Fox’s Fringe started with an eclectic cast of characters and a strong sense of focus as the main characters tried to reveal the components of an elaborate science-driven mystery.
In season one of Fringe, Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop find themselves paired together through Olivia’s need for Walter Bishop’s expertise in solving instances of scientifically motivated criminal activity. Along with Astrid Farnsworth, Olivia, Peter and Walter investigate weird happenings, trying to uncover the Pattern. Over the course of the season, Olivia’s hidden potential is tapped, Peter’s origins are questioned, and Walter’s past partner is convincingly portrayed as a bad guy.
Then, in season two a change occurs. They discover that while the one person they were convinced was the evil master-mind is morally questionable, he’s acting on what he perceives as the best interests of the side that could be considered the same as their own. Meanwhile, Olivia’s powers become more relevant, if not easier for her to control. They discover there are others like her, who struggle with their abilities even more than she; and even others from an alternate universe whose abilities provide significant challenges. This season culminates in a dramatic change, where Peter’s origins and his uniqueness are revealed as a major plot point for the entire drama.
Unfortunately, season three seems to be losing momentum. It’s not that the stories aren’t any good, nor is the quality of their telling on the decline. Fringe is a complicated vision of two worlds colliding (literally, though we have to hope not). Moral ambiguity is paramount. There are two conflicting sides with strong motivations, and neither is wholly right nor wholly wrong. The series creators would have us empathize with both sides. They show the story from both perspectives, and they expect viewers to follow along (and to care) as they shift between universes and time. Entire episodes are devoted to alternate versions of the characters they fleshed out in the first and second season. Entire episodes are devoted to what happened to set this whole grand adventure in motion.
I’d like to believe the mass viewing audience is capable of caring for these two conflicting sides, to follow along with the contemporary storyline while also delving the past for how this storyline became what it is. I’d like to believe it, because I especially enjoy complicated fiction that reflects the complexities of the real world. But…I don’t think the audience that exists for this kind of fiction is sufficient to support a long-running television show, a television show that can satisfy the promises of the first two seasons while retaining enough common interest to last long enough for the final climax. I hope I’m mistaken, because I love Fringe, but the shifts between universes and time don’t seem to be holding the audiences’ attention.
We live in a world full of two or more sides clashing in morally questionable, but not inherently evil, ways. On a world scale, we have plenty of wars driven by such clashing motivations. Here at home, each in our own countries and communities, we have political and social conflicts driven by such clashing motivations. Our world has becoming more polarized—just look at the ease with which Democrats and Republicans try to vilify each other. That says, at least to me, that we need stories that can show conflicting sides, fighting in a life-or-death struggle, and humanize both sides, empathize with both sides. And yet, as much as we need such a story, most people are not going to embrace it. The story itself creates dissonance with the choices they make. People don’t want to know the history of how things came to be, they react to the now. They don’t want to see both sides of the fight as human beings doing the best they can; they just want their side to win. While I commend and applaud the creators of Fringe, I doubt the viewing public is ready to embrace something so emotionally realistic (if not scientifically so), when doing so would call to question their own polarization. And yet…I really hope they do, because we need it.
Luckily, they have the rest of season 3 and season 4 to win over the masses.