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In the final moments of season one, 'Fringe,' J.J. Abrams and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci's whacked-out television series about freaky goings-on investigated by an uptight FBI agent (Anna Torv), a mad scientist (John Noble) and a roguish conman (Joshua Jackson), took on another, grander dimension – literally. In the scene, Agent Olivia Dunham (Torv) is seen standing inside one of the World Trade Center towers, still standing, in an alternate universe very much like our own.
Add to that the double-whammy revelation that Peter Bishop (Jackson), an integral member of the Fringe Division team, is actually his alternate world doppelganger stolen from the other side by his crazy scientist father (Noble).
That's a lot of junky emotional baggage to be dealt with on the outset of 'Fringe's' second season, and one of the problems of this season is that it took whole chunks of episodes to get through the pair of crises: Olivia coming back from the other side and Peter learning of his improbable background. Those of us wanting more conclusions or answers of any kind were left hanging for large swaths of the season.
When revelations were presented, they came out in large, clunky gobs; whole episodes were devoted to flashbacks.
Part of the reason why the second season of 'Fringe' was so much less fun than the first is because it was now permanently wed to this intricate and overarching mythology that was largely absent from season one. Whereas we had the suggestion of a larger mystery, dubbed "The Pattern," here we know what the mystery is – it's an upcoming war with the other universe – so much of that goose-fleshy thrill is gone. Instead, we're given confusing stuff like shape-shifting semi-robots (although, admittedly, the magic typewriter is one of my favorite things on TV last season).
Also gone is the first season's stylish veneer; that season was shot in New York City which stood in for much of the East Coast. It gave the episodes a lived-in, tactile feel, especially when you could recognize where they were filming. "Holy shit a mutant came out of there?" etc. The show was relocated to Vancouver this season, and everything is presented with the same drab, pallid lack-of-enthusiasm.
With show creators Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci sitting this season out, it was left to a bunch of second-string creative talent like Akiva Goldsman, the rancid screenwriter behind 'Batman & Robin' who mystifyingly took home an Oscar for 'A Beautiful Mind,' coming to the forefront. The non-mythology episodes, a kind of satellite array of goofy, gooey side-stories, lacked the kicky pulse of the earlier season, and the entire enterprise left me feeling dejected and disappointed, knowing that no matter how hard it tries, 'Fringe' lacks the emotional depth, character complexity, and all-out fun of J.J. Abrams' paradigm-shifting series 'Lost.'
All that said, 'Fringe's' second season is not without its pleasures – there are some nifty gadgets (the robo-shape shifters stick this thing to the roof of their mouths), ace stunt casting (Kevin Corrigan as Olivia's mentor), and some killer Leonard Nimoy appearances, as the nefarious series godhead William Bell, a kind of Steve Jobs-gone-mental. Oh, and a lot of the alternate universe is fun, especially the "quarantined areas" (if you haven't seen the season yet, I'll say no more).
While 'Fringe' never jumped the alternate universe shark in its second season, it did frustrate and disappoint with its continuous narrative loop-de-loops and dogged adherence to its own cracked mythology. No matter how much "heart" the season wanted to convey, I was always too worried about all the sci-fi nonsense to care about much else. But the finale, oh the finale, even if I might have met the season proper with the see-sawing hand of indifference, the final few moments of the season have me hooked with an even bigger, better cliffhanger (even if you saw it coming a mile away). 'Fringe' may have faltered in its second season, but I'll be back for more, and I'm sure you will be too.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Fringe's' second season is housed on four 50GB Blu-ray discs that are packaged inside a sturdy plastic case that isn't much bulkier than a regular Blu-ray case. The discs are BD-Live ready (without any additional content as of this writing) and region free. The discs auto-play but halt on the main menu, where you can decide whether you want to watch individual episodes, all of the episodes on the disc, or navigate over to the special features, which are very well defined.
The handsomely atmospheric series looks good from episode to episode – skin tones are dead-on; shadows (of which there are many) are deep and bottomless (look to the episode on the first disc about the underground mutants); detail is nice (especially on the gizmos from the alternate universe); visual effects are sharp without ever betraying their inherent phoniness; and overall things look stellar, even if Vancouver subbing for Manhattan is no kind of swap.
And the high definition transfer also showcases some subtlety that I had previously overlooked – on the flashback-heavy episode "Peter" (on disc three), the periods of the episode set in the past have a slightly fuzzy glow, which goes along with the wonderful period reproduction. Even the famous "floating" title cards get an era-specific makeover (ditto the opening title sequence, with a tinny electronic score). I didn't notice the change in photographic style watching it on television, but this time I did, and it's absolutely brilliant.
The downside to the presentations is some occasional interference on a technical level; probably because so many episodes are crammed on so few discs, but noise and compression issues abound. Artifacts pop up here and there, and while there are quite a few, you have to be looking for them to find them (this is what I get paid for – to look for digital bogeymen) and I'm not sure that it would upset the casual viewer. A half-point deduction, for sure, but not a game breaker by any stretch of the imagination.
Otherwise, this is a very strong, atmospheric transfer that remains true to the show and also reveals some new, hidden secrets (like the subtle change in photography in the "Peter" episode – plus others!)
Ah, Warner Bros. You know there are still some of us (myself included) smarting over your boneheaded decision to keep lossless DTS-HD from some of their Blu-ray releases, like, say, 'Speed Racer.' And yet you continue to make this decision, for reasons somewhat beyond me. All that said, 'Fringe's' second season comes equipped with a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 track and not a lossless DTS-HD shebang. Oh well.
On the other side of the argument: it is only a television series. And the Dolby Digital track does equip itself nobly. The score (co-authored by 'Star Trek' and 'Lost's' Michael Giacchino) sounds moody and deep, the sound effects do a good job of maximizing their squeamish squishiness, and elements take on a bigger scale and scope thanks to the mix, which often adds a lush, multi-channel element.
Dialogue is crisp and clear, no matter how calamitous the events going on in the episode are, and a mix this good (not great) does do much in terms of creating a believably tactile world, or in the case of 'Fringe,' worlds.
So, yes, bemoan the lack of a lossless DTS-HD mix all you want. I agree that it would have probably been to the set's benefit had the mix been on here, especially in the action packed finale. But that said, this is a very good, very solid presentation, so I can't hold much of a grudge.
Additionally, there is a Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0 track and subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
According to the series' packaging, none of these are exclusive to the Blu-ray, although more than a few of them are in high-definition, and the discs are BD-Live ready, if not offering any additional content at this time.
If you were a fan of 'Fringe's' wobbly second season, then you can't go wrong with this Blu-ray set. Despite the lack of a lossless audio mix, some glitchy video issues, and some insubstantial special features, the show is handsomely presented and some of the features are sort of fun. If you didn't like the second season, or felt hesitant, I don't think this set is going to change your mind. I'd give it a rental before you make that commitment to give it a place in your library. Otherwise, if you loved it, go for it. Cross the dimensional rift!