Call to arms: saving the Fringe universe

It’s time for a rallying cry to save one of the most inventive, emotionally rich, beautifully geeky and intensely genre-busting shows on TV right now: Fringe.

The show has risen mightily from its X-Files-esque beginnings, with an unorthodox FBI team working on strange phenomenon-based cases of the week. It has built a beautifully detailed, richly atmospheric and resonant architecture for itself as it heads towards the end of its third season. However, with Fox having moved Fringe to the “Firefly” slot on Fridays, and ratings slipping, the outlook for the Fringe-iverse may not be so positive: cracks may be appearing in the future of the show, just as reality is starting to fragment within the show itself.

The show has a core team of three, serving in the FBI’s “Fringe Division.” Special Agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), the uptight, fiercely intelligent and emotionally unflinching leader. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the man who was a boy from another universe and is now a troubled but fundamentally sincere and decent “special consultant.” He happens to be the son of the team’s resident genius, Walter Bishop (the legendary John Noble), a Harvard-based scientist who devised countless reality-defying experiments, spent 20 years in an asylum, and now struggles to connect his genius to the real world. These three, with the assistance of agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), report to Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), the enigmatic senior agent with mysterious connections.

Fringe has grown in scale and ambition since those early days investigating unexplained and terrifying creatures and occurrences. Now, it deals with nothing less than the fate of our world, and that of the Other Side, the alternate version of our world, intimately tied to ours as the fabric of both begins to rupture and come apart. The details of that off-kilter alternate world are perfectly drawn, creating the same-but-different feel: for example, there is no such thing as coffee there, the Statue Of Liberty is cast in bronze, and airships float through the high-tech skies. With the conflict between the worlds played out like a war in the making, the show has built a powerful narrative momentum as the stakes are driven higher, and the emotional impact gets deeper, and more intense.

The show is geek heaven, with its critical recurring role for Leonard Nimoy as William Bell, Walter Bishop’s former partner (and founder of Massive Dynamic), and its immaculately chosen guest stars, including Back To The Future‘s Christopher Lloyd, and Robocop‘s Peter Weller. The stories themselves have become more resonant, more richly emotional — feelings play an intense and devastating role in this show. It’s not just abstract science that fuels the tales of the two universes, it’s deeply powerful stories that tear at you with their implications. They are primal human stories: a father losing a son in one world, and stealing his alternate version from another; a love triangle between a man, and the two identical women from each side, told in the most emotionally devastating and real way possible; experiments on children to develop and enhance special abilities, dealt with through the lens of the disturbed, haunted adults they become.

But it isn’t all about darkness and fear. Fringe is one of the funniest and wittiest one hour dramas currently on the air. It’s a true stablemate to other such intense yet bitingly funny shows produced by Warner Bros. Television, including True Blood, SouthLAnd and The Vampire Diaries. They all share deep and compelling traits: they approach emotion, drama and humor with equally savage and sustained enthusiasm and energy. They are all derived from the minds of some of TV’s finest showrunners: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner & Joel Wyman (Fringe), John Wells, Ann Biderman & Christopher Chulack (SouthLAnd), Kevin Williams and Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), and of course, Alan Ball (True Blood).

These shows share an emotional intensity, the furious whipping up of wild and hard-hitting narrative arcs, a beautiful awareness of genre and how to play with it, honor it, and transcend it. They all build worlds real and imagined, and they all push the boundaries of their creations.

Now one of them is in trouble. Maybe two, but SouthLAnd is discussed in other posts on this blog. This post is for Fringe. Because quality storytelling is important. Writing of this caliber must be supported. Great acting needs to be cherished. With its ability to filter emotional stories through “strange science”, alternate universes, and complex relationships, by playing with the tropes of TV sci-fi, Fringe is truly unique in its genre, and in the world of TV drama. It has a powerful engine driving its ideas, and its cast and crew is populated with artists and visionaries, beautifully executing the ideas in a manner that is always highly entertaining, intense, gory sometimes, emotionally powerful all the time.

John Noble, Anna Torv and Pacey himself, Joshua Jackson, do a tremendous job as the heart and soul of the show. They portray heartbreaking, hilarious, darkly complex characters: they have the richness of Shakespearean creations, filtered through the fast-moving, wisecracking lens of 21st century TV. Noble, Torv and Jackson are an essential, compelling team, with truly fantastic chemistry and comic timing, and dramatic, heartbreaking depth.

As they fight to save our world and the alternate world that threatens it, so the fans of Fringe must also mobilize to save the universes. Without regular live viewings, the show will slip through the cracks in the TV drama universe and disappear forever. Watch it, and it will endure.

Southland will break your heart (spoiler)

It was almost too much. Maybe it was too much. Code 4 came to an exhausting, traumatic end with the simplest of shots but the most raw, devastating moment in the show’s history. It was an absolute emotional savaging for the viewer.

Written by Will Rokos, directed by Felix Alcala, this was the tightest episode of Southland to date. It had everything you would want from an hour of TV drama: the humor was rawer, more visceral; the emotional reversals came hard and fast; the highs were higher, the lows were worse. And that was before the end, when we watched Shawn Hatosy and Yara Martinez come apart in each other’s arms. Just a held shot of the two of them, gasping for air, struggling to breathe with the absolute fact of what had just happened. The death of a partner, friend and husband. Grief is handled in many different ways in television shows. I’m not sure I’ve seen it handled like this, in its most unfiltered form. It was awful to watch, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

Hatosy in particular was astonishing, delivering an aggressively compelling and forceful performance throughout, culminating in his flawless portrayal of Bryant’s emotional disintegration.

