic isn't lending some technology every week any more.)

I understand that this isn't intended to be a heavily serialized series, where storylines carry over from one episode to the next (it was at least nice that we caught a glimpse of The Observer this week before the elevator crashed and that the blue flare turned up again) but I want something different week-to-week than just another strange occurrence. Tension should be ratcheting up at this point but I feel like we just keep circling the same thing again and again as I keep waiting for something different to happen for a change.

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

We're told several times that he's innately good at reading people, instantly sizing them up. He would have been a great con man and is likely good at interrogation/intelligence-gathering but we never get a chance to see him in action. Yes, part of his character's purpose is to play nursemaid to Walter but it's time after five episodes that we get to see what makes Peter unique in his own right, what makes him such an incredible asset to the Fringe Division and to Broyles.

(3) Develop your leads.

Yes, it's only five episodes in but we know next to nothing about our main characters, especially Olivia. All we know about Agent Dunham is that she wanted to be a cop since she was about nine, she has a military background (she was a US Marines special investigator), she had an uncle who enjoyed canoeing, and she was betrayed (or so it seems) by the man she loves. But what makes her tick? Why is she so important to both Broyles and Nina Sharp? What is her background, her family, her likes/dislikes? Within the very first episode of Lost, we already had a sense of each of the characters in that series' sprawling cast... yet after five episodes of Fringe, we're no closer to knowing much of anything about the three main characters.

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

Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) was completely unnecessary to last night's episode (she didn't even speak for the first 40 or so minutes) and could have been lifted out of the episode altogether because we don't care a whit about her. She's so woefully undeveloped that she might as well be reading stage directions rather than talking. We know nothing about her save her name and the fact that she's Olivia's assistant. At this point, we should care enough about her that we don't want her to be killed in the next Pattern-related phenomenon. But do we?

The same applies to Broyles (Lance Reddick) and Charlie (Kirk Acevedo). You hire as talented an actor as The Wire's Lance Reddick and then reduce him to reading a few lines of dialogue an episode about how this particular incident relates to a similar one in Japan, etc. And that's it. The pilot introduced some tension between him and Olivia vis-a-vis their complicated backstory: she put away a close friend of his after he allegedly raped three female military cadets. That tension seems to have all but dissipated now. His interactions with Olivia are so rote and formulaic that it actually makes me feel bad for Reddick, who should be much better utilized than he actually is. We're teased by that scene a few weeks back between Broyles and Nina (Blair Brown) that hints at a connection between them (and that odd council-like forum that meets to discuss the Pattern) but Broyles himself is so undeveloped that I had to wrack my brain just to remember his first name (hint: it's Phillip). Likewise, Olivia's boss/friend Charlie Francis seems to exist only as someone who can sign off on Walter's more outlandish requests and who can mobilize large squadrons of agents to assist Olivia. Shouldn't we have some initial understanding of who these guys are?

(5) Think globally.

Nina made a point of saying that it's odd that so many Pattern-related occurrences are happening right in Olivia's backyard but it seemed a hasty way to explain away why so much of the action is happening in Boston rather than in more exotic locations. Why not send Olivia, Peter, and Walter into the field, far away from the lab and Massachusetts, like Skinner used to do with Mulder and Scully? I want to see them think on their feet, away from an entire office building filled with FBI agents... and a lab filled to the brim with incredible inventions. The Pattern is happening around the world, yet these three remarkable individuals always find themselves running around Boston and its environs. We should be curious instead to find out where they are headed each week; Fringe can (and should) take place around the world (much like Alias did) as the division continues to investigate all of these bizarre phenomena around the globe.

There's a coziness to the lab at Harvard and Olivia's corporate-looking office that needs to be broken. At its heart, Fringe should be messier, less orderly, and less, well, patterned.

What do you think? What steps would you take to improve Fringe? Or do you love it just the way it is? Discuss.

Next week on Fringe ("The Cure"), a woman with a rare disease turns up in Massachusetts and makes people she encounters radioactive; Peter strikes a bargain with Nina; Walter has a hankering for cotton candy.


CL said…
Hey, I'm with you. I agree wholeheartedly. I like Fringe, but if they don't change things up soon...

I mean, Walter's quirks and Peter's snide remarks can only entertain for so long. It's like you said - they've got three really, really interesting people that are under-utilized, and then they've got three or four potentially interesting people that don't really do much at all.

