Written by Caballero Oscuro
J. J. Abrams has had quite a year, with the stunning success of his Star Trek reboot, the continued relevance of Lost, and the survival of his latest show Fringe through its entire first season. Fence-sitters like me who questioned the ability of Fringe to thrive on network TV now have the opportunity to get caught up on that first season through today’s release of the DVD and Blu-Ray box sets.
The show centers on a plucky young FBI agent named Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) assigned to the “Fringe” division of the FBI that explores paranormal occurrences. Sound familiar? I liked it better when the FBI called that division “X-Files”, but the show manages to put a fresh coat of paint on the concept that bears continued viewing. This being an Abrams production, the show is littered with Easter eggs and hints of a global, interdimensional, or possibly even interstellar conspiracy to keep intrepid viewers thinking about and involved with the show. Even the bumpers between commercial breaks offer something thought-provoking: a series of mysterious glyphs that allow amateur cryptographers in the audience to decipher and spell out secret messages in each episode. Sure, those messages are far from Earth-shattering, but it’s still a nice touch.
Joining Agent Dunham on her adventures are a cranky conman named Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and his crackpot scientist dad Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), forming the most unlikely trio of leads in televised history. Dr. Bishop has been locked up in a mental institution for the last 17 years until his services are required on the first case, leading to his release thanks entirely to the unwilling stewardship of his son. Dr. Bishop has an encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of paranormal things thanks to his years of lab work related to them, but unfortunately his years of institutionalized care have contributed to his completely unstable recollection of that knowledge, so the show delights in his insane and impolitic ramblings and the reactions of other characters to them. Unfortunately, this works to Peter Bishop’s detriment as he’s left with little to do in the first season other than watch out for his dad, attempt to translate his scientific gibberish into English for other characters, and make faint attempts to rekindle a relationship that was never strong in the past. Hopefully the writers will figure out a way to utilize the character better in the second season, but for now he’s largely a waste.
Also following the X-Files model, the show alternates between stand-alone “monster of the week” shows and shows focused on the grand conspiracy. Like X-Files, the best shows are the ones included in the larger arc, while the others end up seeming like throwaways. Agent Dunham’s boss, Agent Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick), has close ties to Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), the head of a sprawling and possibly evil conglomeration with the silly but apt name of Massive Dynamic. Far too many of the Fringe division’s cases have ties back to Massive Dynamic to be coincidental, and it’s not clear to the leads or the audience just how much they can trust Broyles or Sharp. Speaking of Broyles, if you’re still mourning the loss of HBO”s The Wire, Reddick is basically playing exactly the same role here as Lt. Cedric Daniels, the head of a rogue department operating well outside the status quo.
Also adding to the conspiracy flavor is a bald, well-dressed, eyebrowless and extremely odd man simply named The Observer who pops up in the periphery of nearly every episode, usually around the time some significant event transpires. He’s largely another fun Easter egg so far as it’s fun to play “Spot the Observer” every week, but he portends the something-greater flavor of the show. Not to gripe, but he’s also recycled right down to his name, as he bears strong similarity to the Marvel comic book universe character The Watcher, a bald all-knowing alien character who can observe human events but cannot change them.
The Season One box set includes all 20 episodes with a wealth of bonus material such as three full-length commentaries by the creators, featurettes on the casting, special effects, show creation and the real science behind the show, unaired scenes, a gag reel, and even a feature on Bishop’s resident cow, Gene.
Of special note is the great packaging job. The Fringe DVD box set comes contained in a completely enclosed plastic hardcase in a cardboard outer slipcase, with each of the seven discs on its own plastic tray inside, so viewers needn’t worry about scratching the discs on cardboard sleeves or trouble themselves with having to take one disc off in order to get at another disc underneath.