The second season of Fringe has not, unfortunately, picked up where the first season left off. Last year ended with a run of thrilling episodes that culminated in a game-changing cliffhanger typical of the J. J. Abrams brand. So far, though, season two has floundered a little, stuck in that creative hinterland between the desire to grab new viewers and the need to build on the mythology of the show’s universe. It’s early yet (only six episodes have aired), but the groove that the sophomore season has settled into doesn’t bode well for the future.
Fringe chronicles the casework of a small team comprised of F.B.I. agents and scientists as they investigate weird crimes seemingly connected to paranormal activity. The principals are Anna Torv as melancholy F.B.I. agent Olivia Dunham, Joshua Jackson as head-on-his-shoulders consultant Peter Bishop, and John Noble as Walter, Peter’s father and the show’s most compelling character, a brilliant scientist who has spent the majority of his years in psychiatric hospitals. Frequently on psychedelic drugs, Walter sees the world with a combination of childlike awe and genius-level insight.
Like its obvious predecessor, The X-Files, Fringe alternates between standalone episodes (a mysterious being turns its victims into ash, a man becomes addicted to siphoning his victim’s dreams) and episodes that focus more directly on a larger story arc. Unlike X-Files, however, the overarching conceit of Fringe doesn’t concern extraterrestrial life but, rather, inter-dimensional travel and the possibility of a war between two alternate realities. This facet of the show has been particularly compelling, especially when, toward the end of last season, Agent Dunham traveled to another dimension to discover not only that the twin towers were still standing but that William Bell, an enigmatic central character played by Leonard Nimoy, had office space in one of them.
It makes sense that the show’s writers, in its second season, would choose to focus, for a time, on standalone episodes in order to attract new viewers. The problem has been that those episodes, so far, have been less than stellar. While things have gotten icky (they always do, especially in Walter Bishop’s lab), they’ve yet to get scary, or even vaguely unsettling. Shows like Fringe, in essence, are mini monster movies and if the monsters aren’t frightening, then high production values and a well-composed score won’t help.
As the season progresses, it is very possible that Fringe will find its footing. But right now there is far too much padding in the form of substandard plotlines. The problem, in part, is that the writers need to fill out a complete 20-episode season; like Lost, Fringe would benefit from a shortened season. That way they could cut to the good stuff—the intersection of alternate realities—before everyone loses interest and stops watching.