The Art of Preposterous Narrative

Does anyone here watch Fringe? The SF show with Rupert Murdoch’s niece and the guy from Muppets from Space? Made by the team that destroyed our expectations for an intelligent TV show to stay intelligent?

Well, I do. And I like it.

I like it for three reasons.

One, the alternate universe, rejecting the venerable tradition established by the Star Trek franchise, features mostly subtle differences. Sure, Fauxlivia has red hair and bangs, instead of blond hair and no bangs. And the still-standing WTC is fetishized in most establishing shots of the other universe. But no one has a goatee.

There is no “good” and “evil” universe, where the Nazis either won or lost. The main characters in both universes are generally do-gooding FBI agents trying to solve gross-out-of-the-week-type crimes and save their worlds from techno-pocalypse.

Two. Walter. Especially the way he uses his portentously British voice to rhapsodize about candy at counterintuitive moments. To shout “RED VINES!” in the middle of an experiment using wax LPs to reveal recordings of ghosts. Or to ostentatiously munch on eclairs while dosing a kid with acid to see if the fungal intelligence (yes, a fungus networked itself into an intelligence) would willingly sever its connection to the kid’s brain. (Disclosure: creative license exercised here. I don’t remember if acid was the way to save that kid from the fungal neural net. But, you know, it may as well have been. That’s how the Science is on this show.)

But the series’ original trauma — Walter’s loss of his son — has provided both narrative and emotional power for four seasons. Genuine emotional power.

Three. (The main point of this post). The narrative ridiculousness. There’s a lot of it. And it’s easier to take than it was on Lost. The narrative world supports these shenanigans a little more reasonably, so there are fewer instances of copping out. And, frankly, fewer characters of color to kill off. (And when they did, they changed the timeline to bring him back! Awesome!)

But I want to focus specifically on the romance narrative for this post.

Most of the time, the non-two-camera-sitcom world of television cannot withstand a happy relationship for long. There are counter-examples, but mostly, non-sitcom TV relationships are built to die. And usually, they die for extremely stupid reasons. My favorite being the “You just don’t trust me” talk. TV couples are always breaking up for this dumbass reason. That’s not a reason to break up in real life. It’s a reason to talk. The other dumbass reason, of course, is when one of the characters dies. If this is how TV reflects our lives, I object.

So it’s possible that that after several seasons of alternately bringing Peter and Olivia together and breaking them up (with an alternate universe, an alternate timeline, you know, the typical star-crossings), they’ll keep the game up. The couple are finally back together again, and the episodes since have found every possible reason to avoid them. Like the series is giving them a honeymoon. But I’m hopeful that they won’t use the next few episodes to drive them apart again.

Mostly this hope is based on the fact that the two most obvious narrative wedges were summarily dismissed. First, the timeline problem. In drops an Observer and tells Peter Never mind! It’s the right timeline after all! So that all her drug-induced memories of the “right” timeline turn out to be her “real” experiences after all…This would make more sense if you’ve seen the show, and/or if you’ve read P.K. Dick. My point is: Boom! Done. No daring escapes, no murders, nothing dramatic. It was, as they say in my old business, performative language. When an Observer says it, it comes into being. The easiest removal of a wedge I’ve seen on TV.

(And the Observers, by the way, are such a delightful fantasy version of academic scholarship: they have odd eating habits, they dress slightly out of time, and they observe the universe without participating in it directly. Unless there’s just the very best life or death reason to. Sounds like grad school, right?)

The other narrative wedge, Lincoln Lee, the dreamy Clark Kentish agent, slightly nebbishy, just went to the other universe to pursue the other Olivia. Case closed.

So Fringe, if you let Peter and Olivia be together and be a regular couple, I will give you permission to make the plot devices as nonsensical as you want. And I will happily walk around the gaping, yawning holes in your narrative path.

But more to the point, Fringe, I delight in your narrative improbabilities. I love that over the course of four seasons, the impending techno-pocalypse has taken so many shapes. I love the deus-ex-machina of the alternate timelines, and the Observers, and the all-knowing, possibly-evil technology company that may be either furthering or fighting the end of the world as we know it. I love that you moved from being a barely-updated X-Files to an intricate otherworld that relies on improbable technology to dramatize otherness, exile and loss. And I love that the women are various kinds of badass.

Instead of seeing the holes and illogic as narrative weakness, I choose to see it as narrative play and innovation, and I look forward to more.

So far the nuclear family has not survived in the show, but you still have a chance, Fringe. Make Walter and me happy. Let Peter and Olivia just be a plain old boring couple. A boring couple that kills all the shapeshifters and saves a universe or two. You know, like couples do. It also wouldn’t hurt to give us some queer characters, or to give Astrid a better backstory (though the two Astrids’ relationship could be interesting.) But I’ll take what I can get.

Thanks, Fringe! See you next weekend!

PS. Stay tuned for future posts on Fringe Science. Maybe Fringe Feminism? Who knows! Less likely things have happened.

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3 thoughts on “The Art of Preposterous Narrative

  1. Melissa says:

    Hmmm, I have been considering investing in another show (or, alternatively, catching up on my New Yorkers). If I choose television, this will be on my list to try.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Give it a try! The first season is a bit silly. The X-Files deja vus were very powerful. But it grew on me.

  3. […] for Hire has already established her fondness for preposterous televisual […]

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