Centrifugal TV: Fringe, Part I

At some point, popular fiction just started skipping over World War III. Instead, many-a-maker headed straight for the uncertain wasteland on the other side of the trilogy. Clean axis and allies lines must’ve seemed too sparkling a concept considering the trajectory and magnitude of devastation and the sheer momentum of the self-destruction amassed thus far. So, fast-forwarding to the unfathomable apocalyptic future is a logical choice for a postmodern age. This fixation recoils in the paranoid mad-sci-fi procedural Fringe (that aired on FOX from 2008 to 2013, and now lives on, perhaps ideally, in streaming perpetuity)—which I’ve started burning through of late—where global conflict is ever-present background noise amidst a fantastic freak show. More so, Fringe splices realities, promising an impending war on a scale beyond all scale, outside all reason, and contrary to the physical certainties of the natural world. With its first season, it engineers a colossal corrugation: setting the template for infinite worlds at various states of global conflict. After a series of prophases and anaphases, and the like, Fringe’s first act, culminates in asymmetrical universal mitosis.

The most important universe in this opening passage is still our own, and that’s where the show’s allegory kicks in so effectively. Where once it was thought that “the truth is out there,” Fringe proffers the sterilized Italo Calvino-spin, “myth is just an unverified fact.” X-Files’ going-line was a quasi-cynical light at the end of the tunnel; Fringe’s off-hand philosophy signals rippling, expansive possibility that doubles as existential dread: Your most beautiful dreams and your worst nightmares are all possible; usually the latter proliferates. In Fringe, the multiverse is governed by scientific laws, naturally, but they are frequently paradoxical, malleable, and self-effacing. Over the course of its first score, Fringe crafts a reality where all potentials must be considered, where scientific and technological “progress” is regularly violently thrust upon the citizenry at random.

Such is the state of modern existence in the Age of Terror: Previous notions of stability and distinguishable reality, shaky as they may be, are routinely obliterated; all contingencies are on the table, and surveillance and vigilance and paranoia are and will always be total. It’s a world in perpetual upheaval, where the rubrics and rule-books are shredded; lines between the plausible and the fantastic are blurred. Ours is a world of the inexplicably awful and abject—full of unfathomable techniques, weaponry, and nightmarish intentions existing right under the porous façade of the everyday. This is the world depicted in Fringe; given this bent, the synonymous significance of the title snaps into focus.

Funny thing is, Fringe initiates this world-view by undercutting the grim realities and reveling in the veneer—positing that the surface-layer keeps us sane (Matrix-shades) and feeds our fundamental imbalance. It’s either deeply hopeful or deeply cynical, depending on how you squint. The wry joke: The only truth is the unyielding search for the truth with no satisfying conclusion; sure, but add in that the sense of wonder is never lost on these characters—whether they are marveling at random food cravings or hooking wires directly into people’s brainstems to commune with the dead, there’s always an underlying cocktail of amusement, momentum, and conviction contrary to the odds. The world is an all-enveloping paradox in Fringe, “a vast universe of corporate criminals, mad scientists, and supernatural phenomena that could take years to fully map out.” All these elements, terrifying in isolation, especially when considered alongside their real-world analogs, are a delightful blitzkrieg-pulp stew in combination.

Then there’s “The Pattern.” Amidst its procedural jumble, Fringe’s one of the most coherent documents of the War on Terror years. In a modern age where we consistently attempt to box the uncontrollable and the inexplicable based on the measures and metrics of the past, Fringe is a fascinating exploration of the impenetrability of modern warfare and modern existence in a time of interminable crisis. Fringe is a post-post-9/11 document that places the worst doings in the world on a grand chess board then scrambles physics. The supposition is that they are all connected, and the Fringe Division, a Homeland Security subset, desperately, often recklessly, searches for the algorithm to unlock it all. The loveable motley crew’re tasked with thwarting extremist factions they don’t fully understand while using methods, means, and rationales that are themselves beyond the pale. Think of Fringe as an update on the Cold War spy-craft espionage yarns; raising the stakes to incorporate the fantastic seems only logical considering humanity’s progression from the bitter chill of then to the amplified ambiguous of now.

