Friday, May 18, 2012

TV Review: Fringe, Series 4

As I've already mentioned, I'm pretty pleased that loss-making, viewer-light Fringe has been renewed for a final run of 13 episodes to wrap up its storylines and say anything the writers feel is left unsaid. It's had a strange journey over the last three seasons and entered it's fourth a completely unrecognisable show to the one that started out as a mad-science themed X-files clone with better acting, and the third season, with its crazed jumping-between-universes narrative and strong central performances from a cast playing several versions of their established characters, stands for me as one of the strongest seasons of genre television I've ever seen. So with a big change to the status quo at the end of that season, where would they go from here? 

At first, it feels strange to be almost back at the start of the show - a Peter Bishop-less world with new, and different versions of the "our" characters, which in some ways makes the characters from "over there" more familiar and comforting at first. For a while, I was worried - season three starts so strongly, and so bravely, in terms of it's structure and story that season four doesn't dazzle in anywhere near the same way - and the show spends a maybe a little bit too much time establishing the differences in this new setup before the inevitable return of Peter to the main cast. After that, there is a gradual reestablishing of the old dynamics, as the team settles in to something more familiar, even to the point of casting out "our" Lincoln Lee, who starts the season as a proper member of the Fringe team. 

Whislt dealing with this strange new setup from the early season, its perhaps to the shows credit that two the seasons (and possibly the entire run of the shows) best standalone episodes come at episode 2 (One Night in October) and episode 6 (And Those We've Left Behind) both of which deal with memory, loss, and identity, and the latter especially draws on Fringe's seemingly endless capacity to blend mad world-threatening science with deeply emotional humanism. The main arc doesn't misfire exactly, especially in retrospect, but it takes a while for you to appreciate it and it's good that the individual stories through which the arc is threaded  are good enough in their own right. 

One the season hits the mid-point however, it really starts to get going. For a start we see more familiar Fringe-ey sorts of things; The Observers, a bit more time over there, finally an Astrid-centric episode (the fantastic "Making Angels", and, uniquely, a full-on proper villain, rather than another tortured and lost idealist of the sort that populates the Fringe universe. The series accelerates towards it's end very strongly, with some unexpected twists and turns, and then....well then we have "Letters of Transit". 

As usual I'll try and avoid much in the way of spoilers, but Episode 19 has traditionally become an experimental one for Fringe with musicals and animated episodes in earlier seasons. Here we are sent into a bleak future, introduced to a host of new characters, and much is revealed, but more - much more - is left hanging. You want to know why I'm excited about season five? Well because even though they didn't know if the show would survive, they went and made "Letters of Transit", which is clearly setting up the key conflicts for that final hurrah. Fringe, even in the face of Armageddon, does not compromise. 

But for all the changes in the setup, and its trips over there and back again, Fringe remains the show that it's always been, interested in the things it has always been interested in. At heart its a show about what means to be human, about what makes us who we are, and how that can be shaped and molded by the other people around us. The broken, guilt-haunted Walter - a Walter who has watched his son die twice - of the start of season four isn't the Walter we know from before, or the composed, icy, Walternate, but he's still the same man inside. The show revels in pairing it's alternates with each other and over the season we see pretty much every pair teamed up, a credit to the writers and actors (there is a scene with both Olivias dressed the same but you can still tell them apart from the body language and mode of speech!) that they the differences and similarities are so well drawn. 

Fringe isn't a perfect show - it doesn't always nail it's aspirations, and not everything tries works. It's also probably pretty incomprehensible to newcomers by now, and it's insistence of changing it's basic structure so regularly seems to annoy a section of it fans every time it does it. But it's so utterly unique, and on it's day, so committed to it's own vision, its hard not to admire the creative freedom it seems to have. Fringe is a doomed show, it has been for a couple of seasons and it seems OK with that - it's not going to try for the mainstream, or dumb down, or do anything other than just what the hell it wants to. The network seems to renew it just because it feels, at some level, that it should be making these sorts of shows, or maybe the commissioning editors are just fans who want to see where it goes. I don't know why Fringe survives, but I'm really, really glad it does.