The 2011-2012 television season has been over for almost a couple of weeks now, which means a sufficient amount of time has passed and we are primed to reflect. Over the next handful of days, I will be producing some pieces and lists looking back on the season that was. I missed out on a lot because of my hectic schedule, but hopefully these full-season views will make up a little for the lack of episodic reviews or content throughout the early part of 2012. And lists are always fun, at least for me.
As a television fan, there are few things more straining than watching a series you love make choices you don’t quite understand. You come back week after week, hoping the series will pull itself out whatever rut its in, only to find it retrench into that rut even further. This is one of the more underrated reasons that makes watching a season on DVD somewhat better. At worst, you can breeze through episodes (or even skip some) and not think too deeply about what’s not working. At best, you can focus deeper on the issues, re-watching more and more with the hopes of understanding what confounded you in the first place.
There is no season of television I can remember wanting to watch again on DVD for that last reason than season four of Fringe. After two high-quality seasons of television, Fringe, for me, took a substantial step down this season. And unlike with most series that are somewhere between “simply mediocre” and Work It!, the reasons for Fringe‘s struggles in season four are not immediately comprehensible on an individual episode level. If you pull out a handful of the best season four episodes — and heck, even some of the middling ones — the series still looked and felt like the Fringe I knew and grew to love. But that is actually where the problem lies.
The creative team took these big risks in “erasing” Peter from existence and presenting us two universes without him, and then unfortunately failed quite miserably to convince me why they made those decisions at all. Instead, Fringe often played like a weird, totally empty shell of its former self. Same type of plots, same actors, mostly same characters and same focus on big, sweeping emotional moments. Except for the things that matter most for the audience, particularly in a season four, like a connection the characters they presumably grew to love or an inherent understanding of the overarching storylines, were sucked out of that typical Fringe formula, resulting for me in a viewing experience that I absolutely recognized and previously loved, but could no longer relate to whatsoever.
Looking back now, after having seen the entire fourth season, I still have really no idea why or really even how most of the things that happened in many of these 22 episodes happened. Taking Peter out of the equation intrigued the heck out of me — despite the fact that the season three finale took massive, sometimes illogical shortcuts to get to that point — but it quickly seemed (and again, I say seemed because the series did an awful job of actually explaining its rationale) like the choice was made to prolong certain events (such as Peter and Olivia getting together for real) and toy with the already-established multi-verse gimmick. All story directions are made by someone, with a purpose, but the best ones feel organic to what we’ve already seen before. What happened to Peter, and most everything that happened to him and the other characters once he returned, did not feel organic, nor did it hold any real weight.
On a surface level, some of the choices make sense. Early S4 episodes did a solid job of showing us how a Peter-less world changed Walter and Olivia, which is really the most important thing those episodes had to accomplish. Nevertheless, I feel like much of that quality came from John Noble and Anna Torv’s muted, but expressive performances and not the page. Most of those early episodes were dedicated to trying to convince us, nay, tricking us, that these weren’t Peter’s Olivia and Walter and that something else was afoot. The initial changes in their characters were subtle and minuscule, which makes sense, but only because I assumed there would be some larger pay-off. Instead, before long, the series just decided that oh wait, this is Peter’s home and even though Olivia was different, now she’s not because she has the memories of the Olivia we knew and loved anyway.
Hold on. Maybe I’m just not understand this. Let’s go to Wikipedia and clear up some of my brain’s deficiencies:
Peter is pulled into this new timeline due to the actions of the alternate timeline’s Fringe team, which includes Lincoln Lee. Peter initially works to return to his own timeline, fueled by fears that his memories are altering Cortexiphan-dosed Olivia’s of this timeline, but after encountering a wounded September, Peter comes to learn that this timeline is truly his home, and both he and Olivia come to accept the change, rekindling their affair.
