The key problem with Fringe, now entering its fifth and final season, is the same issue that made the better part of the last two seasons of Lost so utterly meaningless. As the series, created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, has led Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), and his gleefully deranged father, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), through parallel dimensions, back and forth in time, and into conflicts with various paranormal figures and phenomena, the rules that were constantly set up for the characters were constantly breached with very little consequence. In other words, as Fringe's ambitions have grown, the sense of real risk, danger, and punishment have diminished to close to nothing as the series nears what will likely be an inadequate conclusion.
As the season premiere opens, the setting has jumped from the (more or less) present day to 2036, where a race of unfeeling, hyper-intelligent beings known as the Observers have taken over the world, turning New York City into a fascist state and Central Park into a long stretch of carbon monoxide-spewing machinery. Having escaped from being frozen in amber, Peter and Walter now find themselves being led by Peter and Olivia's adult daughter, Henrietta (Georgina Haig), a member of an underground resistance, as they attempt to track down Olivia and implement a plan to defeat the Observers, given to Walter by a rogue Observer named September (Michael Cerveris).
Longtime Fringe fans will no doubt remember the early seasons' playful grotesqueness and largely episodic nature. The myriad of creatures and powers dreamt up by the writers garnered comparisons to The X-Files, and like that series, Fringe has become bogged down in the grim seriousness of its overarching narrative, which is by now completely impenetrable. Various strings of nonsensical exposition are regularly employed to offer a way for the Fringe Division team to free themselves from whatever threat arises, diffusing any sense of tension. The explanations given are as convoluted as they are flimsy.
A prime example of this occurs in the season premiere, when Walter is kidnapped by the Observers' goon squad and is tortured for information concerning the aforementioned plot. As is so often the case in the series, the conflict is easily resolved, in this case through a device invented by the resistance that makes people appear to be dead, allowing Peter and Henrietta to sneak into the cell where the Observers are holding Walter. The writers have allowed for so many similar narrative trap doors that, at this point, any serious threat to the Fringe team holds zero dramatic weight, turning Fringe into what is largely a showcase for cool devices and inventive powers, with the show's initially strong sense of character taking a backseat.
Nevertheless, one does have to marvel at the sheer strangeness and intricacy of a long-form story that seemingly incorporates every element of science fiction and horror into a wildly eccentric, if inconsistent, timeline. And the cast is so uniformly excellent that one's seduced into following the narrative despite the show's rather glaring narrative flaws. Torv's performance, which includes various alternate versions of her character, has proven adept at presenting Olivia's incredibly odd emotional and physical struggles with equal measures of sensitivity and robust humor. And for his part, Jackson evokes a number of furious internal conflicts without losing hold of his boyish charm. The heart of the series, however, is Noble, whose turn as Walter Bishop has become one of the few great pleasures of Fox's current lineup. Vulnerable and brilliant, dangerous yet good at heart, Walter is the very essence of what makes Fringe so great at its hilts and so dismissible in its valleys: capable of endless, seemingly impossible invention, but inflicted with a detrimental carelessness.