I keep finding myself amazed with what the show could be instead of what it is. It's got loads of potential. I just hope they don't screw it up by trying to drag out the story for ten seasons when they could tell it in five. The ol' freak-of-the-week formula just doesn't cut it like it used to. If it ever did.
Page48 said…
I posted the following at another blog after watching last night's episode. Basically, it's just an airing of my frustrations with "Fringe" to date:

Remember the episode in “Alias” where Will and Francie are knocking back a few cold ones and watching TV, fascinated by a car chase where (unknown to them) their roomie Sydney is forced to escape the authorities in hot pursuit of her by barreling her car off the edge of the pier and staying under water long enough to avoid capture by inhaling air from the tires of her car? In doing so, the revelation came to her that her mother was still alive. Remember that? Remember the doors that opened with that scene?

THAT (yes, in capital letters) is the kind of magic that Orci/Kurtzman/Abrams et al have so far failed to inject into “Fringe”. Have they forgotten how to do it, how to instill that magic? Are they a spent force? Have they gone back and watched “Alias” over and over again like many of us have, and like I’ve suggested they do?

It’s clear that they have put a lot of thought into “Fringe”, they have plenty of ideas mapped out for future development of the show, but have they forgotten how to excite us or how to manipulate our emotions?

Have they forgotten how important the characters’ vulnerability is? How important the skillful addition of popular music was in “Alias” (think Joni Mitchell’s “River” as a rain-soaked, tear-drenched Sydney melts into Vaughn’s lucky-ass arms)? Was that a moment or what? How about some of that in “Fringe”???

I strenuously disagree with the decision to go with stand-alone episodes, but since they’ve chosen to pander to the current disdain for serial television, I really think the writers have to dig deep for the special moments, because plot advancement is naturally slowed to a crawl with the episodic treatment. The science itself is of no interest to me. It’s where the science takes us that I care about, and so far it hasn’t taken me once around the block. The episodic format insures that wherever the science takes us, it will take us there at a snail’s pace, so if we must travel slowly, we should at least travel in style. What that means to me is thrill me, scare me, make me cry, break my heart, leave me scarred. At the very least, make me feel something that I didn’t feel before I tuned in.

I’m getting a little frustrated here.
Anonymous said…
The show truly has SO MUCH potential but it has A LOT to work on for the up coming episodes or else it's going to lose a lot of viewers.

I think the "suggestions" you've laid out are perfectly logical and plausible. Now how could we convince the producers and writers to FOLLOW them?
Anonymous said…
I completely agree. In fact I am tempted to stop watching all together after last night. If the writers don't want to give us any real reason for tuning in each week I don't see why I should keep watching. I really liked the pilot and I think that the characters are cool but they seem stuck in neutral every week. Can we please get some movement, JJ?
Anonymous said…
I agree but I'd also add the following:

(6) Make the show serialised.

Will everyone agree with that? Probably not since 'serialised' has become a swearword in Hollywood these days but it would reward the diehards who return week after week and won't ABANDON THE SHOW FOR SOMETHING SHINY AND NEW the second the plot gets 'complicated'. The writers should be catering to fans who would make this their favourite programme rather than people who just watch whenever they feel like it. Isn't that obvious?
I'm starting to feel like I'm watching a highly intelligent, well-cast version of CSI every week. This show has so much potential but, right now, is offering us very little. I understand that FOX would not let them do a serialized show but that doesn't mean that it has to be overly simplified either. You can still keep the episodes self-contained while building up the characters from week to week and dropping in some mythology here and there. You've got an incredible cast so use them!!!
Anonymous said…
What blue flare are you talking about?

I have to agree as well. Everyone has pretty much all ready made the relevant points. I enjoy the show but it could be alot better than it is.
Jace Lacob said…
Jenns, there's a blue flare that keeps turning up in most (or all) of the episodes to date. I noticed it in the pilot in Olivia's dream sequence when she meets up with John, outside the diner in "The Arrival," and in last night's episode when Olivia chases after Meegar. As for what it is and why it keeps appearing, that's a mystery for a later date...
Page48 said…
While we're griping, Olivia must eventually learn that Peter WILL NOT stay in the car, and lucky for her that he won't, otherwise guys would get away...dangerous guys.

We will notice character evolution taking place when Olivia says "Peter, get out of the car because I need you to (choose from the following) punch, hit, run after, or otherwise take down the target".

