Why Season 4 of Fringe is Leaving Me Cold

I’ll be up front: my Fringe credentials are very new. I only got addicted a few weeks ago, and though I’ve now seen every episode, my understanding of the show has evolved rapidly, and I’m not used to slow payoffs.

That said, I really feel that this season of Fringe has done something I do not like with its removal of Peter. The idea seems to have been to re-imagine the show, to do interesting things with characters we’ve come to know and love over three years spent. The characters have different personalities, different hopes, different relationships, but they remain our characters.

That’s the idea, at least. In practice, Peter’s attitude, that these people are simply not our people, that our people are off safe and normal somewhere, seems to apply pretty well. These aren’t the characters we’ve come to know and love—not anymore. Formative events in their lives, such as Walter’s kidnapping of Peter and Olivia’s standoff with her Stepfather, played out radically differently for these characters, altering them to their core. It’s not putting the characters we’ve come to know in new situations, it’s turning them into completely new characters.

It also puts the viewer back into the same spot they were in the pilot, with little understanding of who the characters are and where they are coming from. We no longer know the details of their past we spent years learning about, we no longer understand their reactions to the events unfolding in front of them in context. We no neither their long-term nor short-term histories, which I feel is a hugely off-putting alienation of faithful viewers.

For example, we spent several episodes watching alternate Broyles bond with our Olivia, and the drama of that plot was powerful and brilliant. The sight of Broyles’s charred and mutlitated corpse, and the understanding of his sacrifice, made a huge impact both on the characters and the viewers. Now, he’s suddenly alive and back in his same old position, and we followed and enjoyed all that drama only to have it handwaved away.

This brings me to the aspect of the show’s “rebooting” that positively offends me: it’s lazy storytelling. It’s the same thing that happened when Alias did a 2-year time skip between seasons;  it’s an excuse to for the writers to do whatever the hell they want to the characters without having to do the legwork of character development and plot. The continuity has been entirely disposed of, to the point where Peter, the only character who remembers the whole show, has stopped complaining about the differences between seasons 3 and 4 and is just trying to go home. Here’s hoping he makes it and the show goes with him.

A continuity-based show like Fringe depends on the devotion of viewers, on willingness to tune in every single week and then to remember the things you watched, sometimes all the way back to the first few episodes. When it dumps its continuity likes this, and re-writes entire characters whenever it feels like it, it alienates the viewer. Continuity draws a viewer in, but radical discontinuity like this is pushes them away.

Watching this season of Fringe, I no longer feel a connection to the characters. I no longer worry when someone’s in peril, because I have no emotional investment in the situation. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Walter, but that hinges solely on John Noble’s stunning portrayal. Aside from Walter’s better scenes, the only things this year that have gotten a real reaction from me are the times when I realizes just how far this world is from the one of 9 episodes ago, as when Olivia considers sending Walter back to Sinclair’s. This from a woman who in Season 2 categorically assured Walter she would never send him back.

The idea of Peter’s removal seems to be that the core of these character’s relationships with each other has been removed. Well, with their emotional investment in each other has gone this viewers emotional investment in them.