03.10.11

Is Fringe the New Lost?

With keen insight into human nature, Fox's Fringe has filled the void left by the end of Lost—even as it faces cancellation. Jace Lacob talks to its producers about the show's journey.

With keen insight into human nature, Fox’s Fringe has more than filled the void left by the demise of Lost—even as it faces cancellation. Jace Lacob talks to its producers. PLUS: 8 Burning Fringe Questions Answered!

Throughout the run of the landmark series Lost, which wrapped up last spring, the broadcast networks scrambled to find successors for the mind-bending drama, hoping to jumpstart serialized drama franchises of their own and unleash new obsessive viewing experiences on the public. But the programmers at these networks appeared to be stunned when their efforts to recapture Lost’s lightning in a bottle (such as CBS’ Threshold, ABC’s Invasion, Daybreak, and FlashForward, or NBC’s Heroes and The Event, to name a few) failed to make an impact. What no one seemed to realize was that Fox had already found Lost’s heir apparent in J.J. Abrams’ Fringe.

Gallery: 8 Burning Fringe Questions Answered!

Fringe has transformed, over the course of its first three seasons, from an X-Files-like, science-run-amok mystery procedural into a thought-provoking and gut-wrenching character drama. In its first season, Fringe broke out as a ratings success, but, after moving to Thursdays last season, those numbers cooled—and in January, the show was moved to Fridays, traditionally a sign of doom.

But with a renewal still up in the air, Fringe has quietly become as excellent as it is impenetrable—a brand new viewer wouldn’t stand a chance of understanding the show. What those who aren’t watching are missing out on, however, is an out-there drama that uses sci-fi as a prism for universal experiences.

“It’s a science-fiction program that’s all about existence,” executive producer Joel Wyman told The Daily Beast. “We believe that the best science fiction, the more far out and science-fiction-y it gets, the more about the human condition it is.... We’re really interested in these types of existential questions about technology and God and belief, the understanding of what we’re all going through.”

Several revelations about the show’s three core characters have emerged to challenge the audience’s perceptions, chief among them that Peter ( Joshua Jackson), the son of the addled but brilliant scientist Walter Bishop ( John Noble), was in fact kidnapped from a parallel universe, and that haunted FBI agent Olivia Dunham ( Anna Torv) was experimented on as a child by Walter.

“This is a family drama that starts with a guy who has fractured the universe out of misguided love and the will to change fate,” said Wyman. “That focuses on a larger question, which is, where is the line? Is there a point where human beings can know too much? What are the folly and peril of their actions should they cross that line?”

But while these conceits ground the show in the science-fiction genre, the structure and scope of the series open the door for a larger exploration of what makes each of us tick.

“[Viewers] can’t really relate to a thingamabob that does a thingamajig,” said Wyman. “But they can relate to the concept of, oh my gosh, what am I here for?”

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t spectacular or terrifying things going on, because Fringe appears to relish making the audience queasy with the jaw-dropping gore and nightmare horror within the episodic plots—or what Wyman coined “myth-alones”: the procedural cases of the week that also advance the overarching plot driving the series. In this case, that big story is the discovery of that parallel dimension and the realization that the two worlds are, in fact, at war with one another, a war that was precipitated by a grieving father’s love.

The parallel structure of the two dimensions—which alternates between “Over Here,” and “Over There,” this season—has opened the door not only for the actors to play dual roles, but to explore issues of identity. Who we are is shaped by both nature and nurture, and Fringe takes a keen scalpel to such matters, delving into questions of connection and free will.

“Those questions in their nascent form were in the show’s DNA,” Executive Producer Jeff Pinkner said. “It’s always been our take that science is neutral and it’s how you apply it that’s either good or bad… We allowed [these questions] to percolate for a long time.”

It’s a similar tack to the one that Lost took, laying down the foundations of the plot and then peeling away the layers of the character, using flashbacks and other narrative devices to reveal the inner truths at the core of these disparate individuals. Ask Pinkner and Wyman about the influence that Lost, ABC’s Alias, or Fox’s own seminal sci-fi drama The X-Files had on Fringe, and they’ll talk about how mythology can threaten to overwhelm storytelling (as with Alias), and that the need for answers becomes the only reason why viewers are regularly tuning in.

“Unlike Lost where relatively early on they discovered a hatch on the island and then the debate became when to open it, our hatch was Peter and the fact that he was from another universe,” said Pinkner, who previously worked on both Alias and Lost. “We were playing long ball and we had the confidence, perhaps blindly so, that the show would be on for a while. A lot of shows either don’t have the luxury to do that or the blind stupidity to do it.

Lost did a spectacular job, but the rule we set for ourselves was that we would answer our mysteries quickly,” he continued. “We would play out the consequences of those mysteries and set up new mysteries. We’re not going to dangle this or expect this to pull us along for several episodes or even several seasons. We very much tell a story where both the cases of the week and the mythology is driven by mystery and suspense and the desire to know, but… the best answers lead to new questions.”

These days, viewers seem mistrustful of embracing plot-heavy sci-fi dramas, perhaps because there’s a short shelf life for such shows and a perception that writers aren’t often investing time in creating a solid overarching mythology ahead of time.

“We knew the controlling mythology of the show but there were things we couldn’t reveal yet,” said Pinkner. “With a lot of TV shows, the audience is wary that there isn’t an ending, that the storytellers don’t know where they’re going, that they’re designing as they go along. We have the confidence of knowing where we’re going, so that’s a thread throughout our stories. Hopefully, people recognize that, even subconsciously.”

( Fringe did take a little bit of time to find its footing that first season, however. Ask about Season 1’s overarching mythology, The Pattern, which seemed to be dropped along the way, and Wyman and Pinkner will insist that it is part of the fabric of the series: "The Pattern was the series of weird events that initially Olivia was recruited to investigate. Some of them were subsequently attributed to soft-spots that were created because of Walter breaking the universe when he crossed over to try to heal Peter.”)

However, it’s the combination of out-there plots, the emotional core, and winning character interplay that make Fringe such an addictive and electric experience. And the show’s recent move to Fridays at 9 p.m., often thought of as the place where shows go to die, has proven that Fringe’s viewers are devoted ones. (Pinkner indicated that the ratings and DVR numbers have held, even with the shift.) But the future of the show, which has yet to be renewed for a fourth season, is still very much uncertain.

“Creatively, Fox has been unbelievably supportive,” said Pinkner. “We have exceeded their expectations on Friday nights. Having said that, who knows what the future brings. But, all the signs we’re getting are incredibly positive… that we have several seasons of storytelling left.”

Still, said Wyman, they never expected Fringe to be a ratings smash.

“We knew when we set out that this would not be a massive, popular-appeal show, because it’s a show that requires you to sit forward and not sit back while you’re watching,” said Wyman. “It’s a show that demands attention and thought and rewards it… It’s no accident that Walter eats licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but people who like licorice really like licorice. We’re happy being that.”

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Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.