Sunday, May 10, 2009

TV: Smart drama and the real fringe

Fringe is an investigative/sci-fi, serial drama created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci which airs on Fox and wraps us season one Tuesday night. Fringe is also the reason this site didn't go dark in November as planned.


We had problems with the show when it started and, as noted September 14, 2008, when we expressed those problems to "a writer for the show, we were asked to wait until the mid-season to review the show (changes are promised -- don't believe it)." Our problems were we weren't in the mood for another remake of Deanna Durbin's 100 Men and A Girl. We weren't in the mood for another show where one woman was paired with a cast of men.

When we raised that issue, we were told, "Blair Brown's in the cast!" Yes. The good woman and the bad woman. The dualities. Nothing new or novel there. We can trace the dualities as far back as The Dick Van Dyke Show (stay-at-home wife Laura versus working gal Sally) and further if you give us time. We were told that was a valid criticism and they were already at work on it. We didn't place a lot of faith in that statement but agreed (without thinking) to wait until at least mid-season to review it because the changes would be in place by then.

In promising that, we extended the life of this site (without realizing we were doing that). Now we hear all the time from writers, show runners, performers, "We're going to fix that. We're going to address that." And they never do. A sitcom that utilized one of our friend's life (life, love life and profession) promised to fix its flaws but in the end got canceled because it never dealt with them. But Fringe actually did do something. More needs to be done but they've given the lead character, Olivia, a sister and a niece who've moved in with her and added FBI agent Astrid (the wonderful Jasika Nicole). Blair Brown basically does cameos. So without the addition of the three females, you'd have entire episodes where, unless a victim was a woman, you might never encounter a female character other than Olivia.

Olivia is a federal agent who, in the first episode, had to try to save her partner (and lover) from an unknown disease/condition. It turned out that he'd been exposed to a contagion as part of his efforts to betray the country and engage in bio-warfare. Except it turned out, after he was dead and after Olivia communicated with him via William Hurt's old isolation tank from Altered States, that he was actually infiltrating the ring for the government and was deep undercover. The multi-national corporation Massive Dynamics has him currently in some sort of suspended animation. Oliva has Walter Bishop (John Noble) working with her. In order to achieve that goal, she had to track down his son Peter (Joshua Jackson) because she needed Peter in order to see Walter who was institutionalized and is the text book definition of not only the absent minded professor but also the mad scientist. When Olivia was a child, Walter and his partner William Bell (Leonard Nimoy in Tuesday's finale) conducted experiments on Olivia and other children. A fact she didn't know until much later in the season. Walter has a lab in Harvard University (actually Yale) and works there with Peter and Astrid and a cow.

If this is all getting too confusing, please note, we're not done yet and at least the show, unlike the comic book, hasn't brought in Nazis . . . yet. (In the fourth issue of the six edition comic Fringe, on sale now, Nazi Hans Froelich is revealed to be Walter Bishop's father.)

Fringe deals with 'fringe' science and with things that could never, ever happen. It's so out there, right?

Nothing nutty ever happens in real life, right?

Well let's take a look.

Last week President Barack Obama tried to 'regular Joe' it with Joe Biden and MSNBC embarrassed themselves (yes, that's still possible) by having Andrea Mitchell ooh and awe over it on live TV as if it were news that two middle aged men got a burger. Were there any news to be found in the two going out for fast food it was when Barack insisted upon Dijon mustard for his burger. It's that sort of 'flourish' that keeps the Celebrity-in-Chief Barry O! and Michelle the crazy woman in the attic. Yes, America, Barack is his own trophy wife.

That wasn't even the weirdest of the weird; however.

There was David Simon appearing before Congress. For those not in the know, Simon's a bad writer, a bad White writer, who employed other Whites to write about being African-American in America. Or rather to write stereotypes about being African-American in America. The Wire was for the middle-aged White male what corporate rap is for White boys in suburbia, a way to get 'cred' and be 'down' via, quite honestly, stereotypes that suppress African-Americans.

Just as all the White young dopes love them some 'gangsta' rap, all the White boys of the Docker set love them some 'gansta' shows. They be keeping real . . . real ugly, real racist. Novel concept: White male 'creative geniuses' need to stop using the n-word. There's no need for it. It's not 'realistic' because it's got nothing to do with David Simon's life. But apparently, writing about all the time he spends on the toilet each Saturday night after an all day pig out wouldn't pass for 'gritty' TV.

Simon cast himself as Stella Johnson, squeezed into his mini-skirt and marched into Senator John Kerry's hearing to offer a loopy testimony on the wonders of journalism . . . in 1972. As we listened, we wondered if we were having an acid trip but then decided it was all on him as he did everything but insist, "Well you're the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet and I'm just a good old fashioned Harper Valley hypocrite."

At one point, the bald blowhard declared, "Indeed, the very phrase 'citizen journalist' strikes my ear as Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker, just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters."

