“I believe you call it love.”
“Existence. Quantum entanglement. Philosopher’s Stone. Psychometry. Viral therapy. Ethereal plane. Gravitons. Time paradox. Psychogenesis. Bilocation. Psychic surgery. Transgenics.”
It honestly seems like only yesterday that my wife and I were looking forward to the first season of a new sci-fi/fantasy television series called “Fringe.” Remarkably, as of this writing we are looking forward to the opening of the fifth season. Even more remarkable is that in four years not only has the series not lost its creative spark or warm human relationships, it’s actually gotten better with a more-coherent, better-integrated plot line than ever before. It is, simply, the best thing on TV.
As you no doubt know by now, even if you don’t watch the show, the Fringe Division is a branch of the FBI that investigates strange and unusual cases, the kinds of cases that involve some of the subjects that preface the show during the opening credits and that I listed at the top of this review. The three main characters are Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a brilliant, tough, resourceful Fringe agent; Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), a brilliant, tough, resourceful civilian consultant to Fringe Division; and Dr. Walter Bishop (John Nobel), a super-brilliant, not-so-tough, but highly resourceful Fringe scientist who spent a good part of his life in a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown from working too hard on things he shouldn’t have been working on. Peter and Walter now both assist Fringe Division on their most-important cases.
In the supporting cast we find Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), the rock-solid head of Fringe Division; Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), the head of Massive Dynamic, the biggest scientific corporation in the universe (the name “Massive Dynamic” being a clever wordplay on “Microsoft”); Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), an FBI assistant to Dr. Bishop whose name may remind you of Philo T. Farnsworth, pioneer inventor in the field of television; and Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel), introduced the previous season, the newest member of the Fringe team. In addition, we find duplicates of these characters in the alternate, or parallel, universe. Then, there’s September (Michael Cerveris), a mysterious, ageless “Observer” who, along with several other Observers, has been watching the behavior of Mankind since, well, forever, and helping maintain a balance in the world. He gets an even bigger role this time around.
Each season the writers have been coming up with new story arcs for the whole twenty-odd episodes, making the entire season into something of an integrated unit, a single narrative from beginning to end. Although there are individual story lines within each episode having to do with peripheral Fringe events, this fourth year involves three primary ideas: (1) Peter’s disappearance and then reappearance; (2) the activities of shapeshifters in our world and the parallel one; and (3) the work of the Observers among us.
Let me explain a bit further: We learned some time ago in the series that a group of people from the Earth’s future, a group known as the Observers, have been watching us throughout history. In the first episode of the Fourth Season, we find that one of these Observers, September, has made a mistake; he has interfered with human development by helping one person, Peter, to live rather than die. Following along the lines of the “butterfly effect,” September and his colleagues realize that allowing one person to live who should have died will affect the outcome of the planet, so September attempts to rectify the issue by erasing Peter altogether. Not killing him but deleting him from existence as though he had never existed at all. Still, the human spirit has a way of persisting, and September soon finds that he couldn’t remove Peter entirely, and Peter somehow finds a way to return to the world. The problem is, once Peter returns with his memories intact, nobody knows him. So, the series spends most of its twenty-odd episodes delving into the lingering dilemma of Peter trying to reestablish himself among his friends and family, who, as I say, have no idea who this stranger is. It’s a wonderful story concept, and the writers have a field day with it.
The rest of the season plays with the two parallel universes more than ever, sprinkling in a healthy dose of weird Fringe adventures along the way. And old villains reappear, since Peter’s disappearance has changed everything. Remember “It’s a Wonderful Life” and how different the world would have been without George Bailey? Same deal here without Peter; everything in the world happened differently without his being in it. Anyway, one of those villains is again David Robert Jones (Jared Harris), up to more mischief than ever.
The season rotates stories involving the parallel universes with stories of other Fringe phenomena, yet no matter how far afield the phenomena appear to get, they always seem related to the show’s central ideas. Moreover, each of the show’s main characters gets at least one episode devoted to him or her. The one involving the two Asrids, “Making Angels,” is particularly touching.
In other words, the executives in charge of Season Four, especially J.J. Abrams as creator and producer, made a good thing better.
Here’s a rundown on the twenty-two episodes involved in Season Four:
1. “Neither Here Nor There”: In a world where no one remembers Peter Bishop, a killer strikes, leaving a trail of translucent corpses.
2. “One Night in October”: In the parallel universe, victims freeze to death from the inside out. In our universe, Walter is haunted by hallucinations.
3. “Alone in the World”: Walter bonds with a boy tied to two freakish deaths.
