Fringe has found itself in a tricky position this season as it has tried to establish a brand new timeline, essentially relaunching the show. Has it worked? We’ll take a look after the jump.

This isn’t going to be like the midseason report card I wrote last year, where I was basically just gushing about how good the show was. I’m going to be a little more critical this time around, because, well, there’s a lot more to criticize.

Fringe viewers seem to have split themselves into two camps. The first thinks that the show has made a huge misstep in introducing a new timeline and wants it to revert back to the old one. (Take this review by Ryan McGee as an example.) The second finds the new timeline interesting and is willing to see where it leads. (Take this review by Noel Murray as an example.)

As for me, I have a foot in both camps. I do think it was a mistake to introduce a new timeline. It’s simply an unnecessary complication. Fringe was already complex enough, with its dense mythology and frequent universe-hopping. It didn’t need to add time travel into the mix. Now, the action has to keep pausing to explain how this timeline differs from the old one.

I’m disappointed that I don’t get to spend time with the original versions of the characters, the ones whose experiences I’ve shared in over the course of three seasons. Everyone in the Amber timeline seems like a stranger to me, even though they share many of the same characteristics as their Blue-timeline counterparts. The new versions of the characters, interesting though they may be, simply can’t have the same depth or richness of experience in 7 episodes that the old ones could have in 65.

The original version of Peter, at least, has stuck around, but I’m not terribly impressed with how his story was handled. The fact that a character can simply cease to exist may seem like it raises the stakes, but it actually lowers them. Back in season 2, when Charlie was killed, the stakes were raised, his status as a minor character notwithstanding. There was a sense of finality to his death, because on Fringe, as crazy as things can get, people don’t come back to life. But those rules have gone out the window with the introduction of the new timeline. Now, Alt-Broyles is alive again, and Baby Henry doesn’t exist, even though the former’s death and the latter’s birth were major dramatic events last season. As for Peter, he was written back into the show even more arbitrarily than he was written out: he simply appeared naked in the middle of Reiden Lake, no explanations given! There are no stakes if anything that happens on this show can be undone by a poorly-explained time travel paradox, i.e. if there are no narrative rules. Just as easily as Peter found himself in the Amber timeline, he could find himself back in the Blue one.

All that being said, I don’t think that the new timeline is completely without its merits. I prefer the old versions of the characters, but I do find these new ones compelling, which is a testament to how much good material was in these first seven episodes. “Subject 9,” in particular, did a wonderful job of explaining who exactly this new Olivia and Walter are and where they’re coming from. I’m interested to see all the subtle ways in which these characters have been affected by the absence of Peter in their lives. It’s heartbreaking (in a good way) to see how broken they are without him.

But not all of the character shifts have been subtle. The twist at the end of the midseason finale, “Wallflower” marked the first time that I’ve been genuinely irritated with Fringe since season 3’s “Concentrate and Ask Again.” In my “Wallflower” review, I already wrote about why Nina being evil was a stupid twist, and why it was even stupider if it turns out to be a red herring. To summarize: Nina being evil would require a fundamental personality shift on her part, which makes no sense if the new versions of the characters are only supposed to be affected in subtle ways by Peter’s absence. Furthermore, if Nina isn’t actually evil, then Fringe was just being manipulative in an attempt to drum up interest in its increasingly problematic mythology.

I say that the mythology has become increasingly problematic because I can’t make sense of it anymore. Last season’s big mythological thrust, the quest to save the universes, has been totally forgotten. This season, Fringe hasn’t really taken advantage of the bridge between the universes to tell the sprawling, universe-spanning narrative that it should be telling. Instead, it has focused on a group of weird new shapeshifters with the ability to transform instantly into people they’ve killed. Who are these creatures? Who sent them Over Here? What do they have to do with Nina’s henchmen injecting Olivia with a huge needle? Why should I care? The show hasn’t given any answers.

Up until now, I’ve focused on the new timeline, but this season of Fringe has also had both problems and successes that have little to do with it. I’m not going to mince words: the first three episodes of this season were poorly-scripted (“Neither Here Nor There”), poorly-plotted (“One Night in October”), or both (“Alone in the World”). On the other hand, “And Those We’ve Left Behind” was proof that the show can still deliver a thought-provoking case along with some compelling character work. As the show has shifted to a more procedural direction this season, it’s going to need the cases to be as fascinating as possible, and if it can continue to give us ones as good as the tragic tale of Raymond Green’s time bubbles, then I have confidence in the show going forward.

However, Fringe has still put the majority of its eggs in the “Amber timeline” basket, and I have the feeling that the success of this season will hinge on how well the new timeline works in upcoming episodes. Peter’s quest to get back to the Blue timeline will likely be a major driving force for the next portion of the season, and I can’t really pass judgment on it until I see how it shakes out. Come May, I might be gushing about how Fringe took a set of complex ideas about time travel, identity, and the consequences of one’s actions, and made them work. But I could just as easily be complaining that they fucked it all up big-time.

Grade relative to past performance: C

Grade relative to other TV shows: B

Relative ranking of episodes
As always, this list just reflects my current preferences and is subject to change.

7. Alone in the World (S4E03)
6. Neither Here Nor There (S4E01)
5. One Night in October (S4E02)
4. Subject 9 (S4E04)
3. Wallflower (S4E07)
2. Novation (S4E05)
1. And Those We’ve Left Behind (S4E06)

Fringe will return on January 13th, 2012. That’s a long time to wait, but it’s also a long time to speculate! I look forward to seeing some wacky theories about what the hell is going with this new timeline over the next few months.

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