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'Fringe': Five tips for success

September 10, 2008 |  8:15 am

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Let's get one thing straight right away: No matter how much the creators want to downplay the connection, "Fringe" is "The X-Files" circa 2008.

But I think that's a good thing. I loved "The X-Files" back in its prime, when every episode was filled with mystery and tantalizing clues to the unfolding conspiracy, when Agents Mulder and Scully shared a uniquely intimate but totally professional relationship and the stories were unpredictable in their ability to shock, frighten or just make us laugh.

In other words, I loved the first five years of "The X-Files."

"Fringe" has a lot going for it: a refreshingly non-Southern California backdrop, a little bit of humor, a willingness to get seriously gross and the always-tantalizing promise of a grander overall mystery that's been a signature of all of J.J. Abrams' genre series -- Rambaldi in "Alias" and pretty much everything in "Lost." But where TV series like this frequently fall down is in the follow-through. It's pretty easy to pose questions, but a lot harder to keep those same questions interesting week after week. The conspiracy plot helped sink "The X-Files" after a while, and the public frustration after Laura Palmer's murder was solved confounded the master of tantalizing questions, David Lynch, with "Twin Peaks."

It's really too soon to say whether "Fringe" will succeed in building and enriching its mysteries a la "Lost" or it will sputter out into confusion, like "The X-Files" at the end. But if I may, a few words of advice ...

... to Abrams and company.

• Give us a great villain: "The X-Files" gave us the great and strangely pathetic Cigarette Smoking Man in the very first episode. "Lost" went to a new level when Benjamin Linus was introduced in the second season. Who can forget BOB from "Twin Peaks"? The producers have described "Fringe" as a procedural with genre elements. Not promising for great villains. How many all-time greats has "CSI" produced? With the unseen Bill Gates-ian billionaire CEO William Bell, they have the potential for a great villain. And the longer they keep him offstage, the greater his arrival will be. Here's hoping they cast someone great and avoid the disappointment of something like "Heroes" in its second season. (The scary nightmare guy was just Parkman's chubby dad? Not scary at all.)

• Avoid the kissing stuff: Keep Agent Dunham and Peter Bishop off each other. They're the two main stars, and so it's natural for certain fan groups to spring up advocating their eventual smoochie-smoochie. But relationships like are the kiss (pun intended) of death for shows like this. Why not be original and have the main character have a dating life outside her obsessive, creepy world? Early on in "The X-Files," Dana Scully went on one date. One. In nine years. So much lost potential. Dunham's a pretty lady; she doesn't have to be a nun. Just don't have her date on the job. Totally unprofessional.

• Develop the side characters: The great shows have never been afraid to leave the main characters behind for a bit and run off to explore the side characters. "Mad Men" doesn't dote on Don Draper's every cigarette, McNulty was absent for most of the fourth season of "The Wire," and "The Sopranos" managed to make room for more well-developed goombahs than just Tony Soprano. Lance Reddick (a "Wire" and "Lost" alum) is a great actor, but so far he's nothing more than a stern face and a suit. Dunham and the Bishop family are interesting, but don't make them the whole show.

• Get gross: The opening face-melting scene was shocking and memorable. But after an opening like that, the rest of the pilot struggled to match it. "Fringe" is on Fox, so I'm sure there's no pressure to be too classy. Let's see some goo!

And finally:

• Have a plan: Fans continue to grumble about the confusion of Abrams' "Alias" in its final seasons. "The X-Files" got lame sometime after the first movie came out. "Lost" has a plan and an end date and it's marching boldly and proudly to a finish that will make it a complete, satisfying whole, instead of a couple good seasons and a steady decline. Is "Fringe" a three-year show? A five-year show? Granted, ratings will dictate a lot about the number of episodes we'll ultimately see, but if they're smart, the creators will set a goal in the future and work toward it. Viewers will sense it and stick around. Start to meander or make us feel like we're being jerked around and we'll melt away like those faces on the airplane. I should say that it's my (very) unscientific theory that shows rarely improve after five years and usually rapidly decline after that mark. If "Fringe" is an immediate hit, be happy. But don't keep gambling. The longer you gamble, the more the odds grow against you.

— Patrick Kevin Day

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