‘Fringe’ finds its footing
The low-slung motel looked like the sort of place Norman Bates might open as a north-of-the-border expansion of the old family business. The roadside sign promised “TELEPHONES” in every room but the brownish-orange carpeting and peeling paint were nothing to call home about. The radioactive Russian cosmonaut in the parking lot, however, was something you don’t see everyday.
“Who comes up with this stuff?” asked a smirking Joshua Jackson, one of the stars of the Fox series “Fringe,” which returns tonight with the premiere of its second season of conspiracies and codes, parallel worlds and evil corporations, mad scientists and con men. “Seriously, who are these people?”
Jackson was waiting for the camera to start rolling again on a bright, crisp afternoon during an on-location shoot for a mid-season episode of “Fringe.” Nearby, the show’s other stars made idle chit-chat or had their makeup checked while a quartet of extras outfitted in FBI haz-mat suits practiced their task -- wheeling around a shiny metallic casket with ominous radiation stickers and assorted pseudo-scientific warnings in Russian. Well, everyone involved hoped they were pseudo-scientific warnings.
“Can we get a translator and find out what this writing means, specifically?” asked Jon Cassar, director of the episode and an industry veteran with 59 episodes of “24" on his resume. “Maybe it says ‘Do not open until Christmas’ or ‘Watch ‘The Simpsons’ on Sunday night,’ knowing Fox.”
The mood on the set was upbeat and with good reason. A few hours later, the cast -- led by Anna Torv as FBI agent Olivia Dunham, John Noble as the kooky, scene-stealing Dr. Walter Bishop, and Jackson as slippery genius Peter Bishop -- would be at a party celebrating the release of the first season on DVD and, more importantly, there is a strong expectation that the show is poised to finally realize its often cited potential.
“The second year is much tighter,” says Blair Brown, who plays the mysterious Nina Sharp, who may or may not be the villain of the show. “The writing is wittier, more complicated but also there’s clarity to the stories and character. And we are all speaking with quite different voices. The rhythm of the show is clear now.”
Early on, “Fringe” was neither fish nor fowl (nor was it amphibian, like those strange frogs in the opening sequence). The show possessed the same trench-coats-and-autopsies ethos as Fox’s signature 1990s sci-fi show “The X-Files,” but it was also informed by more recent, purer procedurals such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and even “Bones,” which teams a federal agent and laboratory oddballs but with far more flirting.
Lance Reddick, a tall, lean actor whose withering scowl is known to viewers of “The Wire,” “Lost” and “Oz,” portrays Phillip Broyles, the federal agent who supervises the “Fringe Division,” which investigates teleportation, telekinesis and, well, anything that would have been filed under the letter “X” in Fox Mulder’s basement office.
Reddick said as cast members found their characters and the writers sharpened their intentions, “Fringe” became its own series last season as opposed to a well-polished collage of other shows.
“We found who we were in episode 10, the episode where Olivia got kidnapped,” Reddick said. “We were trying to hedge our bets and trying to be too many kinds of shows at once. I’m not saying we got rid of the procedural element because each episode still is on a case -- a case in terms of the quote-unquote police work -- but it’s not formulaic, not like the early episodes. What keeps the show most watchable is the fact that it is character-based.”
Those characters have kept critics on the side of the show even when “Fringe” left viewers rolling their eyes or scratching their heads. Noble, in particular, has been a sensation as the mad scientist Bishop, who was extricated from a mental hospital to help solve the mysteries of fringe phenomena, which are becoming more frequent as part of a worldwide pattern that is a key thread in the show’s larger tapestry.
Critics have been as uniformly kind to Torv, who some call the show’s cipher. Robert Lloyd, reviewing the first season’s finale in The Times, said Torv and show as a whole have “soulfulness of a dry, cool, wintry variety” and said Torv is fine amid the more vivid cast members since “much of the drama is located in her ‘Alice in Wonderland’ eyes.”
In person, Torv is much more reserved than her two lead costars. “I’m all serious, they have all the fun,” she said with a wink of her buttoned-down character but perhaps referring a bit to herself as well. She said the job of working on a creepy sci-fi show does have its perks however: “The other day Olivia got to eat worms. So there was that. . . . “
The 31-year-old Aussie (who last year married Mark Valley, who played her partner in the pilot of “Fringe”) said she is different from her fellow cast members in one major way -- she doesn’t enjoy the slowly unfolding mysteries of the show, she’d prefer to know where everything is going now so she could modulate her performances.
“This is a completely different world we jump into and I’d love to be able to plot out for myself where it’s going,” Torv said. “I think I’m the only one, though, after having this conversation the other day. I think some of the others who have so much more experience than I do, they like making it up as we go.”
By all appearances, nobody knows for sure where “Fringe” is headed. J.J. Abrams created “Fringe” with his “Star Trek” collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, and like his hit ABC show “Lost,” the Fox series has a sometimes-dizzying mythology to sort out. The challenge is stitching together the big story arcs but not scaring away casual viewers who want an hour of digestible science fiction.
“That’s the monster challenge in a show like this, how do you do a show that has mythology ongoing, a continuum, but is also somewhat stand-alone?” Abrams said. “For me, last season the introduction of the character Mr. Jones, played by Jared Harris [the son of the late Richard Harris], was the turning point. I think it felt like there was another point on the map. Now we know where we’re going. Now it’s not just sort of seemingly arbitrary, random stuff. Ironically, that and later episodes actually ended up connecting to things that we did in the early stories. It all started to feel inevitable, that we had a mythology and arc that we were following.”
This season, “Fringe” will delve further into the relationship and history between Walter and Peter Bishop. There will also be a more complete portrait of the elusive William Bell, a linchpin figure in the show’s mythology who was revealed in last season’s finale (played by Leonard Nimoy) alive and well on an alternate earth where the World Trade Center stills stands in New York.
“Any time you go back and look at the very first episode of almost any series there’s a charming incongruity to it,” Abrams said. “It’s not the show you’ve come to know. It’s all promise but no clear trajectory. It’s those next few episodes that kind of determine where it’s going. I think frankly those early episodes of the first season we were on shakier ground. By the third, fourth, fifth episodes we began to find our footing. And now this season, we start running, I think.”
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)