The New Fringe

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January 18, 2014 by Jason Seligson

By Jason Seligson

It’s been one year since ‘Fringe’ aired its final episode. Fans may have been prepared from the start that the show’s abbreviated fifth season would also be its last, but that didn’t make saying goodbye to it any easier. When something you love ends, it’s hard not to have a degree of denial going into the final stretchor in a TV show’s case, after the screen fades to black for the final time. In the months that followed the series finale, I found myself with a ‘Fringe’-shaped hole in my heart (geometrically speaking, it was sort of like the portal used to cross between universes). There was so much to love in J.J. Abrams’ underrated sci-fi gem, which ran for a modest, but still too short five seasons.

Fortunately, this fall saw the debut of two new shows to help me start working through my post-Pattern depression: ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Almost Human’. I hadn’t known all that much about either show initially, but was intrigued enough with their respective premises and creative teams involved to give them each a chance. Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that both are enjoyable on their own merits, and as an bonus, are actually reminiscent of ‘Fringe.’

‘Sleepy Hollow’ is a modern-day retelling of the original Washington Irving short story, first written in 1820. The story follows Ichabod Crane, a lanky British schoolteacher and his encounter with a headless specter that haunts the town of Sleepy Hollow. The television adaptation—developed by ‘Fringe’ co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci—borrows its names and initial setting from Irving’s original story, but the similarities essentially end there. From its opening sequence alone, the show doesn’t hold anything back: in the first few minutes, we see Ichabod (Tom Mison), in this version a soldier in the Revolutionary War, decapitate a man on the battlefield. It’s a gruesome sight, but the real surprise is what happens next: the same soldier who lost his head gets up second later to fight like nothing happened. The aforementioned “Headless Horseman” proceeds to attack Ichabod, who becomes mortally wounded, and blacks out. We then cut to Ichabod, who has awakened in present day, 250 years after his fight with the Headless Horseman. The bigger problem—the Horseman’s also alive and well.

In present day, in the town of Sleepy Hollow, Lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) gets coffee with her mentor, the town sheriff. Their meeting is cut tragically short, thanks to the appearance of the Horseman, who quickly kills the sheriff. Shaken up by her teacher’s murder, and in complete disbelief with what she really saw, Abbie begins to investigate. She thinks she’s found her prime suspect in Ichabod—who mysteriously popped up in town, claiming he’s from another time. Despite his seemingly unbelievable back story, there’s something about him that Abbie trusts.

The pilot eventually proves Ichabod’s innocence, as he and Abbie learn that the Headless Horseman is alive. In addition to bringing the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ story into modern times, the show puts a major spin on former incarnations by revealing that the Headless Horseman is actually Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. By the end of the pilot, Abbie and Ichabod begin investigating the Horseman, and a host of other strange occurrences taking place in Sleepy Hollow.

‘Sleepy Hollow’ stars Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison respectively as Lieutenant Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane.

‘Sleepy Hollow’ feels similar to what ‘Fringe’ was in its early years—particularly its first season, which featured several disparate paranormal events that were part of a larger series mystery known as The Pattern. Thus far, ‘Hollow’ has worked in a similar fashion—every installment has Abbie and Ichabod investigating a supernatural case, while the larger mythology slowly builds in the background. Hopefully, like ‘Fringe’ did in one of its finest hours, “Peter,” ‘Sleepy Hollow’ will be able to deliver an emotionally satisfying resolution to all of the paranormal chaos wreaking havoc on the town. Much like the triumvirate of Walter, Olivia, and Peter, it’s the people in ‘Sleepy Hollow’ that keep me coming back to the show. The case-of-the-week formula has worked for a number of other mystery shows, but the show has done an excellent job developing its characters thus far, probably even more so than ‘Fringe’ did in the first half of Season 1. Another major reason for ‘Fringe’ fans to give the show a shot: John Noble has had a recurring role this season—what more could you want?

The second show, ‘Almost Human,’ has more of a long-term connection to ‘Fringe’—its creator is J.H. Wyman, who served as executive producer and show runner for four of its five seasons. Wyman wrote the pilot for ‘Almost Human’ during the filming of the series finale of ‘Fringe.’ The show’s final season was set in a dystopian future ruled by the corrupt Observers. Wyman was clearly interested in the storytelling potential of futuristic settings; and with ‘Fringe’ ending, he probably felt it was the perfect opportunity to tell a new kind of story that still felt familiar to his fans. It’s no surprise then that ‘Almost Human’ came to fruition.