The way Code 4 was directed by Feliz Alcala was almost ethereal in its quiet intensity. The opening flash forward was haunting, just Sammy shaking, lens flare, a barely moving camera, and then the scream. By the time we reached that moment for real, the knowledge of what it meant was almost unbearable, and when the moment continued, even though we desperately didn’t want it to, it was emotionally horrific. Alcala stayed close to the truth throughout, and we felt it. One key example: as the helicopter flashed the spotlight on Nate, moments before the end, he held up four fingers, signaling “code 4,” no further assistance necessary. Such a simple moment, made brutal by what followed. Southland excels at such simplicity and poetically retroactive impact.

Will Rokos wrote a tough, unflinching script, finding time amongst the darkness for the funniest moments we’ve seen in this show, which of course made the ending much harder to handle. The writers have done an amazing job this season, and have consistently pulled off an extremely difficult trick: not only have they kept the show subtly serialized and moving forward, but each episode is perfectly constructed as an entry point into the Southland world. That means new viewers could join at any point and be able to jump right in. The writers have encoded each episode this season with enough information to key the new viewer in to the relationships, but they’ve integrated it so carefully that it doesn’t interfere with the flow of the show for regular viewers. It’s a clever move on the part of the producers, and it’s working. Ratings are up, and Code 4 (and the wonderfully loyal fans) prompted Southland to trend for the first time on Twitter. It seems very hopeful that this means good things for the show’s survival and renewal by TNT.

But Kevin Alejandro will be sorely missed. Southland‘s loss is True Blood‘s gain. Alejandro was such a great part of the fabric of Southland, and did tremendous work. Kudos to him for making Nate Moretta such a compelling, soulful, and popular character.

True Blood: Trouble

It’s true: this week’s episode of True Blood was the best yet in the show’s three seasons. Why? Because Alan Ball and his writers are perhaps the finest team in the business right now (with SouthlandCalifornication, GleeFringe,  Modern Family and Nurse Jackie).

With ‘Trouble’, they  took everything great about the series, and punched it the f**k up.

The show has fully grown into its core strengths: utter insanity, and a visceral, joyous sense of combustibility. True Blood now deeply revels in the possibility that any given moment on the show could violently explode into beautiful, raw, sexy chaos. The show thrives on this constant state of danger, handling it with an intense stare and crazed, high-velocity humor. The dialogue snarls, rips and tears through every scene like one of the wolves amped-up on Vampire blood. The writers throw lines like Jason Bourne throws punches: this is writing like Krav Maga – the  brilliance reveals itself with dizzying speed, line after line after line.

All this has been richly surrounded in this season by the growing depth and complexity of the vampire political and power structures, which has proved to be fascinating source of menace, conflict and fascination, and a chance for the actors to play some great scenes.

The energy from the actors in this particular episode was fantastic, and they had awesome writing to work with, to play with. Watching James Frain access pitch-perfect, utterly unhinged madness as the crazy vampire Franklin Mott (interesting in itself as the show hadn’t shown us vampires who were truly insane), or Stephen Moyer and Denis O’Hare as Bill and Russell playing their diabolically subtle power games, or Anna Paquin continuing her raw, edgy emotional makeover. In many ways, it was Franklin and Tara that propelled this episode with the show’s signature blend, its seamless, unholy and explosive mix of “what the f**k?!”, genuine danger, and sick, literally twisted humor. When Bill and Lorena had their vampire hate sex at the end of episode three, this writing team delivered their TV game-changer: as Lorena’s head slowly turned around, so did the television landscape.

That’s what Alan Ball and his writers (and the stellar cast and crew), have done with this season: changed the landscape, with each episode, with each scene, with each line sometimes. They are charging the show with plummeting rollercoaster velocity into completely unpredictable territory: we have no idea which insane left turn it’s going to take next, and that’s an extraordinary feat of story-breaking. Not only that, these writers deliver some truly nuanced emotional and psychological arcs, accessing the existential sadness of the vampire’s existence, and the many kinds of desire, the endless different ways we can lust after each other.

If there’s anything to criticize, it’s that Jason’s arc seems to be far away from the rest of the converging stories, Sam’s story is unfolding at a slower pace than the other arcs, and for now, Jessica appears to have been abandoned in Merlotte’s. This last is particularly upsetting since, as one character put it, Jessica is a “smokin’ hot vampire, in the majors.” Yes, she is. Therefore it would be great to see her brought into the monumental clusterf**k that is undoubtedly awaiting the rest of the characters by season’s end.

However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching this show, it’s this: trust the writers.

Firstly, they know how to amp shit up: they salvaged the relative smallness of Jason’s story (compared to the high drama of the others) by pulling out a “classic Jason” moment, giving Ryan Kwanten an actor’s dream entrance to a scene: they were duly rewarded with ‘Jason Stackhouse’ being the number one trending topic on Twitter the next day.

Secondly, simply, they always weave their complex plot strands together in the end, as amply demonstrated by the previous two seasons.

Each episode so far this season has roared through the TV stratosphere, and the deep, dark power of the wars to come is looming. This is one of TV’s most purely thrilling experiences, and this episode took it further still.