Let’s Get Weird: The Evolution of Fringe

It’s certainly no secret that science-fiction shows have a tough time gaining traction on network television. Networks have dabbled with the sci-fi genre throughout the years to frequently mixed results. It’s worth noting that the most well respected sci-fi series, Battlestar Galatica, spent the vast majority of its run on, of course, the Syfy channel.

For every time the networks stumble into a smash success (think Lost or The X-Files), there’s far more instances of pretty impressive train wrecks (think Firefly or the interminably horrendous FlashForward). Some of the shows that fail are quality shows that just fail to latch on to an audience. (Cut to someone writing Firefly fan fiction while crying over pizza rolls.)

However, there are far more shows that fail simply because they are attempting to be broad-based network shows using extremely esoteric content. In the days of television before 450 channels and four tuner DVRs, a science fiction show could captivate an audience that really wasn’t sure what was possible. Nowadays, if a sci-fi show wants to be successful on a network, it either has to go way off the reservation with engaging mythology (Lost) or use science fiction merely as a backdrop for a dynamic love story, government conspiracy, or another broad, eyeball catching concept (The X-Files).

This brings us to the curious case of Fox’s Fringe. J.J. Abrams latest foray into the sci-fi genre arrived on the scene with a lot of potential fanfare. With network level production values, captivating actors, and a well done pilot, Fringe had the opportunity to carve out another place in the network television sci-fi pantheon.

What happened? Instead of truly embracing the mythology, the show attempted to make their show into more of a procedural cop drama. The result was a lukewarm critical reception, and even less warm ratings. It’s difficult to not consider the arc of Fringe‘s five seasons and not wonder what would have happened if they “went for it” right out of the gate. Would they have more viewers or less? Would there be more seasons beyond this upcoming final season? Obviously, we’ll never know how J.J. Abrams’ decision to make Fringe another procedural in a land with far too many affected the shows reception.

While everyone collectively shrugged at the first season of Fringe, Abrams suddenly realized that his shows are infinitely better when they embrace the strange mythology beyond the series. Starting with season two, Fringe began to embrace the weird. There still was some case of the week elements, but a lot of the show started to focus on the idea of a parallel universe attempting to destroy the prime universe by using a group of shape-shifters (What?!).

This increased focus on the mythology of the show led to the introduction of a fairly risky gambit: Having actors play alternative versions of themselves. Some characters only underwent slight tweaks (Broyles is still Broyles), but several characters completely changed their personas. John Noble goes from being someone on the edge of being in a mental institution to the cold, calculating Secretary of Defense for the United States. His continued exclusion from the Emmys has become a yearly crusade among all fans of the show. It’s extremely difficult to do what these actors do, yet they pull it off in a completely believable way. Poor Joshua Jackson is the only one who doesn’t get to show off his acting agility. For now, he will have to be satisfied with being the linchpin for the entire series.

Even though ratings have consistently declined throughout its first four seasons, Fringe has been able to stay on air in part because of the dedication of its fans and increased critical support. However, a strong, dedicated fan base and increased critical support have tied in directly to Fringe’s decision to get weird. As the fifth season arrives, it’s safe to assume that the weirdness won’t stop since we are headed to the year 2036. Dystopian future? Weird, bald men controlling the world? People encased in amber? Now that’s the weird Fringe I want to see.