"Fringe" brings the stupid

Back in March, Peter made the following observation about lots of people’s favorite show: “Here’s the problem with ‘Lost.’ It asks ‘why’ but answers ‘what’ and ‘how.’” Brilliant! I thought when I read that. I had failed to get with the program and like “Lost,” despite implorings from all directions. And the reason was the whole thing felt like a contraption, a plot machine detached from any underlying reality or purpose. (I can hang through the McGuffin logic of the Maltese Falcon, but a whole TV season of it, or several, and some people are going to start feeling like they’re just being jerked around.) And when I saw Mission Impossible III, which is efficiently constructed but soulless and style-dead, I thought, we have a pattern here. J. J. Abrams is a very modern type, the auteur as engineer.

So I wasn’t exactly optimistic about “Fringe.” I was hoping to like it, though. I was needing a new show, and it had some decent reviews. My discovery after a few episodes that “Fringe” is soulless and style-dead wasn’t quite a disappointment. But the hours I spent watching it were a sort of joyless enduring. There are some bright spots in the large cast of “Lost,” but the tight ensemble of “Fringe” ranges from bland to blandly off-putting. Even Lance Reddick of “The Wire” has the chilly appeal squeezed out of him in “Fringe.” In moving from supporting roles to a central character, Joshua Jackson proves that he belongs in supporting roles. And Anna Torv, as the head agent person…I just can’t imagine a casting session in which people in charge of finding a lead for a multimillion dollar TV project decided, “Yes! This Anna Torv woman has just what we’re looking for!” since, besides a certain quality of looking like she needs to take a nap, she doesn’t have anything.

But “Fringe” is even flatter in its approach than “Lost” is, in Peter’s characterization. “Fringe” is not only not interested in “why,” it’s not really interested in “how” either. That leaves “what.” Despite the exotic realities it deals in, “Fringe” offers very little in the way of explanation. Instead, it takes its flakey fringe science and simply throws it at the audience. There are some lab procedures, along with some gratuitous CSI-style scalpeling (it’s one of those vivisectional shows where the gore is joined not to violence on live people but to policework on dead ones), but they occur in an explanatory vacuum. I get a kick out of the sort of sci fi in which the alternate reality is close enough to our own reality that the explanation has a buzz of its own, where there’s a little sci with the fi, and you’re thinking, “If only….” “Fringe,” though, operates according to an epistemology that can be summed up as: “Don’t bother.”

Then what are all the lab procedures for, if not discovery, explanation? They provide a sort of the outer form of investigation and discovery, a mime of science. It’s like watching someone clatter away at a keyboard that you know isn’t hooked up to a computer.