Friday, October 17, 2008

TV REVIEW: Fringe: "Power Hungry"

The genre convention of an individual who can harness electricity (either accidentally or with an agenda), has informed many a TV series over the years. From Brimstone's "Executioner" and Reaper's "Charged" to Smallville's pilot back in 2001, audiences have seen this notion portrayed frequently. Even series regulars and recurring characters have sometimes been imbued with the ability to control electricity. Think of Brennan Mulwray on Mutant X, Gwen Raiden on Angel or Johnny B. on Misfits of Science.

This week, the new Fox series Fringe goes blandly where those other series have tread before in the underwhelming "Power Hungry." This story involves a down-on-his luck loser, James Meegar, who accidentally causes electrical equipment (like elevators...) to malfunction; sometimes with fatal results.

"Power Hungry" opens with a classic X-Files-style scenario and introduction. James (a disdained or discredited outsider/loser: an X-Files archetype) fails at a pitch to woo a lovely receptionist. His strange powers run amok commensurate with his embarrassment, and he accidentally causes an elevator to fall several stories...and crash. James alone survives the incident, which is then investigated by the Fringe science team as a "power surge of unknown origin."

All I can say (politely...) regarding this sequence is that -- in pacing, in characterization, in set-up and in visualization -- it is so dramatically reminiscent of an X-Files prologue you half-expect to hear Mark Snow's signature theme song at the end of it. The best part of the prologue? We get a cameo from last week's Man in Black, The "Observer." Nice continuity.

Again, it is not necessary to rag on Fringe for dredging up old, time-worn stories. That's what genre series do, to a large extent. It's not the story that matters; it's the handling of it, the vetting of it. And it is here, alas, that Fringe once more selects the rote, familiar path rather than something bold. fresh or, if you pardon the pun, energizing. Remember my list of Fringe cliches (already cemented after five weeks on the air)? Well, here's a refresher, applied to "Power Hungry."

1. We get another of Dr. Bishop's patented cutesie-
poo insane moments. He minces around on a carpet and tries to shock Peter with a finger of static electricity. As usual Dr. Bishop is deadly serious when the script requires him to be; amusing when it doesn't. He has the most selective and "useful" brand of insanity ever!

2. The mystery of the week once more involves - as Dr. Bishop actually states this time - "a case" where he has "seen this" [human-created power surges] "before." Yep, he worked on a study years ago involving pigeons (!) that could track individual human electrical patterns. This is more than helpful, because the Deus Ex Machina of the week involves Bishop up-fitting pigeons to seek out and find fugitive James Meegar. Again, for a series that concerns fringe science, there is precious little scientific research actually going on here. Every single case seems to involve something Dr. Bishop already figured out in the 1970s and 1980s. This means that once Dr. Bishop figures out the problem of the week, he now merely references an old case and - voila - mystery solved. I can't fully express how dull and stupid this aspect of Fringe is. It might be more interesting if Fringe was actually set in the 1970s and 1980s, and concerned Dr. Bishop learned all this very interesting stuff in the first place.

3. The case is related to the myth-arc, or as Fringe terms it, "The Pattern." We know this is so, because the Observer is present at the elevator incident. And also because John Scott -- the dead agent played by Mark Valley -- was researching the case before he died. And that's another cliche too: John Scott shows up and brings up conflicted feelings in Olivia Dunham, our hero.

Hey! You know something? I just realized, I could write this show in my sleep. Anyone could. The ingredients are by now so repetitive, so familiar, so utterly predictable that the series appears to be running on automatic pilot. All I can say is: I hope this means J.J. Abrams is working on Star Trek...

The rote, robotic aspects of Fringe (meaning the story lines...) might be forgiven if the characters were as dynamic, as human, as individual and real as, say, Mulder and Scully. But they're not. I've warmed to Peter (as played by Joshua Jackson), but the screenplays continue to make this "genius" an absolute idiot. Why is he constantly asking how things are possible if he's such a genius? Fringe seriously needs to stop using this character as the "spur" for exposition, and endow him an intelligent, imaginative and curious side. As he is now, Peter just gets to quip a little, look pissed off, and set-up his Dad's scientific explanations. It's getting old. Real. Fast.

But by far, the series' greatest deficit is Anna Torv in the lead role. She projects no real humanity as Olivia Dunham. Take for instance, her final interaction in "Power Hungry" with James Meegar, the loser with the power to harness electricity. Poor James has just had mechanical implants drilled into his brain and has essentially been tortured. And this is after accidentally killing his boss, his mother, and his would-be girlfriend! James is being loaded in an ambulance when Olivia approaches him. Desperate, James begs her to tell him what the hell is going on; what is happening to him. She doesn't. Instead, she coldly explains she has "questions" for him. Olivia a human being? Or was she built by Dr. Bishop too? As viewers, we need to know the answer to this question: does Olivia have any sympathy for James? For the fact that he was made a human guinea pig in the larger "Pattern?" Or does she not care a whit? Is Olivia so single-minded and obsessed with the case that she can no longer see the human picture?

One way or the other, as viewers we need to know what Olivia feels. I want to identify with her emotions and point of view, regardless of that point of view. I want her to be more than a cipher who each week "fronts" an investigation and then brings down the perp. My newest recommendation to the makers of Fringe is this: ditch Olivia Dunham (and Torv) and re-focus the series entirely on the Bishops, father and son. They are about a million times more interesting (cutesie-poo insanity and all...) than Olivia is.

Sometimes it is useful in a review to compare the approach of one series with another. Allow me do that in closing. The Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles also had a "pattern" to follow (the Terminator feature films), yet the creators of that series have gone out of their way to intelligently and inventively expand that pattern....overturning viewer expectations and making the series wildly unpredictable. Fringe, which is so derivative of The X-Files, has by contrast settled irrevocably into bad cliches, superficial characters, and lazy, derivative stories. In my opinion, Fringe should be canceled now. Terminator should be saved.

1 comment:

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