For those who tire of shows like Heroes and Lost where the "answers" to the mysteries proposed in the episodes often seem as though they'll never arrive, along comes Fringe, a science fiction mystery series that actually gets around to solving the mysteries presented in each episode before its conclusion… mostly.
Similar to The X-Files and the novels of Michael Crichton, Fringe deals with the fringe sciences (astral projection, teleportation, alternate universes, etc.) and demonstrates unbelievable and often quite frightening occurrences that could be explained through these kinds of unorthodox scientific theories.
Throughout the first season, someone appears to be conducting dangerous and bizarre experiments on innocent people and it's up to FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and her team to solve the mysteries and try to stop them before more are harmed. She is joined by mentally unstable fringe scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble, who many may recognize as having played Denethor in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and his streetwise genius son Peter (Dawson's Creek's Joshua Jackson), both of whom have a very strained relationship with the other.
I'll have to admit that watching the series unfold on television, I almost gave up on it about halfway through. At the time, each episode seemed to almost be following some sort of template: something disgusting happens before the titles, Olivia sees a vision of John, Peter gets frustrated with his father and his theories despite the fact his father's theories are always right, Walter recalls a nostalgic food memory in a bit of forced comic relief, etc. I didn't care about the lead character, Olivia, as she didn't seem to have any sort of endearing personality; she was just a character that things happened to. The violence and gore in the show was frankly shocking for a network television show and I found it awfully off-putting.
Thankfully, though, as if the show itself was a kind of experiment, Fringe went through a series of dramatic changes over the course of its first season, and ended up much better for them.
The show underwent significant changes in episode 11, "Bound." The gruesomeness of the deaths in the show had already started to wane, but it was in episode 11 that Olivia's sister and niece were introduced, finally providing a bit of relateability for the series' main character. The very next episode, the young niece becomes a potential target of the experiments and for the first time I started to feel for Olivia and care that she succeeded.
But not all the changes helped the show. Also introduced in episode 11 is the character of Sanford Harris, a continual thorn in the side of Olivia and her team. Harris is a bureaucratic scumbag who, for mostly personal reasons, questions the validity of Olivia's team and has the power to shut them down. While Harris' character provides some added conflict to the stories, he's essentially a completely evil guy for the sake of having a completely evil guy on the show–a character that the writers can throw in from time to time to add another obstacle for the heroes to overcome. Harris is a caricature as a character and an annoying plot device, so I started really enjoying Fringe a lot more once the show was done with him (though I won't tell you when or how he leaves the show).
In episode 16, "Unleashed," the formerly numb Walter begins to come to terms with the havoc many of his own experiments have caused and risks his own life in an attempt to halt one of these experiments in a character turn that is wonderful to watch.
The show continued to improve over time and by the final episodes of the season had really hit its stride, leading up to a fantastic finale that offers up some great surprises and teases for the second season.
Now, at the beginning of this review I stated that each episode "mostly" answers all the questions presented in it. Sure, the end of each episode ties up whatever perplexity was introduced at the beginning, but what isn't still falls into the same camp as a show like Lost or Heroes, sometimes to the same frustrating end. For example, in one episode, Olivia is interrogating a man who is talking about an upcoming war and he says he hopes she at least knows who the two sides are. Instead of asking him for any information or further clarification on this, the writers have her simply storm out of the room. Oh, come on! She's supposed to be interrogating the guy and the moment brings up something really important, the writers decide it's too much information for the viewer at the moment and write the scene to an abrupt close. Ya know, guys, it's that kind of frustrating writing that makes people just give up on a show.
There are a bevy of special features on this seven-disc DVD set. Many episodes come with commentary tracks, deleted scenes and individual featurettes on the unique aspects of filming each particular episode. There are also general featurettes on the science behind the show (trying to find some actual bit of science to relate the stories to), casting the main characters, casting "Gene" the cow, and a gag reel entitled "Unusual Side Effects" wherein the clips are edited so rapid-fire that it's tough to tell what's even going on in each clip, much less extract a single chuckle from them.
For the most part, each of the special features are standard fluff pieces, rarely divulging anything that would be too interesting to the casual viewer. In one, it is revealed that the images that accompany each commercial break (the iconic frog, flower, seahorse, leaf, etc.) are actually representative of letters that spell out something in relation to the episode, but we are not given the information on how to decipher what these letters are.
A small but pleasant surprise on this DVD set is the fact that the viewer has the option of turning on or off the "recaps" at the beginning of each episode, as they can get quite repetitive.
Overall, the first season of Fringe is flawed, but enjoyable. It's nice to know that the show does indeed keep getting better as it goes along, and has me hoping for a stellar season two. But, like a casual observer of the fringe sciences, I have to admit, I remain a little skeptical.