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The Televisionist, Sept. 30




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It says something that on my DVR, there's AMC's "Breaking Bad," then there's "Fringe." While the first season of the Fox science fiction hit was a bit weak overall, the show became a favorite of mine during the second season, owing mostly to some dynamite plot twists and a step up in the number of "mythology" episodes that explain the over-arching plot and fewer of the less-successful "monster of the week" turns.

If you haven't watched the show up until now, you might want to try catching the back issues on Netflix Instant before you try to parachute into the increasingly-convoluted plot. Here it is in a very large nutshell: In Boston, a secret FBI team called Fringe Division investigates incidents of high-strangeness, everything from creature sightings to people turned to stone (if that sounds a bit like Fox's old cult fave, "The X-Files," it should; "Fringe" producer J.J. Abrams, of "Lost" fame, is an admitted superfan of the 1990s hit). Led by Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who is assisted by the brilliant but certifiably nuts Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his equally smart son Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the Fringe team seeks to learn the truth about a series of mind-bending events that seem to be somehow connected to a giant corporation called Massive Dynamic.

While that would probably be enough plot for any two sci-fi series, the weirdness really shifted into high gear last season, with the revelation that the world of "Fringe" is actually part of a binary universe. Each dimension contains near-identical copies of almost every person alive. What's more, at the end of season two, we learned that after the death of his son Peter as a young boy, the Dr. Walter Bishop from our side actually built a machine that allowed him to cross over to the alternate universe for the purpose of a little bi-dimensional kidnapping. Thus, "our" Peter is not Walter Bishop's son, but the son of an identical Walter Bishop from the other universe who happens to be the Secretary of Defense. And boy, is he pissed.

"Walternate" (as he's known on the show) is equally brilliant, and has started an all-out war on our universe, sending shape-shifting agents through to try to find a way to destroy us. Whether he's doing it out of revenge for his stolen son, or because he actually believes our side to be an actual threat to his universe still remains to be seen. What is clear is that — unlike our Walter, who was brain damaged by a series of experiments that left him a kind of King Lear's Fool with multiple doctorates in theoretical physics — Walternate's anger over the loss of his son has rendered him diabolically evil in a Dick Cheney sort of way; power hungry and shrewd in the extreme (it's a lot of fun watching the excellent John Noble play the two characters, especially given that the writers delight in riffing on the traits shared by Walter and Walternate). By the end of season two, the inter-dimensional Cold War had become so heated that the two Olivia Dunhams had actually swapped universes, with each on her way to becoming a spy/saboteur inside the others' Fringe team. Whew! Fringe-y!

I caught the first episode of the new season last week (you can watch the full episode, plus a few more from last season, at www.fox.com/fringe), and the show gives every indication that it's hitting on all cylinders. Though a burgeoning romance between Dunham and Peter Bishop is troubling (does romantically pairing the two leads in a series EVER work?), it's looking good so far, with chemical memory transplants, giant airships and some of the best action sequences on TV. Definitely worth a look, and with Abrams and company wisely staying away from the Little Green Men stuff that eventually sank "The X-Files," it's looking like it'll be around for awhile.

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