by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 23rd 2010 3:00PM
Reviews of new shows are full of hedges and what-ifs. Unless we're sent multiple episodes of a new show, critics can't always tell when iffy programs have the potential to become pretty good or even wonderful.
No hedging here: 'Fringe,' which begins its third season at 9PM ET Thursday, has evolved into a terrific show. Now that the Fox drama is consistently telling enjoyably complex and emotionally compelling stories, I'd hate it if 'Fringe' got lost in the fall shuffle.
So I'll start off by begging you to watch 'Fringe,' pretty please, and then I'll share some non-spoilery thoughts about the first two episodes of the third season below.
The third-season premiere doesn't start off with some giant disaster -- 'Fringe' has, thank goodness, moved away from the bombastic storytelling that afflicted its first season in particular. Still, 'Olivia' and 'The Box' are very entertaining hours. And if you're worried about catching up to where things stand on the show, Thursday's episode does a good job of recapping where the characters are and explaining where Season 3 will start from. (A slightly spoilery explainer clip is here, and you can also watch several season 2 episodes, including the two-part finale, here.)
Overall, season 3 appears to be building on what worked really well in season 2, and now the show has taken the character who was the least interesting when 'Fringe' began and made her and her dilemmas very intriguing indeed.
In the middle of its second season, 'Fringe' began focusing intently on two things -- first, on the parallel universe called 'Over There'; and second, on the relationships among FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), eccentric scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his acerbic son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson).
Those twin engines drive Season 3, and they intersect and blend to the point that 'Fringe' feels like an atmospheric chamber piece. It still has action and suspense and all that good stuff, but themes of identity, loyalty, hubris, deception and missed opportunities reverberate through the show like intersecting melodies in a well-crafted musical composition.
The most resonant horrors on the show these days aren't giant bacteria or menacing mutants. Perhaps 'Fringe,' which began as (and still sometimes is) a show about FBI agents investigating weird phenomena, will engage in those kinds of monster-of-the-week stories in future, but those episodes are rarely examples of 'Fringe' at its best.
No, the most effective horrors involve betrayals that are perpetrated on the characters, sometimes by the people they love most. Over There's troubles -- and there are many -- were caused by Walter's desire to find and save a copy of his son, because in this universe, his son died. The fallout from that tragic choice and the characters' tentative steps toward intimacy and trust have given the proceedings much more meaningful stakes.
If I have one fear, it's that 'Fringe' will be forced (possibly by a nervous network) to stray too far from its mythology-driven stories, which are much more memorable than the standalone outings. It's still possible for the show to falter, but given how good the second half of season 2 and the start of season 3 are, I'm giving the show the benefit of the doubt.
What's especially impressive in Season 3 is how cogently and clearly events in the two different universes are handled. It's not hard to tell which is which and it's not hard to follow how the two worlds are connected, and those connections have only deepened the mythology in pleasing ways.
Thursday's episode spends time with "our" Olivia, who is stranded Over There (and 'The Wire's' Andre Royo does great work in a supporting role). Next week's hour focuses on Over There's even more driven version of Olivia, who has taken up residence in Walter and Peter's world and has a very definite agenda.
It's nice to see a parallel universe that is, for once, not an excuse for a show's cast to overact and ham it up. If anything, Over There is quieter but it's also more unsettling and even subtly menacing.
The directors of the show do a terrific job of making Over There feel different, via odd angles and a color palette that somehow seems a little off. But the dilemmas there, as in the "regular" universe, hinge on tangled relationships and difficult memories. And it's even more clear that Walter's choices had awful repercussions Over There, which is on a war footing mostly thanks to his hubris.
The two universes offer Noble, in particular, many opportunities to display his continually amazing range. Over There's "Walternate" is a commanding, efficient leader -- the man that Walter might have been had he not been consumed by personal tragedies and his own ambition.
And Torv, given the opportunity to play two different Olivias, both of whom are faced with interesting dilemmas and challenges, rises to the occasion. For the longest time, I couldn't see why 'Fringe' had cast Torv, but now that the actress has a lot to play in two juicy roles, every scene with Olivia or "Bolivia" (as the writers apparently call her) is charged with new tension. She manages to make the two characters different, even in their gestures, and I have to say that I'm a fan of the red hair she sports Over There.
Now that Olivia is in an alien world and a Bolivia with ambiguous loyalties is here, every scene with those characters has an additional weight and tension. To say more would be to give away too much, but in these two hours, at least, there are layers of meaning, suspense and drama that I never thought 'Fringe' would have.
The pilot for 'Fringe' never hinted at these developments. But the magic of TV is that having faith sometimes pays off.