Wait, what? So, the Fringe team blew up three seasons of story, suggested a brand new world, then presented a mostly-recognizable new world, and then just said, yep, we’re staying here? I’m sorry, but there isn’t a single universe where that choice makes sense. I appreciate the willingness to take big risks, I really do, but typically, doing alternate universe stories results in some sort of powerful realization or epiphany for the characters from “our” universe. But on this season of Fringe, the one character we actually “knew” (Peter) just eventually gave up because his creepy bald stalker to him that everything was in its right place. Fringe is a story defined by exploring how the slightest difference in a world can have the biggest impact on individuals or larger groups. That’s what made the introduction of the other universe so wonderful, and what makes this season so frustrating, because it’s as if the writers never watched the last two seasons of their own series.
Worst of all is how Fringe treated certain stories in this supposedly new world. For whatever reason, the writers waited until season four to tell a quality Astrid story, one actually delving into her background, and it was actually very well done. Jasika Nicole was, as expected, quite wonderful in “Making Angels.” And the series treated it as if this was the episode we had been waiting for four years, or as if it were this great emotional release. Within the context of an individual episode, it was, but it was about two versions of Astrid that we had spent next to no time with. To use typical Fringe terminology, this wasn’t OUR Astrid, or even OUR OTHER Astrid, so why, then, should we care? And telling us later, “My bad, this is the right universe,” doesn’t count.
The same could be said for the season’s big villain(s) David Robert Jones and William Bell. Both characters already existed, and in the case of Jones, seemingly were still alive in the original alternate universe (and don’t act like the writers couldn’t have come up with a good reason to bring the original Belly back as well), and yet, we had to deal with new versions of them terrorizing the Fringe team and the world. I love Jones as a villain and would have been fine with season four had it been about his alternate taking revenge on Fringe Division, but doing that story isn’t predicated on having two brand-spankin’ new universes.
The season’s final few episodes represent the season’s fundamental errors greatly. Not only do Jones and Bell attack worlds and characters we don’t really care about (at least not in the way we could have if they were OUR characters), but the dimensional bridge is closed, wiping out years of previously important stories on that front. Olivia is shot in the head, and then immediately brought back to life. Oh, and Bell gets away. All these “new” characters were introduced so that what, the bridge could be closed? Or so that the story could be primed for a massive flashforward to a time where the Observers rule the world? First of all, who cares, and second of all, why couldn’t that have been done in the established timeline?
Whereas in season three when the changes to the other universe had a purpose, this season felt like televised fan fiction, as if the writers sat in the room last summer and were like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if X, Y and Z happened?” and then manufactured the story to reach those buzzy points, logic or character development be damned. The resulting season of stories became a disjointed mess lacking the kind of clear rules that defined previous years of the series. Big changes were suggested, then immediately discarded for a version of the story and versions of the characters we 90 percent knew, only so the writers could determine week to week how much the differences actually mattered. Not only did the changes result in any empty whole, but they were also fairly arbitrary. Things are different, except they aren’t, but they are.*
*Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the best parts of this season was Lincoln, a character who had much less history attached to him. With him, it felt like the writers were actually trying to make any alterations matter.
Most frustrating for me is that on an individual episode level, Fringe still found ways to work in season four. Many of the procedural-heavy episodes were very good, reminding me that no series knows how to craft that sort of powerful standalone story better. All of the performances were, as always, tremendous, a fact that made up for so much of the sloppy writing. I would watch an episode and enjoy it on the most basic of levels. It’d hook me in and I would start to feel things for the characters on screen. Then the episode would end and I would realize that these weren’t the characters I loved, no matter how similar they seemed. It was a battle each week.
I know that a lot of the series’ fans didn’t have trouble with this season’s changes (big or small, arbitrary or purposeful) and really, that’s totally fine. Fringe could never convince me of why any of what happened this season mattered and more or less invalidated the importance of everything that came in the first three seasons in the process. But because Fringe still walked and talked like Fringe for the entire season, and because many episodes were actually pretty good, I understand just going along with the ride. I couldn’t do it, and I no longer care about these final 13 episodes. Maybe the DVD will change my mind.