"Fringe" is the series that "X-Files" always wanted to be but never quite was. Alternating between "creature of the week" and "mythology" episodes, the first season introduces the main characters and establishes the series universe(s) and history. FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham finds herself on loan to a special division of the Department of Homeland Security devoted to investigating strange cases involving "fringe" science in general and a series of apparently related events dubbed "The Pattern".
Dunham is teamed with Dr. Walter Bishop, a pioneer in fringe science who has been confined to a mental hospital for the past 17 years. Because Bishop's research seems to connect to some of the Pattern events, Dunham blackmails Walter's estranged son Peter, a rogue genius with a shady past, to sign Walter out of the hospital and act as his babysitter and assistant.
Together this unlikely team plunges into the on-going mystery of The Pattern, which ultimately leads to the discovery of an alternate universe populated by other versions of ouselves and where history is slightly different. (President Martin Luther King, Jr. appears on the $20 bill, Richard Nixon on the quarter, and nobody knows who Andrew Jackson is.)
They also discover long-buried secrets from their own pasts and odd connections to other people and institutions - most notably Walter's former lab partner William Bell, who while Walter was locked up founded Massive Dynamic, a cutting-edge megacorp that is in everything from computers to aviation and defense contracting . (Their motto: "What do we do? What DON'T we do?") Bell is s kind of cross between Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Howard Hughes, a reclusive billionaire with fiercely loyal associates protecting him. Fringe cases often lead back to the doors of Massive Dynamic, but Dunham and her team rarely get a glimpse behind the curtain.
Despite operating under the burden of establishing a whole ficitonal universe and all its elaborate backstory, "Fringe" season 1 is hugely entertaining and terrific on almost every level.
Rewatching S1 from the mid-point of season three it is very clear that the show's mythology is much better thought-out and planned than was the case with "Lost", to say nothing of a show like "The X-Files" which was clearly making stuff up as it went. Although the "Fringe" producers have left themselves breathing room to pursue new ideas and characters as they arise, they obviously have a basic roadmap and an ultimately goal in mind, and the characters and their backgrounds are designed to support a coherent narrative.
1) The writing is top-notch. There's suspense, humor, scares and intrigue.
2) The acting is terrific.
It is a crime that John Noble has never received an Emmy for his portrayal of Dr. Walter Bishop, the brilliant but often confused genius at the heart of both the cases and much of the mystery of "Fringe". By turns funny, heartbreaking and scary, Noble shines in the role.
Joshua Jackson is the Han Solo figure of the group, rougish Peter Bishop who inherited Walter's brains, but not his ambition. A sometime conman, arms dealer, mercenary and possibly criminal, Peter once faked his way into MIT and earned an engineering degree because he didn't have the patience to go through the normal channels. Initially forced into dealing with Walter, whom he never visited in the hospital and whom he blames for a family tragedy, Peter gradually comes to find the home he never had with the Fringe team. Jackson does a very good job with the role, playing both Peter's obvious charm and the menance and mystery just below the surface.
Anna Torv tends to get overshadowed by her flashier co-stars, who often get the scenery chewing stuff while she is the solid, stable heart of the show. (I compare her to Mary Tyler Moore in her series - the calm center around which the madness flows, but without which the madness would be too much.) Torv is not a conventional Hollywood beauty, but she is an attractive woman and more believable as an FBI agent than some other actresses might be.
The video and audio quality are both quite good. Upconverted on my 56" HDTV the DVDs look nearly as good as the current season HD broadcasts. (This is notably NOT the case with the second season set, where the video is often overcompressed and pixelated.)
The extras are good, although I would have like commentaries on a couple of episodes that lack them.
A story with a complicated mythology like "Fringe" really repays repeat viewings, and thus is a good candidate for owning on DVD. (I rewatched the entire first and second seasons before the show returned for the 2nd half of S3, and discovered a lot of details I had either forgotten or never noticed before. That's another rewarding aspect of a show like this - you can see the foreshadowing and repeated themes that will become important later. Several early episodes from the first season hint at secrets that will only be revealed in S2 or S3, and a number of cases show us situations in the lives of guest characters that parallel those of the regulars - although we generally don't know that on first viewing.)
All in all my favorite current TV series.