A Walk on the Weird Side: The Fascinating World of Fringe

J.J. Abrams’s overlooked gem explores parallel universes

Matt Frati
Jan 16 · 8 min read

Have you ever wondered where your life might have gone if you’d made some different choices along the way? What if I’d taken that job that I always regretted turning down? What if I’d gotten up the nerve to talk to the cute guy or girl I saw at that bar? Ever contemplated what the world would be like if certain key moments in our evolution and history had turned out differently or just not happened at all?

Thoughts like these are bound to spring up in our lives when we’re forced to make only one decision or another, as is usually the case. Certain choices lead us down particular paths, paths which may deviate quite dramatically if we had made another choice. Might we feel better about some of our decisions if we could get a glimpse of a world in which we made an alternate decision? What about if we could look into worlds where each of the possible choices was playing out simultaneously?

As crazy as this may sound it might not be quite as far-fetched as it seems. According to the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics, which studies the smallest elementary particles such as atoms along with their smaller constituent protons and electrons, which exist in an infinitesimally tiny realm ruled by fuzzy probability, there exists an infinite number of parallel realities in which every possible outcome is playing out. The many-worlds theory posits the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes, many of which may very well be populated by alternate versions of ourselves, some virtually identical and others different in subtle and radical ways. These differences may be the result of random and unforeseen changes in our genetics or our upbringing and environment or they may be the cumulative result of these alternate selves making different choices over the course of their lives.

The idea of alternate realities and parallel universes is nothing new to the realms of science and science fiction. Popular film and television have often made use of this inherently appealing concept to explore the idea of “what if” scenarios where different key choices were made and events, both personal and historical, played out differently. Still, perhaps few films or shows have explored the parallel universe idea as thoroughly or as satisfyingly as the criminally overlooked series Fringe. Co-created by J.J. Abrams and premiering in 2008 when Abrams’ other show Lost was still holding tv viewers in its mysterious sway, Fringe was initially stamped as a spooky procedural show heavily indebted to the X-Files in its episodic investigations of weird and freakishly gruesome paranormal occurrences. The similarities continued in the lead character of FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (played by the wonderful Anna Torv), initially painted as a pseudo-successor to The X-Files own Special Agent Dana Scully.

Despite these similarities, Fringe dealt with occurrences more rooted in scientific concepts as opposed to flat out paranormal or extraterrestrial phenomena. As the title indicates, the series revolves around phenomena at the very fringes of scientific progress including, among other things, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, thought control, reanimation, and cross-species transgenics along with some particularly nasty biological weapons. To help her make sense of these bizarre occurrences, Olivia enlists the help of a former scientific researcher, Walter Bishop, a man billed as the successor to Albert Einstein, whose work in the ’70s and ’80s in the area of Fringe science has ties to most of the recent events. The only problem is that Bishop’s spent the last seventeen years wasting away in a mental institution and can only be signed out by his equally brilliant but somewhat shady son, Peter Bishop. Together, these three disparate individuals investigate “The Pattern”, the string of interrelated and freakish events in which someone seems to be experimenting but using the whole world as their lab, usually with deadly and gruesome results.

Although it initially follows X-Files with its more stand-alone, freak of the week episodes, by the end of the first season Fringe begins to shed its more procedural and disparate feel and starts to slowly build up to the show’s overarching core mythology, which revolves around the revelation of a parallel universe similar yet different from ours and the preparation for a long-brewing war between both universes which was set in motion years earlier. The first season gradually sets the stage for these wild revelations and from the second season on, Fringe keeps the surprises coming, introducing even more far out and creepy Scientific concepts while continuing to develop the main characters and deepening their surprising and complex relationships to one another.

Season Two and Three took a deep dive into this parallel universe, showing us in myriad clever and fascinating ways the similarities and shocking differences between both worlds, creating two simultaneous and compelling shows in one package. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect was the show’s exploration of our characters’ alternate selves. Through them, we (along with the main characters) are afforded the chance to see how their lives turned out under different circumstances and different choices in a different world. The parallel universe in Fringe remains an unending creative source for exploring how an entire universe might be altered if different choices are made and allowed to branch out exponentially.