Crucially, like its kin, Fringe begins on a plane. The events of this flight ignites a period of widening reality. It’s an event that upends all conceptions of logic, science, universal and governmental law, and casts pervasive doubt about human existence, its purpose, and what we’re capable of. In the first stretch of the show, Agent Olivia Dunham is promoted, through course of fate and her personal connection with a case that initiates greater interest in what is known as “The Pattern”—a string of disparate events and strange occurrences that defy logic and coherence but all turn on fringe-scientific ideas made manifest. The agents of the ominous-acronym-outfit, ZFT, “traffic in scientific progress” but their methods undermine the idea of advancement in their barbarism. Science, technology, and fear of the potentials of human ingenuity are simultaneously complementary and competing forces. It’s no accident that with all this going on, the Fringe Division’s most fruitful tactic is a deep, literalized submergence in the subconscious—rooting out existential dread at the source, pinning these creations on the human mind and its deep-rooted paranoia and lust for power.

The procedural bent in the first season is key to maintaining the controlled chaos of the world and positioning the viewer accordingly. The mental processing in this format is ideal, at least initially, for the allegory to click. Procedurals often get a bad rep as unambitious, blatantly-pandering, fast-food TV, especially in this age where TV’s long-gestating potential for dense, novelistic storytelling finally flowered. By Fringe’s estimation, there’s room for both, simultaneously. In the first season of Fringe, the show purposefully disrupts long-form, long-term plotting in favor of repetition and creeping monotony. Each hour dishes convincingly satisfying discrete doses of esoteric plotting—“lots of hints, insinuations, and freaky shit”—then trails off—leaving deeper threads unresolved—or delivers a calculated gut-punch cliff-hanger with little follow-up.

Chalk it up to fast-and-loose writing and pitching balls in the air for the hell of it; or consider the form’s capacity to leave gaping holes in logic that can be exploded, circled-back, or abandoned (deliberately or not) to round a world-view that is irredeemably, dangerously myopic and complacent. To its merit, Fringe is also a show that spends large chunks of its first string of episodes negating itself—“Pilot,” “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones,” “Bound,” et al. Extreme measures are taken to come up empty-handed, or, worse, to unwittingly aid or play into the hands of the ‘evil-doers.’ The effort-to-reward ratio is never balanced, yet, the locomotive motoric of the televisual structure chugs along. Few procedurals have been able to strike a balance between a haywire, gonzo underbelly and a satisfying ebb that lulls and placates and mollifies like Fringe. This is the combination that the modern procedural always shoots for—a mix of case-of-the-week and long-form serialization is all-but-required in modern television of this ilk; Fringe frequently uses this demand to its distinct, table-setting advantage.

Of course, as a populist parable of the information age and a reflection of the height of the War on Terror years, there’re straight allegorical lines aplenty. Peter Bishop, son of linchpin/mad-scientist/amnesiac mastermind Walter Bishop, is introduced as the key to unlocking his father’s memory. Peter is tracked down in Iraq and coerced back to the greater Boston area—this metropolitan area and NYC seem to be “soft spot” hotbeds. By season’s end, he’s revealed as an alternate universe boy, and thus the allegorical ‘other’ dovetails in his sordid past. The connection between the vague middle-eastern enemy other and the uncertain doings of the ostensibly uniformly villainous parallel universe expats is made literal in this character. Inevitably, the opening image of the season and its closing vista bookend and squeeze all the chunks that came in the middle. Where the series started off mid-flight, it ends in the alternate universe, panning-out from the still standing Twin Towers as if to mimic history reversing (or dilating or inverting) itself.

And, each episode basically begins with a terrorism event. But in a novel twist on the procedural trope, while still making these happenings viscerally unnerving, they also are uniformly mysterious and baffling, fitting in the formula-TV, cold-open mold, and leaving viewers searching for answers rather than stoking righteous fury. Still, the particulars of the weapons are intriguingly on-point. Noxious gases freeze regular citizens in death-throes tableaus, or liquefy their insides. Contagions are frequently unleashed on pockets of the population. Nootropic drug experimentation, child soldiers, and indoctrination are key to the plotting. In a later entry in the season, people are given the power to unwittingly blow themselves apart in a fiery blaze, killing anyone in proximity and leaving only charred remains. Bodies are frequently mutilated and left to rot with no clear cause or motive behind the actions. There’s tons of collateral damage in each tale. The imagery has real-world resonance, even as the program stays fleet; week-over-week the connections become unshakable; also, the extremism becomes expected.

Intriguingly, many of the rogue agents committing the heinous acts of biological or paranormal terrorism for ZFT—or ZFT-adjacent factions; the connection is, pointedly, frequently unclear or not made—cause are not doing so willingly. They’re often in-over-their-head lone actors, trying desperately to get-out-from-under by fulfilling their deeds. Not only that, repeatedly our heroes find themselves operating at the behest of those their chasing: Brought into custody with few fireworks, details emerge about grander plots, necessitating brief collusion to get to deeper truths and larger savings—“Ability,” “Midnight,” et al. It’s a fractured, fraught, conflicted collective they are fighting against, brimming with believers, victims, proxies, and combinations of these, making it nearly impossible to comprehend and harder still to predict and contain. And yet, there’s a manifesto, some centralizing core ethos informing the methodology of this giant inter-dimensional coalition—this too is open for interpretation and manipulation. ZFT is a critical mass of smoke screens, lone wolf factions, coincidence, and fundamentalism.

