Imagine one of your favorite prime time procedurals, one you watch year after year with unflagging loyalty (even though, between you and me, the show has become a repetitive bore). There's usually a team, and week after week they're investigating some kind of ghoulish misdeed. Now, imagine one of the members of that team is mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein… or Jeff Goldblum's deranged Seth Brundle from David Cronenberg's remake of 'The Fly.'
That's sort of what you're getting from Fox's sci-fi series 'Fringe.'
Created by 'Lost'/'Alias'/'Cloverfield' mastermind J.J. Abrams and his frequent partners in crime Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who wrote the script for Abrams' recent 'Star Trek' reboot), 'Fringe' borrows a rough template from Fox's other paranormal investigation show, 'The X-Files.' The members that make up the "Fringe Division" investigative team are Olivia Dunham (gorgeous Australian actress Anna Torv), a brilliant young rogue Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) and his equally brilliant but totally insane father, Walter Bishop (John Noble, equal parts hammy and effective in the aforementioned mad scientist role).
The team is put together by a gruff Homeland Security director (played by 'Lost'/'The Wire's' Lance Riddick) after a particularly gruesome airplane disaster that's depicted in the pilot. It seems there's something going on, a global event codenamed The Pattern. The Pattern is a series of next generation science experiments, except carried out on an unsuspecting public. These incidents are almost always incredibly gooey (lots of monsters, viruses that do horrible things to your body etc.) A link has been made between the Pattern and Walter Bishop, so Bishop is sprung from the funny farm and made a part of the investigation (his son is essential, both in doting over Walter and in getting around some peskier aspects of the law).
As the first season progresses, a larger picture is revealed, and the link between Walter and the events of the Pattern are made more explicitly clear. The larger arc, which involves a terrorist plot that calls for the destruction of humanity through technology, is far more engaging than the day-to-day grotesqueries, but 'Fringe' wisely balances the two, so that one doesn't overwhelm the other (which was ultimately the downfall of once-unstoppable 'The X-Files').
'Fringe' is a construct, with borrowed bits from David Cronenberg's oeuvre (sometimes this is a bit too explicit - there's a direct rip-off of a scene from 'Videodrome'), Ken Russell's 'Altered States,' David Fincher's 'Panic Room' (where it got ideas for the "floating letters" location cards), 'The X-Files,' Rod Serling's immortal 'Twilight Zone,' and (I can't believe nobody's drawn this comparison before - maybe they have somewhere on the Interwebs), Warren Ellis and John Cassady's comic book 'Planetary.' But J.J. has always been this kind of creative force - somebody who puts his favorite bits of popular culture into a blender, hits frappe, and comes up with something completely engaging.
While the first season of 'Fringe' does have a few wobbly moments, most inaugural seasons with this kind of ambition do. (Look no further than the first season of Joss Whedon's masterful 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' to see the definition of 'shaky starts.') It is consistently entertaining, with stellar performances by all the principles and enough gross-out moments to have you squirm in your seat, week after week, even on its more 'off' episodes. And while 'Fringe' doesn't have the heady philosophical quandaries of Fox's other kick-ass sci-fi show this season (Whedon's 'Dollhouse'), it is a whole lot of fun. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more goofily provocative final image in any season all year as you'll find in the last moments of season one.
There's hope that, with its awkward baby-step behind it, season two will be even stronger. Cross your fingers and we may even get an episode written by Darin Morgan, who serves as a consulting producer on 'Fringe' and wrote some of the greatest, most intelligent and hysterical episodes of 'The X-Files' (including the freakshow town-set "Humbug" and the Emmy-winning "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"). From here on out, 'Fringe' can only get better.
'Fringe' is a beautiful-looking show and it doesn't look any better than on these 1080 p/VC-1 encoded transfers (1.78: 1 aspect ratio) on five 50GB discs. These discs are also region-free.
Look no further than the extra-long pilot episode, which packs more visual punch than most mainstream Hollywood movies, and involves human beings melting in an airplane, lightning zigzagging across the sky, arctic blasts of snow, a haunted mental institution, make-up and visual effects galore, and a wonderfully dynamic car chase, everything rendered in exceeding clarity.
Detail on these discs is outstanding - from the red brick and rusty machines of Walter's abandoned Harvard lab to the chrome on a bank vault where some inventive thieves are literally walking through the walls. Definition is good, textures look great, skin tones are solid, and all this despite some grain and apparent contrast boosting. These technical issues are minor (there's also some edge enhancement here and there), and never distracting from the overall visual majesty and complexity of the series.
The aforementioned final shot of the season is even more jaw-dropping thanks to this transfer. Just watch it, already!
Here's one of two major areas where this 'Fringe' set ultimately disappoints. Greater sticklers will have even more to complain about.
