Thursday, September 18, 2008

TV REVIEW: Fringe: "The Same Old Story"

Well, what do you know? -- Truth in advertising!

Fringe's second episode is entitled "The Same Old Story" and it really is the same old story. The plot concerns a baby growing from infant-hood to adulthood at an accelerated pace (a matter of hours). If you're a genre fan, you realize that this storyline closely
mirrors several hours of classic sci-fi television programming. From Christopher Penfold's "Alpha Child" on Space:1999 in 1976 to "The Child" on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1988.

Yet I'm not going to fault Fringe for updating a familiar old chestnut because -- let's be truthful -- that's the name of the game, to a certain extent, in the genre. The X-Files skillfully updated spooky and supernatural tales seen on Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and now Fringe in turn is trotting out the same old conventions too; attempting to breathe new life into them. I have no fault with that idea in theory. What bothers me, rather, is the piss-poor execution.

I see precious little here to alter my diagnosis of last week that Fringe is X-Files lite; in other words: X-Files without the subtlety, nuance, intelligence, or good writing. In my blog of last week, I enumerated six similarities between Fringe and X-Files in terms of setting, characterization, milieu (the FBI) and even story arc. This week, my biggest complaints involve the characters.

First, let's tackle Peter Bishop (played by Joshua Jackson). He's supposed to be a genius, and boasts an IQ of 190 (according to "Same Old Story.") Yet throughout this story, the teleplay has Peter asking stupid questions. "How'd you do that?" What's going on?" "Why are we here?" Part of being a genius is the capacity to employ deductive reasoning, isn't it? (That eliminates "How'd you do that?" as a valid question. Instead he should have said something along the lines of "What aren't you telling me?") I don't mind that he's constantly asking questions in general, but they should be smart questions. The answer to "why are we here?" is obvious even to a dullard: simply "your expertise is required. So is your father's" I could figure that out just from context, and I certainly don't have a 190 IQ. So why is Peter asking? Why can't he figure it out from contextual clues?

Peter's Dad, Doctor Bishop, has also settled into an annoying rut. He's the "funny" insane guy who is dead serious and sane when the script requires him to be; and funny and nuts when there needs to be comic-relief. I call this cliche "cutsie-poo insane." One minute we're supposed to take all of the good doctor's exposition as gospel (and as accurate!) and then the script turns around and has him mouth nutty, objectionable things. It's just not very good writing. In a word, it's contrived.

As for Olivia, I find her dull as dishwater. I acknowledge it; this is just my personal bias: I don't find the actress either attractive or convincing. Objectively, all I can say about her is that she has approximately zero chemistry with Joshua Jackson.

"The Same Old Story" involves our old friend: the mutant of the week; one introduced in a creepy prologue (just like an X-Files creepy prologue!). This story type should be familiar to you if you ever watched The X-Files. This week on Fringe, the villain is a hyper-aging man who must extract and eat the portion of the brain housing the pituitary of his victims so as to remain young and decelerate the aging process. On The X-Files, we were introduced to Tooms, a mutant who had to ingest human livers to maintain his metabolism ("Squeeze," "Tooms"). In "2Shy" we saw a a killer who could not produce adipose and other fatty materials, so he had to ingest the fatty tissue of women to remain alive.

Again, not a one-for-one match: but the idea of a genetic mutant "stealing" what he needs to biologically survive is one that is very familiar from many repetitions on The X-Files. "The Same Old Story" is...again...the same old story. But once more, my problem is not the derivative nature of it, it's the rotten execution.

Take for example the resolution. The episode ends with an unforced confession from the aged killer in which - on his death bed, literally - he obligingly explains everything to Olivia, the agent pursuing him. The confession is unprovoked firstly, so that it stands out like a sore thumb. Why is he offering this information to a stranger? And secondly, this confession explains the details of the entire show, which takes away what little mystery still existed.

On The X-Files, Mulder or Scully might have speculated about motives or relationships of killers in their case reports...but the answers were opaque. We were left, as viewers to put everything assemble "the truth" for ourselves, based on the input of two points of view (science and belief). Here we get spoon-fed a cliche instead: the talking killer who tells us everything about everything, and robs our imagination.

