Thursday, September 25, 2008

TV REVIEW: Fringe: "The Ghost Network"

On week three, the new Fox genre series Fringe continues to lurch wildly from one X-Files-type narrative to another in search of some defining style or plotting. Worse, it keeps coming up short in the actual science department. The coup de grace, however is that this week's episode, "The Ghost Network," reveals a format "hardening-of-the-arteries" as well. Just three installments in on this new series and the attentive viewer can already detect and chart a repeating, predictable and tiresome formula, or "pattern," if you will.

Let's start with the X-Files riff that informs the subject matter (because that's always fun, and sadly, obvious). "The Ghost Network" deals with a man who is experiencing psychic visions of terrorist attacks. He is actually receiving information mentally about the crime, via a psychic wavelength that Dr. Bishop terms "The Ghost Network." For X-Files episodes in which people inexplicably experience strange psychic visions of the latest and most dangerous crimes (including child abduction or murder), I refer you just off the top of my head to "Oubliette," "Blind" and the latest feature film, "I Want To Believe."

Yet in fairness, Fringe utilizes the idea of a psychic connection a little differently than these examples; it attempts to explain, specifically, that the psychic visions are merely communications signals on a different wave-length; one utilized by the secret Conspiracy. Where the X-Files often endowed loners, losers and misfits with psychic powers, thus examining their "outsider" status in our society, Fringe begins with this tack (in a scene at St. Ames Cathedral in which the psychic confesses to a fear that the Devil is sending him dreams), but then drops that tangent like a hot potato in favor of a conspiracy-oriented tale. Honestly, this is the least rip-offish of the first three Fringe episodes. It starts out familiar, then takes a turn. So give it a pass there. It's not like Teliko's stealing pituitary glands this week, at least.

The problem is that Fringe only skims the surface of an interesting idea, and comes up short on the actual science on display. Let me point out two basic goofs. Early on, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) rattles off the names of a few drugs that his father, Dr. Bishop is concocting at the lab for self-medication. Peter terms them "psychotics." The drug names he rattles off, however, are the generics for Xanax and Paxil, if I caught them right. Those aren't psychotics. A genius with a 190 IQ wouldn't make that simple a mistake, would he? I mean, I caught the error and my IQ is a lot lower. (A lot lower...).

Secondly, while conducting brain surgery with a drill (and we see a pool of blood flowing as the drill cuts), Dr. Bishop fails to administer a local anesthetic to his patient. Remarkably, the patient doesn't even wince as the drill whirs deep into his skull. Bishop administers a sedative, mind you, but that's not the same thing. What is this, Awake?

When Fringe fails to convey accurate information on routine subjects such as psychiatric drugs and surgical procedure, you have to wonder about the integrity of the series. And seriously, this episode is muddled beyond belief. Are we to believe that the people behind the Pattern are using "The Ghost Network" to communicate about terrorist attacks and the like? If that's the case, have they wired all their cell phones to operate on "The Ghost Network." (Can you hear me now?)

I mean, we see the psychic man reporting cell phone conversations at a station miles away, and are told he has accessed the Ghost Network band...so that could only means that the perpetrators have Ghost-tuned their cell phones. Correct? Perhaps I'm missing something, but this just seems...silly to me. Fringe establishes that there is a ghost communications network, and that the psychic is tuning into it, but this episode doesn't make clear who is actually using the network and how they do it, except that they're bad and behind some kind of technology exchange. But what mechanism are they using? Adapted cell phones? Do both sides (people) in the exchange have these new phones, or just one? Again, the ideas are superficial that they don't bear up under the slightest scrutiny.

My biggest concern about "The Ghost Network" -- by far -- is that it seems to indicate a creative rut. Here's the outline of Fringe episodes so far:

1. There is a strange and/or horrific attack in shocking prologue. (Plane attack in pilot; motel room fertilization in "The Same Old Story," bus attack in "Ghost Network")

2. Dr. Bishop has cutsie-poo insane moment (here over pancakes and pianos; last week over car seat heaters)

3. Mystery clue dropped as to Peter's background (here in a diner; last week in a comment by Dr. Bishop)

4. Olivia investigates case and ties it to "the pattern," after making mention of her relationship with Agent Scott and how she feels betrayed (on a park bench last week; here at a funeral).

5. The case of the week involves something paranormal or "fringe" Dr. Bishop worked on once directly (but because of his cutsie-poo insanity has conveniently forgotten about, until it comes up in this new context). Also conveniently, Bishop knows of a functional device built just for solving this case. Last week ("The Same Old Story"), it was a machine that could read images from retinas. This week, the good doctor happens to have a kind of helmet stored away in his old house that can adjust brainwaves. By far, this is the worst element of the show so far: the deus ex machina of the week.

6. Case leads back to Massive Dynamic. Always.

7. Olivia interviews Blair Brown at Massive Dynamic, and she "denies all knowledge." Why doesn't Olivia just arrest this evasive exec? She's now been tied circumstantially to three cases. How about haulin' her ass down to HQ for questioning?

8. The case of the week is solved, but many questions remain about Massive Dynamic and the conspiracy/Pattern , so we can have future episodes that tell us just as little.

9. Epilogue: something's going on with John Scott(Mark Valley), the dead FBI agent, at Massive Dynamic.

I look forward to episode four, when I'm sure that this creative rut will be destroyed, and Fringe will go in a new, exciting direction and not rely on the same plot. Right? Right?

Seriously, to re-mediate itself, Fringe need only fix one or two of these elements next week. How about Dr. Bishop not have a miracle device (or know of a miracle device) at the ready? How about a crime of the week not involve Massive Dynamic or the Pattern? How about Olivia investigating a case that is new to Dr. Bishop, not an old case he's forgotten about (then conveniently remembered)?

Okay, I'm sure people are going to say that I'm picking on Fringe. So I do want to say something nice. Joshua Jackson is doing a more-than credible job in this series. He's getting better at delivering one-liners, and has developed a nice way of puncturing the mock-profundity with his funny dialogue delivery. Seriously -- and this may merely be a symptom of how bad Fringe is -- Joshua Jackson is the bright spot of every episode so far. He makes the show watchable, and occasionally amusing.

Fringe reveals so little improvement over the last two weeks that I may have to impose my old Supernatural rule: I will stay tuned for five weeks, and if things don't get better after that spell, I'm outta there!

So Fringe gets two more times up at bat as far as I'm concerned. Oh heck, I'm a nice guy. I'll set the bar even lower. If the fourth episode next week does not involve an old case of Dr. Bishop and the old man actually has to invent something instead of relying on old research, I'll double my watching duration to ten weeks.

That's a challenge, Fringe. Break the pattern!

1 comment:

  1. Darin Morgan is listed as a Consulting Producer on the show... I hope that they actually produce a script of his before the show is cancelled (and that may be VERY soon). Although they may not be able to handle poking fun at themselves the way X-FILES and MILLENNIUM were able to do - FRINGE is pretty much already a parody of X-FILES, anyway, and they're doing the material straight.

    His unproduced script for NIGHT STINKER would've been nice to see... might have gotten people to actually watch the show, if only for that hour.

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