When Fringe premiered three years ago, there were plenty of comparisons to The X-Files, what with Olivia (Anna Torv) as an FBI agent who believed in freaky science and Peter (Joshua Jackson) as her practical civilian consultant. But the show adopted a more playful vibe courtesy of Peter's kooky mad-scientist father, Walter (John Noble), and added a more substantive mythology via a secret war between two alternate Earths, which helped the show find its own science-fiction niche.
Last season, Fringe took a huge, game-changing step forward by having its heroes travel to Earth-2—and an even bigger one by sending the identical-looking Alt-Olivia back to Earth while leaving Olivia a prisoner of Alt-Walter (a.k.a. Walternate). The new season of Fringe has taken an even greater leap by alternating between episodes with Olivia (still on Earth-2) and Alt-Olivia (still on Earth). In addition to growing the cast (or giving certain actors the opportunity to show their chops in dual roles), it's also widened the palette of the writers and directors, who keep casually adding Easter eggs to every shot, such as a glimpse of people riding high-wheel bicycles through Martin Luther King/Eldridge Cleaver Memorial Park as a teleporting zeppelin flies overhead.
So far, the gambit is working: The more serious Red episodes (the odd-numbered ones on Earth-2, denoted by a red title sequence) increase the stakes of the show, while the more relaxed Blue episodes balance all the drama with the off-kilter jokes the show does so well (Walter diagnoses a killer music box by hooking himself to a portable brain-scanner and singing, to a classical opera, "Look at my brain waves on the monitor-o"). Hard science meets soft comedy, and the results are consistently surprising and rarely disappointing. The solid mythology and high stakes keep the series moving as forward as quickly as FlashForward and The Event, but the dual tones of the two worlds offer considerably more breadth in the stories it tells.
These shakeups keep a show that was already pretty fresh from growing stale. The season premiere, "Olivia," takes a page from Dollhouse's book, as Walternate attempts to make Olivia believe that she is the Alt-Olivia; the result, in which Olivia fights for her identity while running around New York City, is captivating television. At the same time, her brainwashing allows her to rejoin the Alt-Fringe Team, alongside Francis (Kirk Acevedo) and Lee (Seth Gabel), and taps into the very core of Fringe: "Real is just a matter of perception." The second episode, "The Box," also opens up new dramatic possibilities—Peter is in love with Olivia, and has no idea that the woman currently flirting with him isn't her—while continuing to nurture the old tensions between Walter and Peter, who has learned that Walternate is actually his father (Walter kidnapped him from Earth-2 as a child after his own Peter died).
The plots have generally been the "fringe" of Fringe; the meat has been in the characters' developing feelings for one another. Now the two are not only on equal footing, but they're both firing on full cylinders. The third episode, "The Plateau," not only boasts a strikingly original concept (the gang faces a killer with an IQ so high that he can predict the future by crunching probabilities), but it neatly incorporates Olivia's identity crisis into many of the scenes. Moreover, on a meta level, audiences can appreciate the new dynamics between once-familiar characters: On Earth, Astrid (Jasika Nicole) is still Walter's coddling lab assistant, but on Earth-2, she's a cold, military tactician. As for Torv, if there were any confusion about her range before, the subtlety she brings to both Olivias—both of whom are pretending to be people they're not—is exhilarating. And while Nobel still steals the show as the hapless genius Walter, he earns it even more now.
Afraid, perhaps, to toy with viewers the way that Lost did, Fringe keeps the action moving, rapidly unspooling its mysteries, and that decision proves to be a wise one. Rather than waiting for a future payoff, Fringe is cashing in with every episode, showing us the escalating war between worlds—and with likeable characters and compelling cases to boot. Ironically, it's by branching out in two different directions that the show has become, more than ever, the centerpiece of a hypercompetitive Thursday night lineup.