Fringe

Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Twelve episodes into the fourth season.

The best thing about science fiction (or any fantastic genre) is how escaping the confines of a strictly realistic setting allows the storyteller to address real issues from a fresh angle. Aliens, for example, aren’t necessarily all that compelling in and of themselves (I faithfully watched seven years of The X-Files, where the little green men or gray men or black oil slicks or whatever were nearly always the least interesting things on screen, so I know this for a fact), but aliens as a vehicle for addressing how people deal with the unknown, or how majority groups deal with minorities, or how we conceptualize humanity—that’s compelling. Idle fancies can be fun, but the best speculative fiction ultimately returns to earth.

Initially, Fringe was a textbook example of idle, empty science fiction: a facile yet muddled X-Files rip-off in which a top-secret division of the FBI investigates strange paranormal events while powerful shadowy figures manipulate them and their results—diverting enough but hardly promising and extremely derivative. But then, improbably, the writers settled on a brilliant explanation for the paranormal “fringe events”: the slow collision of two parallel worlds. With that essential conflict at its core, Fringe has developed a gorgeously baroque mythology and, even better, used it as the foundation for thoughtful, poignant explorations of identity and personal history and guilt and love. In short, when it was just about creepy things going bump in the night, Fringe was dull; now that it’s given those sci-fi elements real resonance, it’s perhaps the most underrated drama on TV.

The storytelling has become so elaborate and novelistic that the premise feels miles away from the most recent episodes, but nonetheless here it is: FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is assigned to investigate unexplained phenomena with the assistance of a mentally unbalanced scientist, Walter Bishop (John Noble), and his estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), who acts as a sort of sane-to-crazy translator. Over the course of their work, the three of them discover that they have more in common than they knew, and that their dark personal histories tie them to the paranormalities they’re investigating in ways that are only gradually revealed.

That really doesn’t begin to cover it, though—especially now that the show routinely visits Earth-2, the parallel Earth, where “Faulivia” and “Walternate” (punny nicknames that never cease to amuse me) are playing similar roles yet Peter, strangely, does not have a double. The separate universes have demanded increasingly nuanced performances from the actors, who have risen to the challenge beautifully. Torv, for example, plays our original Olivia, the Olivia from Earth-2, and a second version of the original Olivia after her universe has been slightly but significantly altered. (Plus, in a couple of episodes, the original Olivia is possessed by Leonard Nimoy’s recurring character. I don’t want to get into why, so suffice it to say that Torv’s Nimoy impression is downright uncanny.) Each Olivia is recognizably Olivia—you can see qualities intrinsic to the character—yet the three women are fundamentally different, not remotely interchangeable.

And that, it turns out, is one of the central ideas of Fringe: identity is grounded in a person’s life experiences, not merely her genetic code. Meetings between doppelgängers prompt them reconsider their own choices, and relationships cannot be easily re-created simply because one character was close with another’s doppelgänger. The show has gotten tremendous mileage out of throwing a character from one universe into another—sometimes covertly, sometimes openly, sometimes against that character’s will—and observing how the outsider interacts with familiar strangers, so to speak. On a few occasions, Earth-2 characters have impersonated Earth-1 characters (and vice versa)—sometimes quite successfully—but the inevitable disconnects, the ways in which the impostors fall short of clean duplication, have yielded surprisingly poignant plot arcs.

Of course those plot arcs are mind-bendingly complex, too—packed with conspiracies and forking timelines and barely skirted paradoxes. As if to help out, in a cute touch, the opening title sequence is color-coded by episode to indicate which universe it’s set in: blue for Earth-1, red for Earth-2, amber for alternate universe. That’s not really necessary—the setting is quickly made obvious by any number of context clues—but it reflects the great attention to detail that show runner Jeff Pinkner and his team bring to Fringe. (J. J. Abrams and his Star Trek screenwriters created the show, but as it only got really good when it drifted afield from its more generic initial premise, I’m hesitant to give them too much credit.) Visits to Earth-2, for example, are always trippy fun, packed with counterfactual historical flourishes and startling differences in style and technology.

For Fringe really is fun, immersive and imaginative, with finely drawn characters and an impressively wide range of tone. Skin-crawlingly ooky, delectably sad, agonizingly suspenseful, deeply unsettling, deliciously uncanny, quirkily funny, grandly romantic, poetically provocative—it can hit every one of those notes, not all at once (and some more than others) but with enough finesse and variety that settling into watching an episode always feels a bit like an adventure because you never really know where it’s going to take you. And it’s to Fringe‘s credit that it’s now that—not the FBI-investigating-the-paranormal premise—that feels most reminiscent of The X-Files. At its height, X-Files could be a masterful thriller, comedy, romance, or gross-out horror flick, yet always remain true to itself, true to its distinct worldview and its beloved protagonists. Fringe achieves that same delicate balance of versatility and constancy, with its own idiosyncratic air and winning characters. It might not get the greatest ratings—and the dense, trippingly complex back story makes it unlikely to attract a larger audience now—but it’s managed to stick around long enough to find its own voice and demonstrate once again just how powerful science fiction can be.