The idea of The Pattern, at least to start, seems simply to be stirring up chaos within the population—undermining perceptions of safety and security and creating perpetual, pervasive psychological turbulence. The methods are complex but also imprecise; the experimentation happens in real time, on the greater population. Of course, the largely-unspoken joke about The Pattern is that it is pattern-less—its defining feature is seeming randomness that smacks of a larger schematic but never coheres. Or, at best, it’s a concerted effort to map a schematic onto disjointed actions. There’s no way to reconcile these seemingly incompatible parts; but there’s little denying the connection to contemporary antagonists, their methods, their uncertain alliances and following, and their indefinable, incoherent, unrelenting determination. In the mad dash, some dubious parallels percolate and linger unresolved: Maintaining the distinction and divide between worlds is imperative; cloaked maneuvers from shadowy government agencies are sanctioned; alternative, radicalized perspectives are fundamentally tethered to western conceptions; the populace at large must remain blissfully unaware; and scientific consensus should be gleefully refuted. All the while, an increasingly permissive federal agency sees fit to fight-fire-with-fire, employing more extreme and unconventional methods to find answers and bring justice.

Or, fight dehumanization with dehumanization, you might say. Like any good X-Files correlative, there are monsters aplenty. In Fringe, humans are both lab rats (a theme sometimes built into the visual framework)—even baser than we presume—and superhuman monsters—capable of much more and much worse that we imagine. Humanity, as a species and as a civilization, is being torn in two opposite directions at once: the primeval and the transcendent (the latter of which is, of course, an effective trope in the zealot sales pitch to sustain the former). These two halves have many common denominators. While human consciousness and its potentials are romanticized and amped to terrifying and reckless extremes, regular humans are reduced to biomechanical meat sack devices—mechanized, technologized guinea pigs to be switched on and off, communicated through, or exploded.

This internal motif is also directed outward: Fringe is a show with a keen interest in running experiments on its audience, offering up codes and keys and eggs galore, seeing what will click (often very little in the moment) and what slides by. This approach is ideologically intriguing: It places us with the rubes/meat-sacks/targets standing around befuddled and slack-jawed as strange things happen around them—i.e. couch potato nirvana—but also strings us along through the Fringe Division orientation process alongside the relatable rogues. With this freak-of the-week structure, and the deeper geopolitical concerns that percolate, the episodic nature of the thing is pointed—each week, some new phenomena is unleashed on the population, investigated, reported, and forgotten. It’s akin to the ceaseless repetition of the modern news cycle—something grips attention, gets investigated and scrutinized, then fades away. Then, the next week is more of the same, but with a different monster, or biohazard, what have you. It generates an odd centrifugal momentum fitting for a civilization mired in perpetual peril. There’s no cheese at the center of the labyrinth, just an irreconcilable, incoherent, deadly mythological mélange monstrosity lurking.

Now, as an eminently streamable, bingeable show, Fringe is freed from its protracted reinforcement ratio and placed in the Skinner box it deserves—it can inundate and mash together, and the paranoia of it all washes over. As a nigh-intravenous concoction, the euphoric endorphin rush of each dose is diminished, a higher tolerance develops, and larger quantities of grand-scale carnage and mad-science and 9/11 allegory are required to get the same high. I’ve been led to believe that Fringe doesn’t hit its stride until season two, when it starts to pay off all the procedural groundwork it threw against the wall in its first strand. But I’m not above looking foolish: All this bloviating and late-to-the-game prognosticating is sure to blow up in my face. But isn’t that the fun of it? Consider this an exercise in modern streaming—it’s impossible to keep up with it all; in some instances, you have to go back to the well and get your thoughts down well after the cultural conversation has come and gone. It’s the terrifying beauty of the streaming-verse: Nothing ever dies; it’s a purgatory of programming-in-waiting. Just because something has a longer shelf-life, and just because I’m only part-way through a long ride, doesn’t mean there’s no room for discourse, I’d contend. Is the only way to experience popular culture as it happens, in the moment, when everyone else is? Isn’t there something to be said for getting left behind and ascribing meaning in a vacuum? Maybe there’s even merit in repeating what’s already been said, unbeknownst to me, for posterity. My overconfidence is surely symptomatic.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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