Anticipation can be a curse. Fringe was one of the returning shows I was most looking forward to, if only to see how the powers that be would write themselves out of the corner of having made a character disappear from existence, thereby creating a new reality. It turns out that “Neither Here Not There” wasn’t interested in writing Fringe out of that corner. In fact, it wasn’t interested in doing much of anything really, kicking off the show’s fourth season with a semi-dud that felt more like filler than a season premiere.

Over the past three seasons, Fringe has built up a complex, emotionally-rich narrative, one that made the audience care about not only the characters but also what happened to them. It seemed foolish (and needlessly confusing) to throw it away at the end of last season’s finale in the sci-fi equivalent of “it was all a dream,” and it still seems foolish now. I was invested in the old reality, the one where Peter existed, and I’m not sold on this new one yet.

If anything, I was shocked at how little effort the show made to make me care about the new timeline. Viewers were plopped down unceremoniously in the middle of a case, with very few of their questions answered. What has Fringe division been doing since its inception? Doesn’t matter. How does the truce between the universes work and how was it brokered? Doesn’t matter. What’s happening Over There? Doesn’t matter. What’s up with Massive Dynamic? Doesn’t matter. What’s going on with images of Peter flashing all over the place? Nope, definitely not going to answer that one.

I’m not sure that I care about these images. Walter may or may not be hallucinating. So what? That doesn’t tell me anything about his character. In fact, the whole Peter situation was bizarrely handled. Either he was erased from the timeline or he wasn’t. These flashes of him make it seem as if Fringe is rewriting its own rulebook, with no explanation as to what these flashes are all about.

As for the episode’s case, it utterly failed to keep me interested. It was so thin and uncomplicated that it felt like an afterthought, and even then, it didn’t answer any questions. We still have no clue what’s going on with these “human” shapeshifters. We don’t what they’re planning or for whom they’re working. We don’t even have an inkling of an idea. Answering no questions is no way to build a mystery; it’s a way to annoy your audience. At best, I can conjecture that there’s some new big bad intent on destroying the universes, but I have no clue why.

Over Here’s Lincoln Lee was our window into this case, and as a character we’ve only met once, he wasn’t the best way to introduce us to a new reality. He’s so thinly drawn that I felt it nearly impossible to sympathize with him on any level. All we know about him is that he’s straitlaced and he cares about his (now dead) partner. What little effort the show made to make me care about him and the Peter-less, colder version of Olivia was laughable, steeped in the silliest of clichés and predictable plot points, from Lincoln getting involved on a case where he didn’t have jurisdiction (because of his dead partner), to Lincoln and Olivia finding common ground (over dead partners), to Olivia pulling strings to get a body released for burial (the body being that of Lincoln’s dead partner). Even their dialogue seemed tired and hackneyed. Heck, at one point, Olivia spouted this lovely platitude: “Sometimes answers lead to more questions.” Wow! What a pearl of wisdom!

This less humanized version of Olivia isn’t one I care much about. The writers were intent on hammering home the idea that she’s lonely sans Peter, but all the while, I couldn’t help thinking, “Um, Astrid is your friend, right?” Unfortunately, even Anna Torv joined in on this ham-fistedness. She completely overplayed her two encounters with Alt-Olivia, contrasting Olivia’s loneliness and irritation with Alt-Olivia’s cockiness to an almost clown-like degree.

Speaking of the latter of those two encounters, talk about a wasted opportunity! After more than fifty minutes of a pretty boring episode, the show had one last chance to make me care, to make think it was all worthwhile, and it was totally squandered. When Olivia took Lincoln to the Bridge, he met not his own doppelganger, but Alt-Olivia! Lincoln and Alt-Lincoln meeting would have been a fantastic way to draw both characters into the story, to make them seem as if they have a stake in what happens next. But the two Lincolns never met, and instead I was left thinking why Our Lincoln never considered that the Bridge could be an elaborate hoax involving Olivia’s identical twin and a large projection screen. As a result, Lincoln still feels like an outsider to whatever is happening in this reality, and since he’s the viewer’s window into that reality, it all seems so cold and distant, and I have trouble caring about it.

It’s almost as if Fringe’s writers expected viewers to care about the new reality simply because it contained familiar characters. But that kind of attitude stems from the erroneous belief that characters matter more than plot. (It’s up there with “show don’t tell” as one of those storytelling mantras that needs to die.) I care about the characters because of what happened to them. I care about the Olivia Dunham who had to live with the belief that John Scott was a traitor while she investigated ZFT. I don’t care about the Olivia Dunham who always assumed that her partner died a hero (though “Neither Here Nor There” isn’t clear on anything ZFT-related). I care about the Walter Bishop who crossed over to save his son’s double, sparking a war between the universes. I don’t care about the Walter Bishop who started that war because…um, oh wait, they didn’t even explain that! Fringe without Peter still seems like a thought experiment, kind of like the Friends episode “The One That Could Have Been,” and not at all like a legitimate, serious direction in which to take the show.

I waited until I saw some of the results of this thought experiment before I passed judgment on it, and I’ve concluded that I’m ready for it to be over. I did enjoy some bits of “Neither Here Nor There.” I liked the new yellow credits, as well as Astrid’s involvement in the episode; Jasika Nicole is the show’s secret weapon. The stuff involving the Observers also interested me, perhaps because it’s the only real link to the old reality. Nevertheless, nothing in the episode made me think that establishing a new, Peter-less timeline was in any way a good idea, and on top of that “Neither Here Nor There” was, to put it bluntly, a boring episode where nothing really happened. It squandered all the storytelling momentum from the previous season, and it left me more confused that I was at the end of season 3’s finale. Unless the show can get back that momentum and give me good reasons to care about the new reality that it has established, I’m not confident that this is going to be a great, or even good, season of Fringe.

What did you think? Am I being too harsh on the show? Did you find something to care about in the new reality? Feel free to sound off in the comments.