A commercial airliner arrives at its destination with every passenger and crewmember on board dead. The FBI investigate. Clues suggest that the only person who can help with the investigation is a brilliant but disturbed scientist named Walter Bishop. Bishop has been locked up in a mental institution for seventeen years and the only person who can sign for his release is his son, Peter, a shady businessmen. FBI Agent Olivia Dunham and the Bishops successfully discover the answer to the mystery, encouraging the FBI to create a special unit dedicated to these 'fringe science' cases, which have exploded in frequency in the last few years. The cases are varied and individual, but together form 'the Pattern', a statistical trend that suggests a major event is coming.
It's easy to dismiss Fringe because of misconceptions. A new TV show from the creator of Lost, J.J. Abrams? And a premise that seems to owe rather a lot to The X-Files? The number of people who passed the show by, fearing (fairly or not) muddled mythologies and an inferior homage to an older show, must have been significant.
However, such reactions would also be unfair. Fringe distanced itself almost immediately from Lost by having a much smaller cast of characters, meaning a much tighter focus on the stories and the gradually-evolving backstory. Abrams also took a back seat after the pilot, letting other writers and producers come on board to direct the day-to-day running of the show. A key difference is that whilst Lost's mythology only got some direction in its third season, when an end date for the show was set, Fringe's mythology and story arcs were mapped out in advance from early in the first, giving the show a much stronger sense of direction.
The season kicks off with the pilot, in which the regular cast and premise is established. Anna Torv immediately impresses as Olivia Dunham, a no-nonsense FBI agent (though prone to unexpected bouts of deadpan humour) who has a lot of pressure riding on her shoulders. Joshua Jackson takes a little longer to convince as a businessman with shady contacts, but eventually turns in a very human and funny performance. The main weapon in the show's arsenal is the spectacular John Noble - previously best-known as Denethor on the Lord of the Rings movies - who plays Walter Bishop to perfection. Character traits and tics that would have been hokey or hammy in another actor's hands become utterly convincing in Noble's, who is able to play his character's memory problems and occasional emotional outbursts for either comedy or pathos as the script demands (occasionally both simultaneously). It's frankly worth watching the show just for Noble's performance. Also providing able support is The Wire's Lance Reddick as Dunham and company's boss, Philip Broyles.
The show's premise - that the FBI would employ a certified lunatic, an occasional criminal and a cow called Gene to investigate fringe science cases from a basement in Harvard University - takes a bit of swallowing. The show does its best in the pilot to try to make the premise a bit more palatable, but it's surprisingly late in the episode before 'the Pattern' and the great urgency to find out what the hell's going on (making it a bit easier to accept the desperate lengths the FBI are going to) is more firmly established.
That out of the way, the show quickly establishes a format: the mystery-of-the-week is laid out in the pre-credits sequence and our heroes rapidly show up to investigate, usually involving labwork from Walter and good old FBI fieldwork from Olivia. The procedural aspect of the show was apparently key to getting it on the air - the producers deliberately used it to entice Fox on board - but it's not too many episodes before it's being downplayed in favour of the crazy lab antics. These episodes also hit that early X-Files sweet spot of having (mostly) satisfying, self-contained stories with more serialised elements being laid down in the background.
It's not too long before Fringe's serialisation and mythology comes to the fore later in the season. A recurring enemy is established early on, followed by another, more dangerous one later on. Walter's memory loss, initially established for comedic purposes, later becomes far more important as Walter begins to discover the ramifications of experiments he conducted twenty years earlier. A key episode reveals that Olivia herself may be part of 'the Pattern' and the discovery of a manifesto belonging to a terrorist organisation spurs events in the series finale. Watching over events is a strange bald man in a suit and hat, who appears (if only fleetingly, or in the extreme background of some scenes) in every single episode and is more strongly featured in two of them. An off-the-cuff reference to quantum theory in one episode sets up a major storyline that emerges in the finale and provides the season with its final and most famous cliffhanger image.
This segueing from the stand-alone elements to the more-heavily serialised storylines is well-handled, though some may lament the decreasing frequency of the stand-alone mysteries in the late season. At its best Fringe is a surprisingly gory homage to The Twilight Zone, but at its worst can be trite and predictable (though allegedly the worst episode of the season was actually cut, showing pleasingly surprising creative integrity). Fortunately it's worst is very rarely encountered. Slightly more problematic - though perhaps unavoidable in these kind of shows - is the number of times that major reversals and deaths could have been avoided if the characters just stopped and talked to one another properly for a few minutes. Whilst far less of a problem than on Lost, it still niggles when Walter says something cryptically vital, Peter notices but then gets interrupted by Olivia and doesn't bother to raise the question again at the end of the scene.
Overall, the problems are few and outweighed by the positives. Season 1 of Fringe (****½) starts off as a finely entertaining slice of SF hokum before being carried by excellent performances and a reasonably compelling central storyline into a finale that leaves one eager to move immediately onto the second season. The season is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).