‘Fringe’ Friday: Show runners J.H. Wyman, Jeff Pinkner talk Season 4
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I might not be the best person to interview the cast and crew of “Fringe.” I’m sure many fans would love for me to grill anyone I get access to for details about where the show is going or what to expect next, but I’m not a fan of spoilers myself. Even to the point where I try to keep myself away from the previews of next week’s episodes (though I almost always fail on that attempt).
When I have had the pleasure of speaking to a John Noble, Anna Torv or Josh Jackson, the conversation always seems to shift to a joint admiration for the depth of the characters and themes of the show. Much of that depth comes from the work of “Fringe” show runners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman. I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of their time to chat about Season 4, Wyman’s directorial debut, and what we have to look forward to in the upcoming episodes of “Fringe.”
Season 4 was a bold risk, switching to an alternate timeline and almost reinventing your characters. Was there any concern taking that chance?
Pinkner: There wasn’t concern from us. There was absolutely concern from both Fox and Warner Bros. Their job, understandably, is to make sure everything stays the same and familiar. And it is our job, on a show that is built as a narrative – as opposed to a hospital show or police procedural – to constantly change. We were very excited about this idea that Peter disappears and the consequences of the sacrifice he made to save this world and the woman he loves. We were really confident that we had a thorough story worked out this season about how he comes back and the consequences of him coming back.
You also have to think about the ‘Fringe’ fans, who seem to be a little more sci-fi savvy than the average television viewer.
Wyman: That was a big concern. We’ve always sort of gone with our gut. We have a solid plan of where we’re going each season before we even begin. We just knew it was right for us. We’re always trying to re-contextualize or see different sides of our characters. It reflects the themes we’re talking about all the time. What impact do you have on people. What impact others have on you. What turns have your life taken. How can you change your life? Different versions of our characters that have different choices is really interesting to us. It reinforces that theme.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to John and Anna a few times in the past. I always comment on how “Fringe” must be a thrill ride for the actors.
Pinkner: The truth is series television becomes inevitably a grind for the actors. One thing our show does is it constantly challenges them. We happen to have very brilliant actors who respond to the challenge and get to re-imagine the roles that they’ve been playing. Find the shades of how that same human being is different based on different life experiences. It’s a wonderfully challenging and invigorating opportunity for them, and the results we get to see on screen are fresh. No one ever gets bored of their job.
Wyman: They do an incredible job, digesting and interpreting what we throw at them. We are very fortunate because they never kick anything back and say “What?” We can give them the craziest things and they come at them with the greatest attitude, and they always exceed our expectations.
A big part of that must be how human the story you come up with for “Fringe” can be.
Wyman: They’re all morality tales. Jeff and I both feel that the more far out science fiction gets, at least good science fiction, the more it depicts the human condition. That’s what it is all about, learning to be a better person or getting insight into yourself through this wonderful world. If you take any episode or any of our “bad guys” or guest stars, they’re a mirror to the theme of the episode, and it is always about the human condition.
Pinkner: Specifically vis a vis science. We said early on and maintain in the show that any kind of human discovery or scientific advancement is in itself objectively neutral.
It’s almost difficult to call the villains in “Fringe” bad guys because their motivations tend to be very understandable.
Wyman: That’s why I corrected myself. The bad guy isn’t a bad guy until he’s proven to be a human being first. Behind every motivation, there’s something human. We use love as an incredible motivator in the show. We use faith and longing. Revenge. All these great human motivations pop up in our guest stars. We’re always interested in those “heart” stories, where the audience can understand why our characters are doing what they’re doing.
And it gives you great opportunities for twists. Like earlier this season I thought Walternate was going to be the major villain, but then came the twist.
Pinkner: One of our favorite twists on the show, layered in from the beginning, is that ultimately the main villain is Walter. Someone who knew full well the potential consequences of breaking two universes but driven by this desire to save a version of his son’s life. Fully driven by heart but massively selfish. We met him at a point in his life so many years after, that we were able to rehabilitate him. Peel back the layers. But he is the chief architect of all the bad things that happen in the show. It was done out of love, and we’ve given him a chance at redemption and learned his lesson. We wanted to flip it with the Walternate character.