We don't say "citizen firefighter," insisted Davy Simon. But we do say "volunteer firefighter." A point he intentionally overlooked.

The shocking thing wasn't that he continued to pontificate but that Democracy Now! elected to broadcast his garbage. He was so nutty that if he'd crossed his legs and his 'sunshine' had fallen out from under his skirt, we wouldn't have been at all surprised.

Nutty? 'Fringe'? We're not sure if it was the woman who appeared on Oprah last week or her idiot followers online. The woman was Elizabeth Edwards.

Lizzie's got a new book because, apparently, self-obsession is part of her therapy. She's been married to John Edwards for many, many years. John had an affair with Rielle Hunter (we don't know Rielle, we do have several friends in common with her). Rielle had a baby.

Lizzie wanted to talk turkey, Lizzie wanted to be honest and the real question to ask her was, "Why now?" She should have been honest when it mattered since it turns out she knew about the affair much sooner than was thought.

Some have pointed out that Elizabeth Edwards attacked Hillary Clinton during the Democratic Party primaries and that John Edwards hid behind his wife's skirts. That's true and it's false. John attacked Hillary as well and Elizabeth usually included some criticism of Barack in her interviews. That said, by the third or fourth time of the media (such as The New York Times) running with "Elizabeth Attacks Hillary!" and ignoring her comments about Barack, Elizabeth knew damn well that she was being used by the media to attack Hillary and she should have known that before because the media was desperate to create a cat fight (and grossly disappointed when Ann Coulter, of all people, wouldn't take the bait on Hillary).

When John embarrassed himself with his 'I have sinned' interview, we didn't have any sympathy for him. In part because, for all her 'letting it all hang out' pose, we've heard the stories for years now about John Edwards many supposed affairs. Rielle may be the first one publicly known but she does not appear to be his first affair. And it's a shame that Elizabeth is building her 'defense' (such a lawyer) around the claim that it was.

Time's short, especially when you have cancer. You don't have time for self-delusions. In the Edwards Fairy Tale, one adopted by a number of woman bloggers who should know better, John and Elizabeth lived in the Garden of Eden, or at least Allah, and all was perfect and wonderful between the two of them until one day, many, many years later, Rielle slinked onto stage. She lurked, she tempted and poor John, probably heady from a hot oil treatment, finally caved.

Rielle is an adventurous woman, according to mutual friends. She is not, however, a rapist. And to be Elizabeth or one of her online supporters, you pretty much have to cast Rielle as a rapist. It is all so much slut-shaming that we keep expecting the same actresses who played Amy Fisher in TV movies years ago (Drew Barrymore and Alyssa Milano among them) to show up playing Rielle.

Rielle's a grown woman, unmarried. She can sleep with whomever she wants. It's her business. She's not taken a vow to anyone. Elizabeth Edwards told Oprah, "There is no excuse for women to do this. Women need to have respect for other women."

Really, Liz? Let's see, in July of 2007, you began falsely stating that Hillary was saying women (and men) should vote for her because she was a woman (Hillary never said any such thing). You told Ladies Home Journal in 2006 that you and Hillary both had law degrees and married lawyers but "I think my choices have made me happier. I think I'm more joyful than she is." You pushed the lie that Hillary (the one who would garner the most voters in the Democratic Party primaries) wasn't electable, "I want to be perfectly clear: I do not think the hatred against Hillary Clinton is justified. I don't know where it comes from; I don't begin to understand it. But you can't pretend it doesn't exist, and it will energize the Republican base. Their nominee won't energize them, Bush won't, but Hillary as the nominee will. It's hard for John to talk about, but it's the reality." Electable? You knew, at that point, that your husband had an affair and you're questioning whether or not Hillary is electable? You know that at any moment the news of the affair can come out in the press and you're questioning whether Hillary could win the general election? What was hard for John and Elizabeth Edwards to talk about was his cheating ways and that's reality.

Yet after doing all of that damage and so much more to the first viable female candidate for the US presidency, Elizabeth Edwards wants to finger point at Rielle and say, "There is no excuse for women to do this. Women need to have respect for other women."

As we noted, a lot of bloggers want to believe in St. Elizabeth. (Ha.) And as a result, they rush to demonize Rielle. They rush to demonize so quickly that they pretend there is no victim here.

There is a victim. Rielle's child. The daughter may or may not be John Edwards' child. But Frances Quinn Hunter is a baby and she doesn't deserve to have Elizabeth Edwards talking about her on TV, spitting out the word "it" over and over to Oprah in reference to her.

It's good that Elizabeth has stopped insisting that she 'knows' the child isn't John's. She knows no such thing. But she needs to stop attacking the child. She doesn't have to like Frances, she doesn't have to know the child, but she does have to stop referring to a living, breathing human being as "it." Frances Quinn Hunter didn't do a damn thing to Elizabeth Edwards.

