Let it never be said that Fringe doesn’t take risks. Sometimes those risks pay off handsomely, like season 3’s dual-universe conceit. Sometimes those risks have mixed results, like season 4’s alternate timeline. And sometimes, those risks fall flat on their face, like season 5’s dystopian, Observer-controlled future.
Last season, I wrote a scathing review of “Letters of Transit.” I stand by the sentiment of that review. Dystopian setting or not, “Letters of Transit” was an awful episode of Fringe. I can’t say the same for the season 5 premiere, the ridiculously-named “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11.” TTUM11, though predictably full of plot holes, wasn’t entirely tone deaf. At worst, it was just insipid and kind of boring, which is to be expected for a premiere that has to set the stage for an entirely new storyline.
But I’m not here to review TTUM11. I’m here to give my thoughts on what the season 5 premiere means for the show, both going forward and looking back. After a little soul-searching, I’ve come to a conclusion: Fringe isn’t for me anymore.
People talk a lot about the value of “character-based” dramas, which always struck me as odd, because how can one have a drama without characters? In practice, “character-based” has become a way to distinguish run-of-the-mill procedurals from other dramas, the former of which are often regarded as not doing strong character work. Many procedurals actually do offer some great character material, but the key thing is that viewers, creators, and critics put a lot of emphasis on characters. This is great, because I like interesting, well-drawn characters. Unfortunately, that emphasis often comes at the expense of caring about things like plot and setting.
Fringe is a prime example. The characters that we’ve come to know after the past five seasons – Peter, Olivia, Walter, and Astrid – are still around, even 24 years into the future. But in jumping to the year 2036, the old stories and settings have been left behind, exchanged for new ones. The new story: a clichéd tale of a resistance movement rising up against their oppressors. The new setting: a bog-standard dystopian future that has nothing to say about our society. It exists merely as a set of obstacles for our heroes to overcome. Why these particular obstacles over any others?
Even if this future sparked some flicker of interest in me, I’d still be reluctant to become invested in it for two reasons. Firstly, it bears almost no relation to the 86 other non-“Letters of Transit” episodes of the show. It’s as if the first four seasons have been forgotten entirely. Say what you will about season 4, but at least the season’s narrative took its cues from past events, even as it subtly rewrote them. Secondly, Fringe has shown its willingness to futz around with time travel and erase both past and future events. There’s no sense in investing in a future that could be rewritten or forgotten five episodes from now.
The bottom line is this: I can excuse plot holes and contrivances, of which Fringe has had many over the years. What I can’t excuse are poorly-framed stories in which I have no investment. Fringe continues to have amazing performances – seriously, just hand John Noble a freakin’ Emmy already! – and stellar camera work. However, the stories it wants to tell now are stories in which I’m not interested. Thus, I approach the final 12 episodes of this series without much confidence, hanging on because I’ve come this far and might as well see things through to the end.
As I’ve stopped doing weekly episode reviews, I won’t be reviewing Fringe on a weekly basis anymore. But I might give my thoughts at a couple more points throughout the season, especially if my opinion changes substantially. And for a show as unpredictable as Fringe, that’s entirely within the realm of possibility.