Friday, December 6, 2013

Fringe and the Art of World Building

A good tv show tells a story. A great tv show builds an entire world, and then tells a story within it. The Wire brought Baltimore to bitter, bleak life. Twin Peaks radiated weirdness and suspense from every tree and owl. OZ made you feel trapped in the prison. The Office made you feel trapped in that awful, awful work environment.

When a show builds a world, it makes the viewers feel like there are other stories at play, other characters we haven’t met yet. It makes everything that happens feel bigger and more expansive, because it has a context that reverberates.

No show has ever done this better than Fringe. They got so good at it, that after a while they built a new world every season.

Fringe – for the poor, pitiful souls that don’t know – follows FBI Agent Olivia Dunham as she works for the secretive Fringe Division, investigating cases involving mad science and the supernatural. She recruits Walter Bishop, a deranged genius fresh out of the asylum, and his son Peter Bishop, a con man who goes by the name of Pacey. Together, they solve bizarre cases and save the world one week at a time.

Sound a little like X-Files? It is. But what starts as a sort of X-Files 2.0 rapidly comes into it’s own, and stands after 100 episodes as one of the best, most perfectly crafted shows ever made.

The cast is outstanding, and the stories are great, but where Fringe was ahead of its time was in world-building. (Spoilers to follow – I’ll do my best, but there is no way to discuss the show without revealing some secrets)

Season One introduces us to a world where fringe science has arrived. And although the public doesn’t know about it, the government does. Fringe Division works in the shadows, in conjunction with Massive Dynamic, a global tech corporation so rich and powerful it just HAS to be sinister. Right?

The first season is filled with hints and suspicions, but the season finale breaks open the world and changes the status quo – Yes, Olivia, there is an alternative universe, filled with a planet of our exact (or almost exact) duplicates. Season Two explores this idea to the fullest, and then raises the stakes for Season Three.

Now here’s where it gets brilliant. It’s also the same moment that loses a lot of people. During the season three finale, Peter Bishop gets thrown into an alternate future where one of the two universes has been destroyed. For a mere hour, the show creates a haunting and imaginative version of the Fringe world, and then goes back to the status quo…

For about thirty seconds. Then with whiplash speed it tosses the status quo into a dumpster and walks away whistling.

Season Four, at its outset, is set in a different version of the Fringe world. There are still two parallel universes, and all the characters we love, but it’s different now. Peter Bishop never existed in this world, and that one small change has radically affected every aspect of the Fringe world we have come to know and love. 

Of course Peter tries to find his way back to the original Fringe-verse, but what he discovers along the way changes everything! Or perhaps it changes nothing. Fringe is way deeper on an existential level than anyone would believe.

But wait, they aren’t done yet! After giving viewers some resolution at the end of Season Four, Season Five jumps ahead into a grim and desperate future. The final 13 episode season has the feel of an epic Fringe movie, with a new world to explore, and higher stakes than ever. The drama is at an all-time fever pitch, and so is the action.

Instead of giving fans of the show what they expect, Fringe goes in a new a dark path, building yet another world in which to tell their stories of love and redemption.

Oh, I didn’t mention Fringe has one of the greatest love stories ever filmed for TV? It does, but don’t let it stop you from watching it.

Most shows are heralded for building a compelling original world. Fringe never was, even when it reinvented itself and rebuilt the wheel time and time again. And what makes this a work of genius, and not just a gimmick, is that every new world ties into the old, and leads into the next. It’s a tight, cohesive, staggeringly well-plotted tale that unfolds across worlds and universes.

The complete series of Fringe, all 5 seasons, is available streaming on Netflix. Watch it. And if you don’t have Netflix, sign up for it just to watch Fringe. It’s that good.

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