John Edwards cheated on Elizabeth. Rielle didn't. John Edwards lied to Elizabeth. So it was really funny to watch Elizabeth's blogging crew online work overtime to support Lizzie and attack Rielle. One huffed, "After a marriage of 30 years, she has a lot invested in the man." Yeah, too much invested in him as was obvious during the Kerry campaign when John and Elizabeth were the picture of harmony (remember the front page photo of all their kids frolicking in the summer of 2004?) but when the press moved on, things weren't so pretty. While Teresa Heinz Kerry was ready to go any and everywhere (and did, winning over a huge number of Latinos in Texas with a speech tying her immigrant story into America's shared history), Elizabeth preferred not to be too far from her husband and the rumors of his straying were already rampant within the Kerry campaign. Elizabeth did have "a lot invested in the man," in fact, she had too much.

She still does. She told Oprah she loved John but wasn't sure she was in love with him. In December 2006, he told her of the affair. He's lied to her about the affair (by her own admission) but she was told he'd cheated and told by him in December of 2006. Now we're not saying, "If she were a strong woman, she would have left him!" It is her decision. She needs to do what makes her happy and comfortable. Any spouse learning of an affair needs to do that. It may mean a divorce or separating. It may mean working through it. That's a decision for the person cheated on to make and no one can make it for her or him.

But that's almost two and a half years ago. We're not saying, "Get over it!" We are saying a smart woman should know by now what she wants to do. If she's not in love with the man, she should have left him. It's not healthy for her or for him. And there is something very sick about their marriage with her going on television to declare maybe she's in love with him, maybe she's not. Common sense was the one thing Elizabeth Edwards was supposed to have and it's the one thing which has been consistently absent since her husband went public with the affair.

Or how about a guilty verdict in a federal case, in an international incident, War Crimes, in which former US soldier Steven D. Green is found guilty of gang-rape and murder? How about the way that verdict was vanished, disappeared?

As weird as that was, it was nothing compared to sitting in Congress on Thursday and hearing a US House Rep, Democrat Adam Smith from Washington, agree with an Australian that the Smith-Mundt Act barring government propaganda being aimed at US audiences was a hindrance to the 'work that needed to be done' but "[t]he problem we're going to have is the paranoia of the American public right now that the government's trying to manipulate them." Those paranoid Americans! Poor Adam Smith, in a kinder world, he would, apparently, be serving in Australia's Parliament and not having to deal with the 'crazies' in the US.

Compared to all the above, Fringe seems fairly normal.

In the tradition of the Fox's most lasting hourly show, The X-Files, Fringe tells you something is out there and that it's dangerous as hell. Viruses are engineered, people work on transportation devices (we don't mean planes, trains and automobiles), people burst in flames, bald children live underground, sealed by concrete underneath a building while a bald adult walks around spying on all. And did we mention men get pregnant? On one episode, a creature assembled in the laboratory injected larvae into FBI Agent Charlie (Kirk Acevedo), thereby impregnating him.

There's talk of a coming storm, a coming battle, and a great deal more. Each episode tracks one specific 'fringe' case and also provides clues and details about the larger, ongoing story. Walter Bishop and William Bell set the story in motion years ago. Walter's memory is shot and William's been referred to all season but never seen (until Tuesday night).

Who is seen each episode is Anna Torv who plays Olivia and bares a physical resemblance to Cate Blanchett. In terms of acting, she's in her own universe which is why Olivia's held the audience's attention from the start. She's also very lucky to have Joshua Jackson to play off of. Yes, too often, Peter has a lot of Pacey in him. Some of that's the writing. But the former Dawson's Creek star can frequently surprise you and the writers would be wise to grasp that Peter's light banter only gains complexities when he's also allowed to show darker moments. Peter grew up with a father who was legally insane and a criminal. He grew up with great shame and there's a dance he does with Walter that has largely been non-verbal because it's largely unscripted. It's something Jackson and John Noble have created all on their own.

When we were looking at the first episode and second episode and friends were asking why we didn't care for it, they assumed it was another Alias and worried that Olivia ran around in hot pants and a bra. It's not that kind of a show. It's actually a highly intelligent show and this being J.J. Abrahms, he's also going for a sexy show. It's a tribute to Anna Torv that she's made it that without bikinis or g-strings, without love scenes. Olivia is a gorgeous woman but, in the end, she's sexy because she's smart.

When everything begins to fall together, when the pieces start to fit, Olivia's more robust than at any other time during the show. Not many shows strive for intelligence and we're having a really hard time of thinking of one that attempted to make smart sexy. We're aware that Alias was a show warmly embraced (long before it aired) by the US intelligence community (for obvious reasons) and a few years from now we may find out that J.J. was part of a government program to instill a desire for scientific learning in the next generation. For now, we'll just be glad that Olivia exist and that, for once, Fox is standing with a show that's worth watching. Fringe wraps up season one Tuesday and, yes, it will be back this fall.
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