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Fringe: The Complete First Season (2008-2009)

Warner Home Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 9/8/2009

All Ratings out of
Show: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/14/2009

(In order for this to work, we must assume that I, and everyone reading this, are regular watchers of television.) What perfect timing for this review. The new Fall TV season is upon us and there are many new shows and returning programs. The question is, how do you decide what to watch? Do you scour magazines and websites reading about every show in an attempt to make an informed decision? Do you DVR everything and try to sample it all whenever you can? (Do you wait to get the DVD, as I usually do?) Or do you go with a gut feeling? When ads for Fringe began to appear last summer, I was intrigued. J.J. Abrams has a good track record, and as a huge fan of Lost, I was willing to give it a try. Although he was often overshadowed by his Dawson's Creek co-stars, I like Joshua Jackson and his presence was a plus. Thus, I watched the show and was instantly hooked. Now that, Fringe: The Complete First Season is on Blu-ray Disc, I can re-assess what made the show work in the first place.

Fringe introduces us to a diverse group of characters. FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), along with her trusted partner Charlie Francis (Kirk Avecedo), is part of a team investigating an aircraft full of dead passengers. Dunham is then summoned by Agent Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), who informs Dunham that this incident is the latest in what is called "The Pattern" -- events which included unexplained scientific phenomena. Walter Bishop (John Noble) is a scientist who has spent nearly two decades in a mental hospital after being convicted of mansalughter. He is a brilliant man, but he's given to flights of fancy and it is difficult to communicate with him. His son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), is brought in (against his will) to assist the FBI. They want Walter to examine the incidents from "The Pattern" to see if he can offer any assistance. Walter immediately recognizes the work as being similar to experiments which he conducted in the 1980s. The clues lead to a huge conglomerate called Massive Dynamics, which is run by Walter's old research partner. As more and more odd things occur all over the northeastern part of the U.S., Dunham, Peter, and Walter find themselves getting closer to a secret which could have a devastating effect on all of mankind.

If you are thinking, "This sounds like The X-Files.", then you are absolutely right. Fringe is a lot like The X-Files. Dunham takes on the Scully role, as she's a concrete realist who has never experienced any strange occurrences (or so she thinks!). In an interesting move, the Mulder character has been split in two. Peter is the young, brash, suave wise-ass who isn't afraid to buck the system, while Walter is the haunted expert in the paranormal who's past has left him scarred. The show's format is even similar to The X-Files. There are episodes which focus solely on events from "The Pattern" and getting closer to Massive Dynamics and the others involved in the ever-growing number of odd happenings. But, there are also stand-alone episodes which step away from this big story-arc to focus on one small story, such as "Power Hungry" or "Unleashed".

But, this shouldn't imply that Fringe is wholly unoriginal or a copy-cat show, because it isn't. For one thing, Dunham is brought into an FBI sub-group which already believes in strange events. Unlike Mulder, no one here is climbing an uphill battle to convince the bureaucracy that there are things beyond the pale. Fringe wisely shifts the conspiracy theories away from the government and onto a large multi-national corporation. If The X-Files made one great mistake (in addition to totally losing focus in its latter seasons), it's that it only gave the viewer two choices; you either identify with the skeptic or the believer. Here, the levels of belief are much more flexible, and most viewers will find a way into the show.

The strongest suit on Fringe (aside from the cast, more on that in a moment) is the writing. J.J. Abrams & Co. set a new bar for TV writing with Lost and Fringe follows suit. The shows' narrative structure is much more linear and straight-forward than Lost, but it's never afraid to leave the viewer in the dark. We are along for the ride with Dunham and we are learning everything just as she does. Again, the show does a good job of balancing the free-standing shows with the overall-arc ones, but each allows the characters to grow and for the audience to become more deeply entwined in the story. The show also doesnít back down from portraying some pretty hardcore science-fiction. The talk of viruses and matter transmission is never watered down for the masses.

As for the cast, they are excellent. Before Fringe, I was not familiar with John Noble, but he steals the show as Walter. With those peculiar teeth (are those real) filling up that demented smile, Walter may be one of the craziest lead characters ever on a show. And Noble is easily able to balance both the childlike and somber traits which Walter shows. Joshua Jackson seems to be most at home when playing easy-going guys, and thus heís a natural as Peter. We can literally feel his boredom and apathy at times, and this makes his more emotional scenes all the more powerful. Iím beginning to come around on Anna Torv, but I still think she plays Dunham as a bit too restrained.

I applaud any network show which presents well-written science-fiction to a television audience, and itís all the more appealing when it has the goopy, horror-tinged ideas found in Fringe. The show is very well-written, the pacing is good, the special effects are usually top-notch, and the main characters are appealing. Season 1 ended with one of the best punch-to-the-gut twists that Iíve ever seen on network TV, so I canít wait to see what Season 2 holds.

Fringe: The Complete First Season goes over to the other side on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Warner Home Video. The five-disc boxed set contains all 20 episodes of the show's first season. The episodes have been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at 20 Mbps. The image is incredibly sharp and clear, showing very subtle grain and no defects from the source material. The level of detail and depth is very good. The colors look good, although due to the show's style, the hues are somewhat muted at times. Aside from some mild blurring, the image is better than HD broadcast. The Disc contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 640 kbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. I would have preferred a lossless track, but the audio here is OK. The stereo and surround effects are effective during key scenes, and the bass is OK, but somewhat soft at times when is really should have come through.

The Fringe: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Disc release contains several extra features spread across the five-disc set. Each episode contains "Fringe: Deciphering the Scene". These are brief segments which examine how a particular scene from the episode was done. They typically focus on a set-piece which was done on-location. Four episodes -- "Pilot", "The Ghost Network", "The Transformation", "There's More Than One of Everything" -- offer "The Massive Undertaking", which are brief making-of featurettes which show how certain aspects of the show were done and what the thought process was behind them. Five episodes -- "The Ghost Network", "The Arrival", "Power Hungry", "The Equation", "Ability" -- offer "Dissected Files", which are, of course, deleted scenes. We get three AUDIO COMMENTARIES. J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci chat on "Pilot". "The Ghost Network" has commentary from David H. Goodman, J.R. Orci, and Bryan Burk. "Bad Dreams" has a talk with Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner. The remainder of the extras are found on Disc 5. "Roberto Orci's Production Diary" (13 minutes) allows the writer a chance to show us some of the making the pilot episode. He starts on-location with a cold night in Toronto and from there we see how some key scenes were shot. Along with Orci's guidance, we get comments from various cast and crew members. "Fringe Visual Effects" (15 minutes) goes through several episodes showing how a combination of different visual effects, including CGI and green screen, are used to bring the show to life. There are many examples shown here of how live-action footage is often combined with visual effects elements to create the illusion of reality. "Unusual Side Effects" is a 5-minute gag reel. "Gene the Cow" (3 minutes) examines the casting and handling of the cow which lives in Walter's lab. "Fringe Pattern Analysis" takes six episodes and has real-life scientists discuss the realities of the ideas from these shows or the science on which the plot was based.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long