Friday, 30 September 2011

Letters to Editors | Killing Fringe

Dear Network Television Executives, 

You guys... you get a bad rap.

From where you're sat, it's all about the business; I get that. You've got to spend money to make money, and if you don't see a return on your investment on the near or far horizon, then better to declare an early loss than go all in, hoping against hope that something will happen to turn the tables. 

And credit where it's due: you execs have actually been pretty decent this year. I'd go so far as to say surprisingly lovely. For instance, I'm not exactly chuffed that you put Stargate: Universe down like the dog it may or may not have began as, but at least you had the decency to offer those of us who'd stuck it out in the hopes that the series would find its feet some closure in what became its last episode... just as you did with Caprica, amongst others I'm forgetting - perhaps for good reason, now that I think of it - in 2010.

Add to that the shows from 2011 that never found an audience at all, yet still you had the good grace to air almost all of them from first to last. I'm thinking of Terriers, Lights Out and The Chicago Code specifically. Tremendous series, to a one, made the more so because they were allowed to actually end; series whose narratives were able to run their course, and though I'm certain their respective show-runners had ideas as to what twists and turns were around the next bend in the great river, I was content to see of them as much as the eye could see.

So I can't find fault with the decision to cull these three. If no-one was watching them - and no-one really was, as I understand it - then I'll say I'm grateful for small favours, on balance, and come to my point. Which is: given this recent trend of doing the Right Thing, can you do a little thing for me, Network Television Executives?

Can you kill Fringe?

I hate to be the one to say it - I've been a Fringe fan since day one, and I'm no less devoted to the show now than I was way back when - but understand that I ask this thing of you for the greater good, not my own personal pleasure. The sad fact of the matter is that Fringe seems to me is in dire need of a well-meaning mercy-killing.

Not today - please, no! - nor even tomorrow... but I beg of you, can we set an endpoint already?

Cast your minds back to the heyday of another of J. J. Abrams' speculative series. Remember how Lost was the talk of the town for a while, and then, all of a sudden - namely during that execrable interlude when The Others captured Jack and Kate - it wasn't? Do you remember when, instead of throwing in the towel, you guys threw Lost a long-sighted lifeline by stepping in to say, essentially, that the show had had its moment, but its moment was over? 

Fringe is a lot like that, except it was never really the talk of the town to begin with. I mean, it did alright. Enough folks tuned in to keep the Fringe Science Division in milk and paperclips in the early days, but even at the height of its popularity, years past now, Fringe wasn't exactly water-cooler television. And if it wasn't then...

Long story short, no-one's holding out any hope for some ratings renaissance. What you execs want from Fringe seems much more reasonable than that, on the face of it. From the horse's mouth (that is to say Fox's entertainment president Kevin Reilly): "I don't expect explosive growth, but if Fringe can do exactly what it did last year, we're going to be very, very happy with it."

Well, it can't. It won't. Already, though it pains me to say it, it hasn't, because the first episode of season four premiered to 3.5 million viewers. Down of course from the relatively incredible 9.28 million viewers who watched the pilot episode, way back when, but also a share significantly reduced from the 4.9 million viewers who tuned into Fringe's first Friday night episode, when it moved to the Slot of Death last year. And bear in mind that premiere numbers are almost always higher than the ratings for subsequent episodes.

These aren't just ominous numbers; Fringe is in real trouble, folks. Real trouble.

So what to do... what to do?

Well, like I said: kill Fringe.

What you did for Lost, when you declared from on high that season six would be its last... if you ask me, that single decision saved a show in real need of saving. By killing it, albeit on a date to be determined several years hence, you gave Lost new life. That's what I want for Fringe.

Not least because - and by now everyone who aims to watch the fourth season of Fringe will have seen the lackluster first episode, and if not, shame on you - this season seems to me analogous to the indulgent digression in season three of Lost which you will recall spelled that series' eventual end. Which is to say... disappointing.

Of course it's early doors yet. But this ploy to open the door to new viewers is never going to work, not at this late stage - let's not kid ourselves - and I am deathly afraid that it will instead shed so many formerly faithful viewers that Fringe's ratings slide will only continue. Continue till you execs do the only thing you can, given your job description: slaughter the show mid-movement.

And that's the last thing I want. Stories without endings are hardly stories at all, if you ask me. In fact the finale of season three seemed to me at least such an ideal endpoint for the series that I wonder now if Fringe's last-minute renewal will prove not the blessing it initially appeared, but a curse, because it will take the show-runners some time, surely, to arrive again at such a satisfying note for the narrative to close out on. And I very much doubt it has that long.

Now I may not love what I've seen of season four of Fringe, but I have faith in Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to take me somewhere weird and wonderful, as they have each and every year I've watched this tremendous show... easily the jewel in the crown of genre television, excepting perhaps HBO's Game of Thrones.

Yet I am so very afraid that this rollercoaster is going nowhere.

So please, network television executives: agree to see Fringe through to the bitter end. Let everyone know that this will be its last year, or better yet, agree that season five will be the final season of Fringe, as per the original five-year plan. Give the show-runners a destination to head towards, and time enough to get there.

Kill Fringe, then, if you must. As you must. But kill it softly. That's all I ask.

Fingers crossed,
Niall Alexander.

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