Monday, November 17, 2008

Tuesday Throwdown: "Fringe" Vs. "The Mentalist"

Last week’s “Fringe” featured an “Audrey II”-esque plant thing squeezing a man’s heart. What did last week’s “The Mentalist” have? Its lead character explaining the concept of a memory-tower to his co-workers.

You might be surprised which I found more interesting.

It’s all about the successful execution of a procedural. “The Mentalist” aspires to be nothing more than an engaging detective show, and as a result, everything it does above-and-beyond – things like character development, personality, and understated visual and tonal style – make it that much more impressive.

By contrast, “Fringe” seems to think it’s a lot better than it is. It’s so sure people get that it’s “not just” a mere procedural – by dropping increasingly annoying “Larger Forces At Work” hints and allusions to upcoming Stories To Be Told (including a rather smarmily-titled episode called “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones”) – that it seems to have ignored the fact that it has so far told basically the same story five or six times in a row now.

In fact, it seems a bit arrogant about that fact, having Lance Reddick irritably inform his subordinate that she’s always going to have more questions and basically, she should consider that just a part of the job, because she’ll know more when he’s ready to tell her.

This is the producers momentarily hijacking a character to tell viewers to stop whining about repetitive stories, and stop complaining that being deliberately obtuse isn’t the same as telling an engaging story. Because it’s all Part of The Bigger Plan, you see. And the producers erroneously assume we care about The Plan.

By now, viewers are extremely savvy to the precarious scaffolding that is “Big Picture Storytelling.” We’ve seen when it goes right: “The Wire,” and perhaps “Lost.” And we’ve seen when it goes wrong: “Heroes,” and off-seasons of “24.”

My advice to “Fringe” is to take up a page from “The Mentalist”: don’t worry about the Big Picture. It’s less important to viewers than you think. What viewers like is engaging weekly stories. If they actually build to something more, great. But it’s never the reason to watch a show.

Meanwhile, instilling a rigid “freak-of-the-week” format – to get viewers used to seeing weird crap by redoing the same story with minor variations each week, while also draping a larger picture – is actually a bit insulting to the viewer.

Unfortunately “Fringe’s” problems are wider-spread. While “The Mentalist” has a cast that starts with the beatific charismata of Simon West and is uniformly enjoyable overall, “Fringe” is kneecapped with the presence of Anna Torv and Jasika Nicole, two frankly terrible actresses in underwritten roles.

The worst part? Neither character is actually necessary for the main plots. And Anna Torv is the ostensible lead character!

(And for now we’re ignoring the patent silliness of the “science” involved in the stories. I don’t need it to actually be plausible. It’s helpful when it sounds plausible, but even that isn’t really necessary when you’ve got the amusingly loopy mad scientist explaining it. I only need it to sound interesting. Which is iffy from case to case.)

Anyway. Both “Fringe and “The Mentalist” have scored full-season orders, so I’ll follow each through until May, hoping from the best from each. But while “The Mentalist” has actually delivered more than expected each week, “Fringe” currently has quite an uphill climb.


Threat Quality Press said...

But Anna Torv is pretty! Look how puzzled and ethereal she looks! Don't you just want to spend all your time looking at her?

ISTV Global Stronghold said...

Here's the thing about that, and it's not her fault as much as it is the fault of a large HD television, but...she looks really weird in close-up.

And it's not just the heavy freckling, that's sort of refreshing. It's that all her facial features seem juuuuust slightly misproportioned. Damnedest thing, really.

None of which would be a problem for me, if she could pull out acting chops other than "miffed" and "confused."

Threat Quality Press said...

I have seen two episodes of Fringe now, and it is both dumb and boring, which is probably the worst possible combination.

The show really lost me after the pigeons episode, where Anna Torv says, "Are you going to kill any of these pigeons?"

And Walter says, "No, I'm just blah blah blah science."

That's how you know it's not a good show. If it was a good show, Walter would have said, "Well, just the first couple, while I'm getting the voltage right."

The whole show seems to just be full of abstract signifiers--like all of the characters and ideas and plot points are symbols indicating an idea, and they just haven't thought of the actual idea yet.

Threat Quality Press said...

Also, I've now seen the Mentalist, which is pretty fun, and chock full of actors who are interesting to watch (even the one woman who's clearly just there because she's pretty).