It boils down to this: Warner Brothers has decided to include a strong but far from outstanding Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track instead of a TrueHD track. Now, I know they've rightfully been lambasted for leaving TrueHD tracks off certain films (as was the case with the first go-around for 'Superman Returns' and the otherwise exemplary 'Speed Racer'), but after some minor digging online, it seems to be downright rampant on their Blu-ray television releases. ('Pushing Daisies' is supposedly one of these releases; still waiting for my review copy of season two, I'll keep you posted.)
There are two ways you can think about this: One, that this is an absolute outrage. There are far lesser films that get the TrueHD treatment. Now, this is true. There are some truly miserable movies that studios still deem TrueHD-worthy. And I can understand the desire to have the sound quality meet the video quality. This is especially true if you're going to be paying an extra $10 + for the series on Blu-ray. It doesn't make a lot of sense, really, especially for a wild and wooly show that demands the most dynamic sound system workout possible.
Then there's the other argument which is: Uh, relax, it's just a television show. After getting over your initial disappointment, you'll probably agree that, while it lacks the necessary forcefulness and punch that would have come with a TrueHD track, the 5.1 mix here is still serviceable. Is it great? No. Is it better than when you were watching the show on broadcast TV, on Hulu, or on some iffy Chinese bootleg site? Yes. Yes it is.
A nice level of atmosphere is constant throughout, thanks to some very workmanlike surround work, and while there is added oomph given to scenes of extreme terror (like the pilot's plane sequence and another where a man transforms into a spiky monster) and dialogue is always crisp and clear, it is far from the level of excellence that you would have gotten had the track actually been lossless. While watching certain scenes, like the sequence where a man, chased by razor-sharp butterflies, jumps out of a high rise window, would have really sparkled in TrueHD, here it lands with a whimper instead of a bang.
So where do I stand? Well, somewhere in between. The audio is a definite disappointment, but it is only a television show. I guess it's just hard to reconcile that it's a television show on Blu-ray, so there really are no excuses. Just working this out makes me even more disappointed.
There are also English SDH subtitles.
Major area of disappointment 2: The extras. This is twofold: One, there is only one special feature that is both in HD and exclusive to this set. The rest is in standard definition, even though on the back of the box it says, in bold typeface: "Special Features in High Definition." Except that, you know, they aren’t. Except for one. (The other Blu-ray exclusive is a writers' commentary track on the final episode, accessible via BD-Live, for some damn reason.) So, there's one aspect of the disappointment.
The second area of contention is with the special features themselves, content-wise. Anyone who watched the series knows that there are a series of hidden clues, which are dispersed throughout the episodes. While airing on television, commercial breaks were marked by a few seconds of these strange symbols (the producers call them "glyphs"), which spell out words. Recently, the code was cracked, but it would have been nice to know what, exactly, they were getting at with these words and if they'll continue for future seasons. I'm not asking for an explanation, but I just want a little bit of information - how they came to be, whose idea it was to create the code, etc.
Ditto, there are visual clues in each episode that relate to the next episode. For example, there's a butterfly sticker on a newspaper dispenser, in the episode BEFORE the episode where the guy is attacked by butterflies. This is also not addressed, anywhere, on the special features. There's a character called The Observer (played by Michael Cerveris) that shows up before particularly explosive Pattern events. Sometimes his appearance is subtle, sometimes its more blatant, but he's there in every episode and it's been like "Where's Waldo?" trying to spot him. That would have been another nice piece, especially since the Fox marketing department dropped him into other Fox shows, like 'American Idol' (I kid you not).
There's just so much missed opportunity on here. It's such a shame. I went on the 'Fringe' website recently and that had much better features than anything on the Blu-ray, including rundowns of Observer appearances, and the producers talking about the mythology, the finale, and what further seasons have in store for us.
Instead, we get a bunch of tiny features (my notebook looked like a mad scientist's journal by the time I got through all five discs), all between one and five minutes, which end up being repetitive and not much fun and focusing almost exclusively on the technical aspects of the show, without delving into its extreme weirdness or mythology.
In the section that follows, I'll rundown the groups of special features, as well as the individual features. If I went through everything bit by bit, we'd both be here all night. (This is definitely a case of quantity over quality.)
I really enjoyed 'Fringe's' first season. Despite a somewhat rocky and repetitive start, the show is a solid, smart sci-fi serial that everyone should be able to enjoy (if your tolerance for goo is high enough). Warner Brothers' set for the first season leaves something to be desired, though, with workmanlike video, a lack of TrueHD sound, and some truly lackluster extras (there's a bunch of them, but dazzling us with quantity doesn't take away from the fact that the quality just isn't there). If you've got the extra money, and love 'Fringe' that much, then go for the Blu-ray set. Everyone else is advised to exercise caution. It's still recommended.