4. “Subject 9”: Walter and Olivia’s encounter with a Cortexiphan subject leads them to someone they don’t remember…but who remembers them.
5. “Novation”: When the translucent shapeshifters return, Peter astonishes the Fringe team by deciphering their technology.
6. “And Those We’ve Left Behind”: Did Peter’s reappearance disrupt the space-time continuum?
7. “Wallflower”: In 1989 Massive Dynamic turned a desperately ill baby into a human chameleon.
8. “Back to Where You’ve Never Been”: Now a stranger in our universe, Peter asks the Fringe team to help him return home.
9. “Enemy of My Enemy”: Peter recognizes the man who controls the shapeshifters.
10. “Forced Perspective”: A teenage girl draws pictures of deaths before they happen.
11. “Making Angels”: A grumpy Walter deals with two Astrids, two Olivias, and a serial killer.
12. “Welcome to Westfield”: The team gets trapped in a small town.
13. “A Better Human Being”: The team investigates a murder visualized by a mental patient.
14. “The End of All Things”: David Robert Jones manipulates Olivia’s emotions by torturing Nina.
15. “A Short Story about Love”: The team investigates a case involving desiccated corpses.
16. “Nothing Is as It Seems”: The spiny monster on Flight 718 is back…or is it?
17. “Everything in Its Right Place”: Lincoln bonds with his alternate self in the parallel universe.
18. “The Consultant”: Walter crosses the bridge to the parallel universe and finds a shocking conspiracy.
19. “Letters of Transit”: In the year 2036, the Observers have taken over the world. This story idea comes out of nowhere and just as quickly disappears. Perhaps it’s a hint of things to come in Season Five. We’ll see.
20. “Worlds Apart”: Walter and his parallel self make a fateful decision.
21. “Brave New World, Part 1”: Boston commuters who take the train-station escalator spontaneously combust.
22. “Brave New World, Part 2”: The team confronts its ultimate foe, who is using a new energy source to create his own “Brave New World.”
“Fringe” continues to be the most imaginative, most provocative, most compelling show on television.
The WB engineers present Season Four in its original high-definition television broadcast ratio, 1.78:1, on four dual-sided BD50s, using an MPEG-4/AVC encode. The reproduction is not quite as sharp as some theatrical products but it does provide a reasonably clean, clear image, with fairly rich colors, lifelike skin tones, and adequately strong contrasts for a TV program. On television in high def, the series looked a little more pale and less well defined than it does on Blu-ray, yet in both cases it is better than most such TV shows. As with so much network television, the producers used a digital camera (according to IMDb an Arri Alexa) to shoot the film, so expect a somewhat flat perspective. Nevertheless, the PQ comes off pretty well.
Warners Bros. offer the soundtrack in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which produces a pleasing reproduction of dynamics, impact, and bass response, although the treble still seems slightly restricted. In fact, there is such a wide dynamic range that the sound, particularly the music, is sometimes overpowering. The surrounds convey a convincingly truthful array of peripheral noises, even if the engineers don’t use them as much as I’d like. Dialogue, as always, continues to be anchored out in the center channel, but no matter. For a television show, I don’t think I’ve heard better sound.
As always, the Blu-ray set contains a number of extras, in the case of Season Four located on disc four rather than scattered over the four discs. These special featurettes include “A World Without Peter,” about twelve minutes on the impact of Peter’s absence from the world; “The Observers,” again about twelve minutes, this time on the mythology of the mysterious people who seem to exist in all time; “Beyond the Comic Book,” about four minutes with actor Joshua Jackson and the producers on the comic book “Beyond the Fringe: Peter and the Machine,” and an excerpt from the book; “The Culture of Fringe,” some twenty-nine minutes of discussion about the scientific and moral undertones of the show; and “Have You Seen Walter Lately?,” a collection of favorite Walter moments.
The extras wrap up with a gag reel; BD-Live access; English as the only spoken language; French, Spanish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The four discs come housed in a plastic Blu-ray case with two inner sleeves, the case further enclosed in a handsome, light-cardboard slipcover. WB also provide a handy insert to guide you through the contents of the four discs.
For me, the “Fringe” series continues getting better as it goes along. It remains one of the few shows the Wife-O-Meter and I watch faithfully each season, and which we enjoy in marathon sessions again on Blu-ray. The “Fringe” characters are personable, the acting is top-notch, the writing is sometimes brilliant, and the stories are always engrossing. It’s a series that easily allows us to suspend our disbelief and go with our imagination. Speaking as one who watches relatively little commercial television, I can truthfully say I look forward to every season of “Fringe.”