Throughout the show’s mind-blowing universe jumping and freaky Fringe occurrences, what shines through most brilliantly is the performances of the actors and the relationships of their characters. Walter Bishop is played by the brilliantly nuanced and mercurial John Noble who swings effortlessly from moments of delightful lunacy and drug-fueled eccentricity to tearful moments of deep remorse and profound wisdom. Walter’s brilliance is obvious, but his years in the mental institution have left him mentally fractured, untethered to reality, and prone to mad flights of fancy and sudden bursts of anger. His constant ingestion of psychedelics doesn’t help much although it does make for most of the show’s funniest moments and best snippets of memorable, off-the-cuff dialogue. Noble brings such dimensionality and lovable exuberance to Walter, just brushing the best bits of the mad scientist archetype without being trapped in a cliché. Central to Walter is his difficult journey of self-acceptance and hope of redemption with his son and for his past scientific trespasses against nature and humanity.

Walter’s son, Peter, played by the great Joshua Jackson, is another brilliant but troubled character. Estranged from his father for years at the show’s start, Peter is initially bitter towards his father for his frequent absence and neglect during his childhood and is very reluctant to help Olivia release Walter from the mental hospital. He’s even more reluctant to act as Walter’s impromptu babysitter as he awkwardly (and hilariously) tries to reacclimatize to the outside world, but Olivia uses the threat of revealing Peter’s whereabouts to certain people if he doesn’t cooperate. Peter hasn’t exactly used his ample brilliance to help mankind but instead is a shady con-man, using his vast knowledge and roguish charm to scam people in places as far away as Baghdad. Although Peter initially treats his father like a dangerous lunatic who never should’ve been released, he gradually comes to see that his father possesses more depth and hard-won wisdom than he previously thought. The fraught evolution of their complex and troubled relationship makes for many of the show’s most achingly beautiful moments.

The show’s protagonist is the determined and highly motivated FBI agent Olivia Dunham, played by the underrated Anna Torv. Although her character was criticized in the first season as being wooden and emotionless, critics at the time didn’t understand that these were deliberate aspects of the character, ones which masked a deep reservoir of empathy and emotion which came out in beautiful ways as the show progressed and we got to know the character better. Olivia’s one of the toughest, most driven yet caring female characters in television history. As an agent, she’s tenacious in getting the job done and catching the bad guys without ever having to rely on her sexuality or gratuitous violence. She’s tough as nails when needed and also compassionate and caring when the occasion calls for it. As the show sheds light on her very troubled past, it becomes clear that Olivia is a multi-dimensional person with a deep capacity for feeling buried beneath a tough layer of armor. Anna Torv conveys Olivia’s guarded and slightly haunted quality perfectly, making it all the more heartbreaking on the rare occasions when the armor breaks down. The journey of her character over five seasons is one of the show’s many highlights.

At its heart, underneath all the wonderfully weird and mind-blowing Sci-Fi dressings, Fringe is a show about a group of outcasts, three outsiders who exist on the fringes of regular society brought together by powerful forces and ultimately forming a loving little family. Each of these characters is fractured by traumatic experiences in their respective pasts, but together they tap into the best parts of themselves to make each other better and make the world a safer place. One of Fringe’s greatest strengths is how it uses such far-out scientific concepts such as parallel universes and alternate timelines to plumb the depths of its characters and highlight their multi-faceted variety under differing circumstances. Through these devices, we see how we’re all shaped by countless factors in our lives, both small and large, seen and unseen, and how one crucial difference can bring hidden characteristics to the surface and send us down a completely different path.

For those who dig scientific concepts at their wildest and freakiest extremes, Fringe will most certainly grab you with its far-out phenomenon and mind-melting twists, but what will keep you strapped into this wild rollercoaster ride is the love you’ll develop for these rich and beautifully detailed characters and their complex but ultimately unbreakable bonds to each other, bonds strong enough to endure all manner of universe breaking, spacetime shattering events. These characters become like members of your family and seeing these people you love suffer through the most unimaginable tragedies and heartbreak makes any happy ending feel as if it’s truly been earned, both for the characters and the viewers suffering with them.

Ultimately, Fringe achieves what the best Sci-Fi dramas set out to achieve, namely a deep and compelling exploration of ourselves in all our various shades; what makes us who we are and why, all filtered through a surreal and often dark funhouse mirror wherein we may catch glimpses of our deeper selves and perhaps make decisions about what kind of person we’d like to be. More than perhaps any show in recent history, Fringe was never afraid to explore the multitude of possibilities that exist right there on the edge of our imagination.

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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and…

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Matt Frati

Written by

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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