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When the wheels came off. . . SPOILER ALERT
on June 1, 2012
I wish I had the heart to watch episodes from Season Four again and give a point-by-point analysis of why I am giving this season only three stars (which I can't since this set is not yet available), but I don't think I would have the heart to do it anyway.
I have adored this show through the first three seasons, (see my review for Season Three) and as someone has already written, even in its diminished form it is still better than the vast majority of shows on TV today. Even so, this is merely damning the show with faint praise.
The only way I can try to describe what happened in Season Four is to compare it to that infamous season of "Dallas." Patrick Duffy departed, apparently thinking that broader fame awaited him once he left the schlocky show in which he'd been mired for so long. His character was killed. Then reality hit--obviously he'd made a big mistake. No new acting opportunities appeared. So they wrote him back in by making the entire previous season a dream.
If I were to guess at why Fringe's numbers turned south in Season Four, I would point first to the move to Friday night--Death Valley--but perhaps even more importantly, I would recall the writing staff's gutsy decision to make Peter literally cease to exist at the end of Season Three. What had happened by then? We fully understood that Walter had literally riven the universe to save the son (Peter) he'd already lost, then created a corps of supposed super-children, Olivia being one, whose task it would be to save their own universe once it began to collapse. Peter and Olivia had both been put through hell. Their relationship, one of the primary raison d'etres for the entire show, had been threatened by almost every conceivable force, and a few inconceivable ones. Somehow they had survived it all. We even see a future in which they are married and discussing whether it would be wise to raise children in the world they have inherited. And then Peter simply winks out of being. The Observers tell us that no one remembers him.
When Season Four begins, all of the emotional capital that had been invested in the Peter - Olivia and Peter - Walter relationships has been dissipated. Then Olivia and Walter are haunted by visions of a man they don't recognize (since he technically never existed). When he inexplicably appears, they avoid him like the plague. Olivia admits to Peter that she has seen him in her dreams, yet remains remarkably disinterested in him. Walter simply refuses to speak to him or help him in any way. These tensions eventually resolve, though in a not entirely graceful or satisfying way. I would surmise that by that time a good chunk of Fringe's already small audience had departed in frustration. In addition, viewers of Season Four really needed a good grounding in the show to make sense of/fully appreciate the contrasts in worlds created by Peter's "erasure." This made it even less likely that Fringe would find new fans.
I hung in there, and am glad I did, but there is no denying that the quality and consistency of the show suffered markedly in Season Four.
I have no way of knowing how far down Season Four's narrative line the writers had already planned at the end of Season Three. But given the erratic writing in Season Four and the underwhelming way in which Peter's reappearance and Olivia's adjustment to it are explained, it doesn't seem like they had thought it all out very well.
There were, of course, some truly wonderful episodes, including an examination of Astrid's double, and a one-off that projects well into the show's future. The acting from the entire cast remains top-notch.
I am thrilled that Fringe will be back for a mini-Season Five, and will be tuned in to every episode. But I hope the writers will be able to deliver a pre-Season Four level of quality. The actors and the fans deserve it.