Maybe that's why "The Same Old Story" is never truly scary. Never actually, much more than a diversion, a freak show. There is no room left for the imagination. One last example of this problem: Bishop discovers that he can "transmit" the last image on the retina of a murdered girl in an attempt to identify her killer. Fascinating idea, right? Well, Fringe doesn't explore the "how" or science of it. Nope, Olivia just goes to Massive Dynamic and immediately acquires a device called an Electronic Pulse Camera which can complete that very task. Lickety-split! Again, we are not invited to participate in the answers or the investigation: just asked to accept a deus ex machina.

It's all very flat, distancing...and unintelligent. But I'm still watching Fringe. At least for a few weeks. To coin a phrase, "I want to believe" it's going to get better. Or, at least, "get smart."


  1. Anonymous5:52 PM

    I was beginning to think I was the only one who felt this way about "Fringe" as many people I know don't see it as the rip-off it is. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous4:37 PM

    I read and appreciated both your reviews of the X-Files movie and the first episode of Fringe, so I was looking forward to this one.

    I, like you, am trying to give this show a few episodes before making a final judgment, since I don't want to be just an X-Files fan nitpicking on a new show, but it just seems to be getting worse and worse.

    I would say that, besides the characters' flaws you've indicated, there are still so many rip-off elements that is, at times, embarrassing. Another episode of The X-Files that you forgot to mention, which had a similar story, was Hungry with the brain-eating teenager. But what about the attempt to manufacture something resembling the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully using the typical gesture that made them famous (the brushing of hands, emphasized by the camera) in the bench scene? Or the argument that Olivia had a relationship with her FBI partner she was not supposed to have (which is bad fanfiction, not even reality)? Or the line "You joined the FBI because you thought you could make a difference", same line Scully had in her very first scene in the pilot? Or the soldier-experiments that sound so familiar to the lowest form of X-Files mytharc, the supersoldiers?

    But most of all, what annoys me about this show is how it is absurd in its attempt to pass as clever science what is effectively a jumble of non-sense. Not to mention the procedures: why is Olivia allowed to do all she does? how can they just take corpses and patients out of hospitals and into a secret lab to perform tests on them? How does Harvard allow a crazy professor to have access to his lab again after years of being convicted and not bat an eyelid?

    I'll give it a couple of more episodes, but it's not looking good right now.


  3. Hey K!

    I totally agree with you.

    I would MUCH prefer that "Fringe" were an exciting, scary, thrilling show that stands alone.

    I'd much rather write a positive review of a good series than point out these problems in a bad series.

    I don't want to be perceived as just rotely defending The X-Files either.

    Honestly, I don't have a horse in this race. All I can say is that - quality wise, one show is incredibly creative and fresh (The X-Files) and the other -- so far -- is a disaster (Fringe).

    I guess people will just say I'm an X-Files fan, but though I admire the series deeply, that's not why I'm pointing out the flaws in Fringe.

    I'm doing it for reasons of intellectual honesty. How can people not see what a rip-off Fringe is?

    Fringe is - frankly - pretty terrible so far. I just can't believe how poorly executed it is; and how much it appropriates from X-Files canon.

    You're right about the super-soldiers.

    You're right about "Hungry."

    (There's also an episode, "Teliko" about a mutant stealing pituitary glands, right?)

    You're right about the efforts to make a Mulder/Scully style relationship using a familiar visual shorthand.

    If "Fringe" had aired in 1999, people would have received it the way they received Burning Zone, Prey, Sleepwalkers of even Strange World (which I liked!).

    In other words, they'd be calling Fringe exactly what it is: an X-Files rip-off.

    In 2008 (almost 2009), the memory is short, apparently, and most people -- even critics, -- are unwilling to call a spade a spade.

    Also, the marketing for Fringe - the interviews and even some reviews - have been pounding home the idea that this is NOT an X-Files rip-off. I mean, they explicitly say that.

    Which just goes to prove that the show is EXACTLY a rip-off of The X-Files and even the creators know it.

    So much so that they "hyped" this message (and our cowed critical press picked it up without a thought or judgement). We are victims of a Jedi Mind Trick.

    Keep up the thoughtful analysis; keep noting the comparisons.

    We don't blindly have to accept sloppy writing or derivative storytelling. We should demand that TV be better than that.

    My prediction at this point is that Fringe won't get a second season. People like you and I were wary after the bad pilot, but generous enough of spirit to wait and watch and hope for something good. Generally, I'm an optimist. I'd rather look for the good than attack the bad.

    But that patience is going to wear out soon for a lot of viewers.

    Especially after the terrible second episode.



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