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Fringe Deserves to Be Much More Than a Cult Hit

As the J.J. Abrams series turns 15, we look back at what may be the last of the sci-fi procedurals.
  • Jasika Nicole, John Noble, Anna Torv, and Joshua Jackson in Fringe (Photo: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)
    Jasika Nicole, John Noble, Anna Torv, and Joshua Jackson in Fringe (Photo: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)

    There may not be another show in recent memory so definitionally a “cult hit” as Fringe. It premiered to great anticipation as J.J. Abrams’ next big project after Lost, but soon fell out of the conversation with a season that hewed a bit too close to The X-Files (not helped by the release of the second movie, I Want To Believe, earlier that year). Going by just the ratings, it should’ve been canceled early like so many cult classics: your Fireflys, your Sarah Connor Chronicles, etc. Throughout its existence, the show was on the bubble, even moving to the dreaded Friday night death slot in its third season. Despite that, it concluded with 5 seasons and the magic 100 episode count before subsequently fading into memory.

    At the start, Fringe’s premise was relatively simple: something weird and often body horror-adjacent would happen to someone. FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv, in her first major American role) would investigate alongside unstable genius scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his jack-of-all-trades son Peter (Joshua Jackson), usually at the behest of Homeland Security Agent Philip Broyles (the late Lance Reddick) and with the assistance of Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole).

    These cases were related to The Pattern, a vague, potentially government or corporate conspiracy that was discovered in part by a shady conglomerate called Massive Dynamic, headed by Nina Sharp (Blair Brown). Elements of mythology began peaking through: a bald man in a bowler cap seen observing events in the background of shots; a experiment involving a nootropic drug called Cortexiphan that Olivia may have been a part of as a child; shapeshifters with mercury instead of blood. But the most important involved the existence of a parallel universe, revealed fully at the end of the season by Massive Dynamic founder William Bell (Leonard Nimoy!).

    Most fans will tell you that the show got good when it shifted its longer arc towards the parallel universe and — especially — invaders coming to our world for nefarious purposes, such as Jared Harris’ David Robert Jones. And to be fair, the show excelled at telling suspenseful inter-universal war stories; the journey to the otherside at the end of Season 2 sparked the peak of a run beginning from the middle of that season all the way to the end of Season 3 that deserved to be mentioned with the best shows of that year. If Fringe had been just an extremely good sci-fi thriller, that would’ve been enough to at least merit notice.

    What elevated Fringe was something the creative team locked into early on but solidified in the second season: a strong emotional core. Cases became ways to examine the underlying feelings of the characters and comment on the things happening to them in their own lives. Bad guys stopped being completely “bad,” for the most part. At their best, the cases of the week centered on someone doing something out of a sense of love, sometimes twisted, sometimes well meaning. This was reflected in Season 2’s midseason finale, which revealed the reason for these carefully plotted pieces: that Peter was actually from the otherside, unintentionally kidnapped by Walter after the Prime Universe version died. The episode that dove into this tragedy, “Peter,” kicked off the show’s peak, and introduced the main themes Fringe would tackle: love, guilt, and redemption.

    Perhaps the best example of this thematic merging and sympathetic “villains” comes in Season 2’s “White Tulip,” which is not only one of the show’s best episodes, but one of the best episodes of the last decade. A case that starts out with a train full of bodies drained of energy soon reveals itself to be a story of deeply held guilt. There’s the “villain,” MIT astrophysicist Allistair Peck (Peter Weller), who is modifying his body in the hopes of traveling back in time to save his fiancee from a car wreck. But there’s also Walter; in the centerpiece of the episode, he reveals the guilt that has followed him ever since he stole Peter.

    It’s enough to drive him, a dedicated man of science, to ask for a sign of forgiveness from God — in this case the titular flower. Tulips don’t grow in that color, as both men know, but if anyone can make one, it’s God. The last act is among the most powerful moments of the show, from the time Peck begins to enact his plan down to the final shot. It’s a beautiful performance from John Noble, wrapped in a smartly structured and eerie story that posits love as the ultimate guiding force for everyone in the show, and what a person would do for it.

    That’s not to say that Fringe skimped on the sci-fi elements. Once it found its footing and went all in on the parallel universes, it could be thrilling and even action packed. Season 3’s first half expertly displays this, following Olivia as she’s captured while on the otherside and made to believe she’s her alternate self (Fauxlivia, in the show’s parlance), all while the double infiltrates our world. It’s an impressive performance by Torv, who easily slips between postures and tics while giving each version a hint of unease at having to be the “true Liv.”

    The rest of the cast also shines, particularly Reddick, who modulates his signature tone to be just a little more accented and a little less stern. In between escapes from governmental facilities and blown covers, the show still finds time to run cases that riff on “Flowers For Algernon” or feature callbacks to past episodes without being completely alienating. All of this, and the payoff once Olivia makes it back, deals a devastating blow to her relationship with Peter, triggered in part by a man who’s harvesting organs from live donation victims (it makes sense in context).

    Fringe is ultimately the last of a type of show that broadcast doesn’t really do anymore: the sci-fi procedural. Networks have ultimately ceded that to streaming and cable, and the shows that are greenlit don’t get the standard 22-episode order. The Netflix version of Fringe wouldn’t have an episode like “Marionette,” a devastating payoff of Olivia and Peter’s will-they/won’t-they that’s more about a creepy dude harvesting living people’s organs and making a corpse dance, let alone ones like “Brown Betty” or “Lysergic Acid Dimethylene,” fun experiments (a musical and animated episode, respectively) that don’t really move the grand arc forward but are more important for pacing and character development.

    More than anything, Fringe’s greatness comes from the classic television structure we all know and love. The cases are fun stories that don’t necessarily have to be high stakes, while the arcs allow viewers to become more invested in the characters every week; occasionally, these two elements worked in concert to deliver episodes that reflected a character’s state of mind. Everything that could be considered “filler” nowadays proves itself to be vital. An episode about a virus causing people’s veins to erupt serves as a reflection of Walter’s own deep fears of losing Peter again; Stephen Root attempting to go back in time to save his wife showcases the blinding power of grief and desperation, something all the characters are deeply familiar with. Even just a simple episode involving Astrid’s alternate self having a crisis and coming to hang with her is a small delight. What we ultimately crave is TV to get lost in, that we can bond with through the highs and lows. Few shows offer all that, plus a character complaining about being tricked by a “vagenda” as they race against time. It’s the balancing act that makes Fringe a journey worth taking.

    Devan Suber is a writer living in Philadelphia.