TV on DVD: Fringe -- The Complete First Season (2008-2009)

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Late into the premiere season of J.J. Abrams' most recent smash hit Fringe, our rebellious yet loyal and level-headed lead Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) queries his mad but brilliant scientist father, Walter (John Noble) if he wants to hear a thorough explanation of a truly terrifying event.

Since the likable Jackson is essentially playing an audience surrogate (in a long overdue return to television for one of Dawson's Creek's most talented alumni), it's an ideal question to ask considering his follow-up of wondering whether or not he'll ever be able to sleep again. Without missing a beat, Walter taps right into the saving grace of the macabre series via playful banter and the need to address our own reaction to the gruesome stimuli and situations when he counters that sleep isn't the main concern, it's best to judge “whether you want to sleep with the lights on or off.”

And essentially, that exchange sums up the main question regarding a television audience's willingness to go along with the intelligent but often overwhelmingly unsettling Fringe experience. Although according to the Warner Brothers press release that arrived with the review copy of the exquisitely packaged seven disc set, more than ten million viewers tuned in every single week, yet I'm wondering how many like this reviewer had to fight the urge to put their hands in front of their eyes as if we were mentally retreating back to childhood three or four times in any given episode.

Engrossing yet not for the faint of heart, audiences will want to be forewarned what they can expect to encounter in Abrams' throwback to creep show creature features updated with a 2.0 high tech mindset via its contemporary paranoiac present day science fiction backdrop.

Openly inspired by the films of David Cronenberg, the movie Altered States and television shows such as The X-Files and The Twilight Zone, Abrams' latest opus is incredibly ambitious yet fearlessly willing to cull from a very familiar well with endless homage to other masters and thematically similar works that lurk within any given episode. By now, an increasingly science fiction savvy audience is able to cite comparisons to not just the aforementioned series but also Cameron's Dark Angel and Terminator franchise, Joss Whedon's Buffy and Angel, NBC's Heroes, cable TV's The 4400, the stories of Philip K. Dick along with movies including Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001, Alien and nods to David Lynch among others.

From I Am Legend to Brave New World to 1984 in addition to structural similarities derived from Abrams' phenomenally successful creations like Alias and Lost, Fringe is hardly uncharted territory given its formerly strange but now popular coupling of science fiction and crime scene investigation. As such, it gradually presents us with the most vile of deaths, dismemberment, extrasensory phenomena, and unexplainable events dubbed “The Pattern” which is probed throughout the scientifically charged series by a “fringe” division of Homeland Security that appropriately focuses on “fringe" cases.

Investigating "The Pattern," we meet the show's main offbeat ensemble which-- fitting to their crusade-- seem to have been working and living in the fringes as their past unexpectedly catches up with them throughout. Due to the writing team's need to constantly surprise us about the main characters, they're very hard to become acquainted with but they're improved upon by a talented cast. The fringe division is headed up by FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) along with her assistant Astrid (Jasika Nicole) and former outlaw turned man of the law, Peter Bishop who is lured into the unit to become the legal guardian of his father Dr. Walter Bishop who'd been locked away in a psychiatric asylum for years.

Fringe kicks off its intricate, familiar yet incredibly far-fetched storyline in a
lukewarm feature-length special effects driven, high octane, big budget blockbuster extravaganza pilot that nonetheless pales in comparison to the series it would become. However, the show soon begins to build into another super complicated Abrams epic that you almost need to watch with a Clue-style pad of suspects, leads, and weapons (or rather capabilities) as seemingly throwaway or incidental events are dropped like threads in one episode and then picked up again in a bizarre way about ten episodes down the line. However watching the series in quicker succession to better appreciate all of the planted clues and unexpected twists no doubt ensured it was best understood from a narrative standpoint, thereby making Fringe the type of series that like Lost will certainly garner a larger cult following on DVD and Blu-ray.

Although predictably, conspiracy is the the name of the game as Olivia and her cronies realize that the truth is hiding in plain sight, shielded by the government, pharmaceutical companies, and other dimensions. Still I must admit that unlike some of the other shows in this genre that are more universally appealing, Fringe embarks on an uphill battle given its familiar origins, over-reliance on the "freak of the week" paradigm and the fact that our heroine is constantly upstaged by even supporting characters who are better written and more fleshed out on the page.

Additionally despite my admiration for the type of genius invention we've come to take for granted when it comes to J.J. Abrams, Fringe seems to place special effects way too ahead of storyline in a show that honestly at times, I can't imagine being able to air on network television due to some of the downright horror film level amounts of gore. To this end, Fringe seems to forget the old adage that at times, it's much more terrifying to hold back on suspense than to spell it out with blood and guts each and every time as it loses its momentum by calling too much attention to the gross-out detail rather than the bigger picture.

Therefore, it's definitely a program you'll want to watch during the day time unless you want to sleep with the lights on. Likewise, you need to question yourself going in if for example you can stomach the terrifying contents of stomachs, throats and other body parts you'll see on a recurring basis along the prospect of various creepie crawlies spontaneously exiting or being trapped inside the human body of the poor soul unlucky enough to be Fringe's “freak of the week.”

Still masterfully executed in a superlative edition of the first series in collectible lenticular slipcase and a nice space-saving design, the fanboy driven DVDs for Fringe are filled with endless behind-the-scenes material. With a high quality transfer and spoiler warnings throughout to prepare you when to best appreciate certain features, Abrams and company knew going in that unlike Peter Bishop who may rather keep the lights off at night, die-hard enthusiasts would want to relish in as much information as they can with this extremely thorough case-file on "The Pattern" of Fringe.

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