It's time to break the episode template and try something fresh.
Anonymous said…
Fringe has just failed to impress. Last night I was really bored. The guy running into the parking lot with the trucks was so cliche. And don't they bother to have someone guarding the back? The guy waiting in the car is the only one who bothers to watch the escape routes?

Fringe declared that it could go anywhere from the beginning. But as of now its formula. Yes, Abrams probably has a plan. He'd better start executing soon. At this point I'm probably going to drop it and if it improves I can always see the reruns.
Anonymous said…
I really agree with your post, and I didn't even realize I had the same thoughts, except for definitely feeling that Astrid was underused. It is a fun show that has the potential to be more.
Anonymous said…
I think the answer is to let this show go away quietly. A few eps in, it's not embarrassing, but it's a poor man's Torchwood. Go watch that, instead.
Anonymous said…
I like Fringe as well, but the plot lines are starting to border on the ridiculous.

Broyles: “There’s been a rash of miniature toy poodles exploding in the Boston area. We think it may be related to the Pattern. Can you explain it Dr. Bishop?”

Bishop: “Why, yes. We used to perform experiments where we would smear small dogs with Skippy peanut butter and then bombard them with gamma rays. The combination of the radiation and the peanut butter would alter the dogs’ DNA, causing it to acquire explosive characteristics similar to that of C4. Of course, we were working with Schnauzers but, in theory, the concept could be applied to poodles as well.”

WTF? I realize the name of the show is Fringe, but could the possibly tether the plot to one small thread of reality? And why not have an episode where bishop has no freaking clue what’s going on?

Broyles: “Any idea what happened here, Dr. Bishop?”

Bishop: “Nope. I think I’ll have a fruit smoothie now.”

Here’s hoping that the show pulls itself back from the edge of the abyss.
Anonymous said…
It looks like Fox has told the writers it wants a show that feels like 24, which is one of their most popular, and which also suits their political bent.

As a sf writer myself, I humbly propose two things Fringe could do that would instantly improve the show:

First, go watch Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, especially the first season, especially the Laughing Man story arc. That is how you do this kind of mysterio-futuristic police serialization. Watch and learn.

Second, do your research! The phoniness level of both the science and police procedures in the show detract greatly from viewer enjoyment. E.g.1: A madly dangerous guy with futuristic technology kills half a dozen policemen and kidnaps Peter? Send the delicious Agent Dunham out to the cemetery alone to nab him! No way! The real FBI would send out helicopters, dogs, SWAT teams, hostage negotiators, and roadblocks, you betcha. E.g.2: A rogue CIA guy is secretly handing off spooky alien technology to some shadowy organization at the train station, unaware that a guy with metal in his brain is tapping their secret comm channel? Send Agent Dunham (who the CIA guy knows, for heavens sake) to confront him! Aargh! Never in a million years! The real FBI would send a dozen skilled tag-team shadowers to follow the shadow reps back to their lair, never revealing their tap on the comm channel. You betcha. E.g.3, E.g.4, etc etc are just as embarrassing. And the science E.g.s are even worse.

For sf writers (which, like it or not, Fringe's writers are), failure to do your research is unforgivable. But killing a show with Fringe's potential by failing to do your research is a crime.
Anonymous said…
Back to the original posting, I disagree about Charlie. They alluded (in the last episode) to the possibility that he’s the guy who betrayed Dunham instead of John. I do, however, agree about Broyles. It’s almost like they’re trying to make him like the Smoking Man in X Files, but there was more mystery with that, so they could get away with it. I think you're pretty much on track with everything else.
Unknown said…
What I really don't like in the series are those cheesy 3d letterings that sets the locations. That looks like it was a mistake aired in the 1st episode and now they have to keep using it.
Anonymous said…
WELL.. I for one am glad I found this little discussion. I was really beginning to worry. I have watched all 5 episodes, hoping, I was either missing something, or it would get better. I think, it's looking like I was not missing anything, and, it's now on a short leash on my viewing rotation.

I agree with just about all the points above... Peter is more than a nurse... the "magic' file that appears about 35min into the episode that is from 'back when'...

few more weeks for me...
Anonymous said…
What is with the hatred for serialized shows anyway? Most of my very favorite shows I would describe as serialized. Sure, some of them at least tie up the main plot in its allotted time, but there are subplots and storylines that aren't. I like watching the kind of shows where, if you miss a week or two, you've missed something! With these one-offs, I don't get that feeling at all, which gives me less incentive to remember to tune in.

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