I had to watch the series premier of Fringe last night just like everyone else in the country, replacing my planned preview that should have come weeks ago with this pushed review, because Fox's press people couldn't get their heads out of their bums long enough to send me a screener; rather they couldn't even take the time of day to respond to my requests for one. It was to their benefit that it played out that way, because honestly, the Fringe pilot kind of sucked.
Let's begin with what we knew about Fringe before it aired. J. J. Abrams developed the series but wasn't going to run the show, so however you view the man's talents and accomplishments, this series wasn't going to benefit very much from his limited involvement. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are writing and executive-producing. The genre is supposed to be science fiction, but that term has been warped and misused so much over the last couple of years that it's probably just your run-of-the-mill episodic drama.
The forgettable pilot all but confirmed as much.
Before I get into my list of problems -- never a good sign when you've got to start writing them down so you don't forget all of them -- I'll point out the big one that pervades the entire episode: too long and too slow. I appreciate Fox giving the series some leeway to tell their first story the way they thought it needed to be told, something you don't often find on any network, but the gift was handed to the wrong people. The hour-and-a-half premier plodded along like a TV movie with a lot of scenes that needed tightening to keep interest when there really wasn't anything going on. While it may have been necessary to cut some important scenes to fit into an hour long time slot, it would have made for far better entertainment that didn't feel more like a book or a TV movie than Fox's most anticipated series premier.
When the defining image of Lost is the plane crash, beginning Fringe with a plane incident should have been a last resort. You might as well have Joel Surnow start a new show about firefighters by opening with a bunch of CTU agents scurrying around looking for a bomb in the first scene.
Before I move off the subject of the plane, it seemed to me like the plane having an automated landing system read more like a cover for a plot hole, that being everyone on the plane was dead and therefore logically the only possible result is that it would have crashed. But that wouldn't have allowed for the cool, creepy "walk-through", so the best they could come up with is that the plane landed itself. In retrospect, if the rest of the episode hadn't had so many problems, these are the kinds of things you can easily dismiss because it makes more sense when you're "within the show."
I was never in in this show, so things like this stand out like a beacon.
Intrusive "subtitles" The first time I saw 3D text that was "in the scene" but immobile itself, as if it were a real-world object like a building, was in the opening credits for Panic Room. Great movie by the way. It was cute then because you saw it for a couple of minutes and then it went away, which is where it belongs for all time. The first time I saw it in the Fringe pilot, it was nifty, like it was in Panic Room. The second time I saw, I got worried. The third time I saw it I was already annoyed and it made my list of complaints in fourth place.
This goes back to what I was just saying about being pulled "out of the show", you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy a movie or TV show, and the further they push the envelope, the more effort is required on the part of the viewer to ignore things that defy common sense, and that's bad. You don't want the viewer having to exert effort to get over your gags to enjoy your show. Every time I saw the 3D text "in the scene", it reminded me that I'm watching a TV show, and frankly that kind of antagonizing tends to build rather than coming and going. I wouldn't be surprised if it goes away by the fourth or fifth episode -- whichever episode is currently in production that can adapt to things viewers don't like.
This is as good of a reason as any to test screen new series before audiences that can give you useful feedback. Fanboy crowds at Comic-Con that will cheer at anything don't count.
There was also questionable use of these "in-show subs" to reveal mostly redundant information. I didn't need to know what state the mental hospital was in, seeing the hospital's sign right in front of the building in the establishing shot was more than enough to know what was going on, and honestly that's the entire point of establishing shots. If you didn't establish where the scene is taking place and what is going on in that shot, so much so that you felt like you needed a damned subtitle to explain it, then you fudged the shot -- you didn't need the subtitle to duct tape it.
Non-traditional framework I had a problem with a spec script I was writing last year. My first act was written in a matter of hours but after it was done, I realized that I hadn't started a B or C storyline, something every 1-hour script has. Even though I was really happy with it, I was told by someone whose opinion I respect that you really can't wait until the second act to start the B story. Fringe just proved that you can, and also why you shouldn't do it. Without any B or C storyline, the pilot -- and this has a lot to do with the unnecessary length -- felt like it was dragging. I felt like I was watching a biography, more than anything.
I suppose it's probably because we're used to hour-longs having three concurrent storylines, it allows you to just skip right over the slow stuff and jump back and forth between scenes that are about to reach a climax in tension. It saves you from having to show people the boring stuff that lead up to the big scene, really allowing you to have a show full of nothing but big scenes.
As a consequence, you're going to sit down and instinctual look for the B and C stories because as viewers, we're conditioned to expect them. We need them to feel like an episode is working right. Maybe I'll get over it, and maybe everyone else will as well, but it sure is strange not to have the complex stories we're used to getting.
If anything, Fringe was a little too simplistic.
Needs more funny I think there should be a rule, don't bring the funny unless you're going to bring the funny. There were only two amusing moments in the 1.5 hour pilot, and both came from the Walter Bishop character. His lines about pissing himself in the car, and when they were talking about cows -- those were funny. But that's the problem, in an hour-and-a-half, there were only two funny lines in the whole pilot. It was jarring because you didn't expect it, but once you got it, it left you wanting more.
A lot more.
Don't bring the funny unless you actually intend to bring the funny.
Act Breakage A major squabble, this one: virtually every single act break -- there were far too many -- completely lacked tension or intrigue on any level. Each act break regardless of genre is supposed to hook you enough to make you stick through the commercials you don't want to see. Every act break that doesn't hook you is an invitation to pick up the remote and find something else to watch.
I found myself during several commercials checking on a baseball game and often finding myself wanting to stick with the game more than I wanted to go back to Fringe.
That's really bad.
For a pilot that probably got more work done on it than any other episode the rest of the series will ever see, how could you go to air with such a terrible screwup like this?
Unsold Drama Olivia Dunham did some crazy things that most people wouldn't do in the pilot, trusting people who have spent most of the last two decades in an insane asylum implicitly with her life and health. My problem is that while we were told why should we go to great lengths to save her guys life, we weren't sold on it. Seeing them sleeping together once doesn't sell it, it felt foreign, if anything Dunham seemed like the crazy one, not Dr. Bishop.
Is it or isn't it? Before the series debuted, Fringe seemed like The X-Files reincarnated. After the first hour, it seemed like that criticism was off the mark. In the last few minutes of the pilot, it was dead on. The setup for this show is that a woman from the FBI is going to investigate paranormal and scientific oddities across the globe looking to uncover a great big conspiracy.
Hopefully I get my point across when I say it's an X-Files ripoff but not reincarnate, because Fringe is no where near as good as The X-Files was, even just comparing pilots. X-Files had heart and charisma, Fringe is brainless slow.
Ratings Fringe won the night for Fox in the demo but not overall. If anything, Fringe's premier was disappointing, scoring only 9 million viewers. The troubled Terminator series landed 18.3 million viewers (off the back of an NFL playoff game mind you) for its pilot, plummeting to just 10 million in its second week, and struggling just to maintain more than 7 million by the time the strike cut short its debut season.
If Fringe can't even top 9 in its debut, I imagine Fox must be very disappointed.
NBC won the night with 10.2 million viewers to Fox's 8. When is the last time you heard that?