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"Fringe" should be renewed

February 28, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
FOX's "Fringe" deserves a fourth season.

Ever since the show was moved to Friday nights, its ratings in the coveted 18 to 49 demographic have hovered somewhere around 1.5. That's on the low end of what network executives, who know that most young people are out and about on Friday nights, said would be acceptable. More young people are recording the show on their DVRs and watching it a few days later or watching it online, but I don't know if FOX counts those viewers as all that important.

That's a pity because "Fringe" has only gotten better over the last year, as the show's writers construct an increasingly complex, interesting and unique story about two universes, ours and an alternate reality that is similar but also very different from our own. The show is about the possibilities in weird science, but it is also increasingly about the emotional cost to its characters. Main characters Walter Bishop (John Noble) and Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and other cast regulars have been called upon to play two different versions of the same character, sometimes in the same scene. Earlier this season, the show alternated each week between the two universes, as our Olivia was caught in the alternate universe, trying to get home. Meanwhile, the alternate Olivia was gathering intel in our universe, masquerading as our Olivia, sleeping with an unsuspecting Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and finally heading back to her home dimension pregnant with his child.

Noble in particular has delivered an Emmy-quality performance as mad scientist Walter, from our dimension, and foreboding government leader Walternate, from the alternate reality. When our Walter's own son died, he found a way to abduct Walternate's son Peter from the other dimension, destabilizing two worlds and wreaking emotional havoc on the boy and on two different sets of parents in the two different realities. Though Walter planned to return the boy to the other dimension after he'd cured him of the illness that killed his own son, it proved more difficult than he'd expected. In the alternate dimension, a devastated Walternate drank himself into oblivion every night to forget about his lost son and his marriage ended up on the rocks.

Last Friday's episode, titled "Subject 13," took viewers back to the aftermath of Walter's abduction of the preteen Peter. The mad scientist is running illicit experiments on a group of children at a Jacksonville, Fla., daycare center. All of the children had a drug called cortexiphan injected into their bodies when they were toddlers that has given them different extrasensory abilities, including the ability to read each other's thoughts, set fire to things with their minds, teleport from one location to another and, in the young Olivia's case, the ability to travel to the alternate universe when she is terrified. Young Olivia (Karley Scott Collins) has reason to be terrified since she is Walter's lab rat at school and at home is being regularly beaten by her evil stepfather. Walter thinks young Olivia is the key to returning young Peter (Chandler Canterbury) to the world where he belongs, but Walter thinks the only way he can do it is leaving her in an abusive home. If she is taken away from her stepfather, her ability to travel between dimensions might disappear.

Meanwhile, young Peter is doing his level best to get home on his own. Fearing that he would be sent to a mental hospital if he knows the truth, Walter and his wife Elizabeth (Orla Brady) have lied to Peter that his memories are mixed up because of his long illness and they are his real mother and father. But in the opening scenes of the episode, Peter sneaks out onto a frozen lake, ties a cement block to himself and plunges into the deep. He believes his lost home is at the bottom of the lake. Even after he is saved from drowning by Elizabeth, he refuses to believe her.

When the troubled young Olivia and young Peter finally meet, it is in a field full of white tulips that has a lot of symbolic significance. In the Fringe mythology, seen in a season two episode of the series, the white tulip signals forgiveness of sins, the possibility of immortality, imagination, love and regret. The two children have an instant connection. Peter urges Olivia to tell Walter about her stepfather; Peter tells her that his mom has said he can use his imagination to create a world as he likes it to be. They hold hands in the field of white flowers as Olivia's imagination makes snow flakes drop down from a Floridian sky. It is a scene that probably foreshadows their role as star-crossed lovers in the series. It also holds the seeds of what might be their ultimate doom.

Olivia does tell Walter the truth about her stepfather, only she has inadvertently flashed into the alternate dimension and tells Walternate instead. So it is young Olivia who is responsible for cluing Walternate into the truth about what happened to his son and setting him on the path of revenge. Our Walter can't quite bring himself to use Olivia and warns her stepfather that he will contact Social Services if Olivia is hurt or frightened in any way. Meanwhile, young Peter has decided he's never going to go home, begins to let himself be brainwashed and starts calling Elizabeth "Mom." Elizabeth, who viewers know eventually killed herself, is started on her unstable path in the episode and begins drinking to numb her guilt and stress.

It is a back story that, as usual, answers some questions and leaves viewers with more to be answered. What happened in between 1985 and their next meeting as adults to make Olivia forget her past as Walter's test subject and her memorable meeting with Peter? What happened to make Peter forget about the alternate dimension and his meeting with Olivia? Having watched the show for three years, I'm guessing the answer has something to do with mad scientist Walter, drugs and shock treatments.

It will be a crime if this fine science fiction show is forced to end its run before it is able to answer all those questions or fully play out the story that has so expertly been set up. Intelligence and originality is a rarity on television these days, especially when it comes to science fiction dramas. Please watch "Fringe." The show airs at 8 p.m. Fridays on FOX.

 
 

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