Wyman: It’s all perspective.
Another of my favorite episodes of the season was “Welcome to Westfield.” It was the “Fringe” version of a zombie horror story. Do you try to mix in the different subgenres of science fiction?
Pinkner: Always. It’s funny. The show shifts and moves. It’s kind of organic. We’re really the luckiest guys in the world. One week we can pay homage to “All the President’s Men” and the next week we get to do an incredible love story. Then an action movie or a zombie picture. It’s really fun for us, and we get to do it like nobody else. “Fringe” is the only show where you get to do a love triangle where two parties are the same person. It’s a trip for us.
The crazy science of the week seems to always reflect the greater themes of the characters. Do you generally build off the science or the character?
Pinkner: It’s different every week. We tend to know what the trajectory of our characters are, so we try to build around that. Sometimes as we’re working on a story, we’ll change in mid-stream. It’s something that we’re constantly attending to. Sometimes there are science stories we want to do, but we wait until the appropriate time in the season to be reflective of what’s happening, and sometimes we start from a point of wanting to tell the story of a specific character – where they are or their theme – and look for the science story we have in our back pocket that will coalesce.
Season 4 appears to be a lot more connected to Season 1 than other seasons, revisiting a lot of the science and story lines from that first year. Where those connections planned from the start or is it a matter of rethinking the elements you have in play?
Wyman: Some of them are. Like the amber on the bus. People didn’t understand what that was, but now everyone knows the purpose of the amber. Some things we found along the way.
Pinkner: As storytellers, and not doing completely dissimilar shows in the past like “Alias” and “Lost,” there are things we write looking to the future and knowing how it’s going to pay off. Other things are planting seeds. You don’t know exactly how they’re going to pay off, but when they do, it felt inevitable all along.
Wyman: That’s when we feel we’re very lucky we put that there.
Pinkner: Part of the fun of this season specifically is because it is an altered version of the timeline our characters have lived through, we can reflect on things we’ve done before thematically and suggest that time is malleable.
Are there any episodes fans should revisit in order to prepare for things coming up at the end of the season?
Pinkner: There are many of them, but to give you hints would be to spoil. Sadly. Even the big villain this season, David Robert Jones, died in the first season, and now since those events didn’t happen, he’s back and up to no good again in a way we’re hoping to be really engaging and surprising towards the end of the season.
Wyman: We write the show for our fans. We get a tremendous amount of pleasure having the audience recognizing what we’re doing. It’s like playing with a very tight group of friends that can appreciate every little nuance that the casual view might not always pick up.
Joel, you actually directed last week’s episode, “A Short Story about Love.” That was a first for you, correct?
Wyman: It’s really hard to get away as a show runner. It’s a luxury to be able to direct. I’m sure every show runner would die to do it, but there’s so much to be done. You’re needed.
Since “Fringe” is so much about dual identities, were there any conflicts between director Wyman and writer Wyman?
Wyman: (laughs) Yeah, the director me is really militant. I mean, not really. We have so many great directors on our show who really transcend our vision and make what we write look good even when maybe it has no right to look so good. When you’re writing, at least in our process, you’re really visualizing everything. On “A Short Story about Love” I was able to see the shots right away. It was also such a great experience. All the actors you’ve been writing for over the past four years. You know their strengths, but you get to know everyone on a level you wouldn’t otherwise. It was an education.
For the past few seasons, you’ve always done something out there for Episode 19 or 20. Should we expect something fun coming up?
Wyman: The invisible episode!
Pinker: The 19th episode is definitely a special episode, but to say anything else would be spoiling. That would be unfair of us.
Wyman: We can say this: 19 always deviates from the path, but it links up thematically with what is going on. Every single Episode 19 happens for a reason, and this one definitely happens for a reason. It’s the kind of story we must tell.
I noticed that Episode 19 falls on April 20. 4/20 for Walter and his stoner friends.
Pinkner: Exactly! We planned it. The planets aligned.
PHOTOS: L-R: Jasika Nicole, Lance Reddick, John Noble, Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Blair Brown and Seth Gabel. Credit: Andrew Matusik/FOX.