TV Review: FRINGE S5E01, A Favorite Makes An Awkward Transition

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
Is maintaining a group of characters enough to carry on a cult hit television series if everything else changes? That appears to be the question that will dominate the fifth and final season of Fringe, at least in the early going, as wholesale changes envelope the series. After four seasons of weird science and paranormal investigation investigation revolving around the clash between parallel universes, Fringe closed that story line off definitively at the end of season four and now finds its raison d'etre instead in what initially appeared to be a goofy, near-future one off from late in the fourth season. As a goof it was a fun little lark, but as the basis of what is essentially an entirely new show governed by significantly different rules? The jury is still very much out.

With the link between worlds closed, both planes saved and William Bell dealt with at the end of Season Four, Season Five instead looks to the future. And the future is radically different. The Observers - an entirely passive race throughout the entire span of the show thus far - have intervened and taken over our planet by force. They have their own army of human loyalists to enforce their will, the remnants of Fringe Division now tasked with relatively menial matters. Remnants? Yes, the original Fringe folk led a resistance to the Observers plan and - to evade capture - embedded themselves in amber with the hope that someone down the line would find and free them. Someone turns out to be Peter and Olivia's daughter, Henrietta, clinging to the hope that Walter may have a plan that could drive the Observers away.

The changes to Fringe are simply enormous here, the creators attempting to recast what has to this point been essentially an investigative / procedural show in a more action oriented mode. It's not about investigating anymore, it's about fighting and the shift is frequently jarring. In several cases - Astrid and Walter prime among them - the move to this sort of alpha dog mode is a poor fit, very much undermining the shambling charms of the characters.

More than the character shifts, however, this first episode undermines itself by simply jamming too much in and making the Observers out to be fairly incompetent villains in the process. Jammed into the storyline is the rescue of Olivia and a key piece of technology, the loss of Walter, a teary reunion between Peter and Olivia, a bit of back story about their relationship being on the rocks, an encounter with underground - literally - tech gurus, an assault on an Observer stronghold to get Walter back, and a reveal that Walter's mind has been fried - again, this now becoming the show's default position whenever they need to set up some sort of obstacle to overcome - and the technology rendered useless. Also useless are any Observer defenses as all involved simply walk in and out with relative impunity and - after the fact - safely take shelter in Henrietta's apartment despite the fact that she was VERY visible in the assault on the Observer building and anyone with an ounce of sense should be fully aware that her position has been compromised.

There are flashes of something that could be interesting here. The Observers are potentially fascinating characters and if the show dips into the reasons they have moved from observing to ruling there is the possibility of something quite strong. Henrietta, likewise, is an interesting character with an interesting back story and abilities granted to her by her pan-dimensional parentage. But more Peter / Olivia angst? Walter having his mind messed with for the zillionth time? The team as a whole becoming some sort of squad of super soldiers? That's all just kind of silly and the whole thing would have been better if the past generation had been jettisoned entirely and Henrietta given a dedicated spin off. But then again, it's only episode one. Maybe it'll get better.
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