From left: Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) is paired with android partner Dorian (Michael Ealy) in ‘Almost Human.’

The series takes place in the year 2048, where, as the title cards explain, “science and technology evolve at an uncontrollable pace.” To combat the immense crime rate, law enforcement agencies have begun partnering officers with android partners. That’s right—“Almost Human” is really a buddy cop story masquerading as a complex sci-fi drama! With the episodes that have aired so far, ‘Almost Human’ has shown that it shares a lot in common with ‘Fringe’s’ final season—with their futuristic setting and overarching ideas about the limits of technology and what it does to our humanity.

Although it deals with dark subject matter, ‘Almost Human’s’ future isn’t bleak. Unlike so many shows right now, it doesn’t try to depict a world where society has collapsed, or the Earth is completely unrecognizable from what we know. It isn’t post-apocalyptic, or dystopian. Much like ‘Fringe,’ one of the underlying themes in ‘Almost Human’ that has united this first batch of episodes is about people trying to retain their humanity in a changing world.

‘Almost Human’ has aired fewer episodes than ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (which feels like the more focused of the two) and is understandably still finding its footing. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of the case-of-the-weeks, and the evolution of the Dorian/John relationship. One of my favorite moments is when Dorian inadvertently overhears an anecdote from John’s childhood about his love for Elton John; the episode ends with a great comedic moment as Dorian jokingly sings “Benny and the Jets,” much to John’s chagrin.

‘Sleepy Hollow’ has been bringing the comedy as well. The banter between Ichabod and Abbie on ‘Sleepy Hollow’ has consistently been one of the most entertaining aspects of the show. Ichabod’s simultaneous curiosity and disgust with modern technology should have gotten old quick; instead it’s had the opposite effect. These moments of levity are not only a welcome break from the action, but a necessary one. Ichabod never fails to get a laugh out of me—whether it’s learning how to fist-bump, venting about his long-lost wife to an On Star employee (my personal favorite), trying on skinny jeans, or his ongoing frustration with the myriad Starbucks in this century—every observation he makes feels like we’re rediscovering the world through his eyes. It’s an eccentric perspective that feels fresh—one that would make Walter Bishop very proud indeed.

As an avid television watcher, there’s an element of excitement in starting something new, but there’s nearly always a greater one of trepidation. Will this be something that I’ll really love? Will this be the next [fill in the pop culture blank]? I think the best philosophy to abide by is: nothing will ever be “the next” something—it will be its own thing entirely, and will have an identity unto itself.  And if you end up loving something new just as much as the original—something you didn’t think would ever happen—then that’s great too.

The truth is, I was initially drawn to ‘Fringe’ solely because it was the brainchild of Abrams, and I was a die-hard ‘Lost’ fan. I subsequently drew other people to watch it for similar reasons. But even I tend to forget that ‘Fringe’ had a slow start. It wasn’t until the close of its first season, and later its brilliant latter run of episodes in Season 2 that I felt I was truly hooked.  Eventually, my love for ‘Fringe’ took on a life of its own, and there were no more comparisons. I was a fan, and I was in it.

Both ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Almost Human’ will surely appeal to fans of genre television, but although their premises are mythic, and ambitious, the success of each lies in the interactions among its lead characters. My biggest takeaway is that I really want to get to know Abbie, Ichabod, Dorian and John better as characters—just like I watched ‘Fringe’ wanting to spend more time with Olivia, Peter, and Walter. That’s something that every show may strive for, but doesn’t always achieve—and it’s not easy to do.

Take Walter Bishop: after all his mad scientist machinations, the thing he cared about most wasn’t any one of his ingenious experiments, or even a box of sugary Red Vines. If crossing a portal into another universe didn’t prove what mattered most to him—and to the writers making the show—then perhaps a quote from the series finale will: You are my favorite thing, Peter. My very favorite thing.”  It’s the people who matter—far more than the case-of-the week, and the hyper-real worlds they inhabit. So far, both new shows have shown that they’re more than up to the task.

Now then, where are those ‘Fringe’ DVDs?

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