Fringe emerges as Lost’s worthy sci-fi successor
In the four months since Jack Shepherd’s closing eye ended Lost’s epic six-season journey, viewers who grew addicted to interwoven mythology and supernatural mysteries have been searching for their next fix. Several shows have been billed as the next Lost, most notably ABC’s laughably bad Flash Forward and the upcoming NBC drama, The Event. However, Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams already gave the sci-fi world its replacement in 2008 with the brilliant and underappreciated Fringe.
Fringe centers on FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) who is recruited to work in the “Fringe Division,” a special unit that investigates unexplained and supernatural phenomena. Recently released mental hospital patient and mad scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson) join her to investigate a series of connected biological disasters referred to as “The Pattern.” The team investigates cases involving teleportation, mind control, spontaneous human combustion, genetic alterations, alternate dimensions and boiling brains – all of which connect to a shadowy global corporation and Walter’s equally shadowy past.
While this post will not reveal any major spoilers in hopes of gaining the show more fans, some of its major themes must be examined to effectively argue that Fringe is Lost’s only worthy successor. It parallels Lost in its thematic narratives that deal heavily with existentialism, characters with daddy issues struggling to find their sense of purpose and, of course, heavy sci-fi elements. Commentators have said Lost was a one-time-deal, that nothing of its breadth or scope will ever be seen again on television. True, in a continuing recession networks are unlikely to green-light any show with Lost’s mammoth budget when a cheap lawyer procedural will garner similar ratings; yet Fringe remains on-air despite sliding ratings and unconventional subject matter.
However, it is understandable if viewers who looked to Fringe as a Lost supplement were initially disappointed. After a stellar pilot, Fringe struggled throughout its first season to find its narrative structure. Abrams and other producers wanted the show to be like Lost with ongoing mysteries, but with each episode mostly self-contained so viewers could miss a week or two and still be able to jump back in. Early episodes were painfully predictable and formulaic, with the team stumbling on its case-of-the-week and just when things looked bleakest, Walter, like a demented Dr. House, would miraculously solve the problem at the last second. These early episodes were a sunglasses-removal away from being a supernatural CSI Miami.
Thankfully, somewhere along the way Fringe started leaning more on its primary narrative concerning the main characters’ interconnected pasts and the resulting effect on their budding relationships. Episodes would still feature a unique case, but the case was directly tied to the serialized narrative. The first season built to an absolutely mind-blowing cliffhanger finale that picked up immediately in the second season and never looked back. Lost, even in its best seasons, always had low points (Nikki and Paulo, every Kate-centered episode, the sideways world), but Fringe’s second season as a whole, from premiere to finale, is arguably stronger overall than any entire Lost season.
Fringe will never match Lost’s world-spanning multinational scope. It deals mostly with three main characters in Boston and will never pull viewers into as many simultaneous storylines; instead it is in the process of fully developing one central mystery. That’s not to say Fringe doesn’t have dynamic characters like those on the island. Like Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke, John Noble steals every scene as the enigmatic Walter Bishop, even playing widely differing versions of the character like O’Quinn did in Lost’s latter seasons. Noble’s consecutive Emmy nomination snubs should be enough to discredit the awards.
Fringe producers also had the guts to cast that kid from The Mighty Ducks best known as Pacey from Dawson’s Creek as the male lead. While Joshua Jackson’s portrayal of Peter was initially insufferably swarmy, the character, like the show itself, improved dramatically – so much that Peter is now the most sympathetic character and a believable romantic lead.
While Fringe excels in presenting multifaceted leads, its supporting cast is largely underdeveloped. For example, a running joke in the series involving Walter forgetting or mispronouncing FBI agent Astrid Farnsworth’s name wouldn’t be ironic if I could name a single fact about her besides her title. Hopefully, Fringe will address this as the series progresses.
As Fringe enters its third season, the stakes are clearly defined. Part of the enjoyment of watching Lost was never knowing what was happening, but as the polarizing season 6 Jacob flashback episode “Across the Sea” left more questions than answers, many still wondered what was on the line. Fringe waited only two seasons before its mythology-dumping flashback episode, aptly titled “Peter.” The episode clearly explained the past and set up the series’ central conflict in an hour The A.V. Club called among the top TV of 2010. Not everything is on the table, however. The show periodically features bald men in suits called “Observers” who I cannot begin to explain and anticipate learning more about.
Lost is among television’s greatest achievements and it will surely never be replicated; but for viewers enthralled by its supernatural mysteries and sick of bland doctor/lawyer/cop shows, Fringe is a must.
The third season of Fringe premieres Thursday, September 23 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox, which is just enough time to catch up on the first two seasons (a few episodes available free) or jump right in after reading Fox’s official recap.
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