J.J. Abrams has unleashed two television shows about faith and science and strange reflections of reality. Fringe will never be as popular as Lost, but it has the potential to be far greater, as it proved last night. Spoilers below...
Thing is, I still love Lost a lot, and I'm still clinging to hope that the whole "two thousand years of sibling rivalry" storyline culminates in something amazing. But I can't remember the last time Lost made me feel quite as exhilarated as last night's Fringe. Maybe it was partly because Fringe managed to work so many character beats and emotional moments into an hour, it felt like enough drama for ten Lost episodes. Or maybe it was because of the episode's loopy twists and turns, which kept knocking me off balance.
No, you know what? It's because this show is so unabashedly science fictional, and embraces the idea that science fiction stories can be simultaneously personal and intimate, and huge and widescreen. Lost has always struggled against this idea, seeming somewhat grudging about its science fiction elements and almost never throwing ideas at you as gleefully as Fringe does. Just look at this episode: It begins with Peter already on the "Other Side," and then we find out that there's some sort of Doomsday Machine that Peter's going to be hooked up to, which could destroy our world, and then we learn that William Bell may have turned himself into a molecularly fragile ghost with his universe-jumping — and that's just the first ten minutes. Lost's Daniel Faraday had moments where he approached this level of insanity, but he was never allowed to just run with it for very long.
And not to sound like a broken record, but last night's episode proves yet again that John Noble deserves to win all the Emmys, including the ones for sound and lighting design. He was that good — both as Walter Bishop and as Walternate. You could be forgiven for thinking they'd brought in a totally different actor to play the "other" Walter. Noble can run through a hundred emotions in a second, like in the scene where he's searching through his papers because he's forgotten something important. And the bit where he apologized to the Cortexiphan redshirts, and explained that they believed the Earth needed guardians, managed to be both heart-breaking and stirring. And the moment of prayer! And then despite everything that's at stake, Walter still manages to exhibit some of his trademark childlike curiosity and verve at exploring the Other Side.
It's been a long time since Lost's Michael Emerson has gotten the chance to show his range like that.
And there were tons of other great character moments in the episode, including Olivia drinking alone, Peter talking with his "real" mom about his adoptive mom, alt-Astrid stressing about whether to initiate quarantine protocol, alt-Olivia's relationships with Charlie and her squeeze Frank, and the Cortexiphan redshirts' surprising choices for their traditional "last night of cutting loose before the suicide mission."
But also Fringe has something Lost can never have, at this point — a cohesive mythos that fuses the personal and the universal. I'm not saying that Lost's mythos isn't rich and textured, or that Lost won't bring all of its huge threads together in its final episodes. But Lost long since abandoned the opportunity to have a single story thread that's as profound and multifaceted as the story of Walter and Peter Bishop.
Everything revolves around the single act of Walter Bishop bringing his son back from the other universe — he did it to save Peter's life, but he knew the consequences could be horrific. And more and more, we're seeing that life Over There has been one long disaster ever since, turning their Fringe Division into something much more paramilitary. Plus even though Peter lived as a result, the act destroyed both Bishop families, and led to Walter becoming the ruined, faded creature he is today. (The bit where he compares himself to the old theater is utterly moving.) That foundational act is such a rich source of weirdness and drama, what with Peter's identity crisis and Walter's struggles to contain the damage, I don't think we've even seen half of what's there.
And had I missed it previously, or was this the first time we learned that an Observer told Walter that he could never return Peter to the other universe, a few years after Walter brought Peter over? This whole mess is looking more and more like the Observers' fault.
Oh, and do you think aliens really killed our psychic abilities? Maybe that's the plot of season four!
I think maybe the main difference between Fringe and Lost — and the reason why, ultimately, Fringe has the potential to be something greater — is that Fringe is pulpier and Lost is more literary. There's copious amounts of weirdness in Lost, but it's always submerged in texture, and the personal stories are often used to keep us at arms-length from the heart of the weirdness. In Fringe, the weirdness is the heart of the show, and all the personal relationships revolve around it unapologetically. Fringe is less allusive, less full of weird cultural referents, and much more intent on bombarding you with weird science and cool images. Nobody ever stares at a Flannery O'Connor book on Fringe, that I've noticed anyway.
But here's the thing — pulp is the new literature, thanks to writers like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon who've embraced the pulpy ideas of yore. And by being so committed to its loopy science fiction premise, Fringe achieves a kind of purity of storytelling that is admirable and bracing. Walter Bishop shows all the signs of becoming one of literature's great tragic heroes, a blend of Don Quixote and James Orin Incandenza. And Walter is so memorable and such a stark character precisely because he exists in a pulp story of alternate universes and molecular ghosting — you couldn't remove him from that milieu and have him retain the same resonance.
So yeah, by having fewer literary aspirations, Fringe may actually end up being more literary than Lost. Check back in a couple years, when we've all had a chance to rewatch all six seasons of Lost a few times, and Fringe is either soaring or plummeting in its fourth season. But last night's episode definitely makes a strong case that Fringe is on its way to becoming the show that Lost has always wanted to be.