EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS: Writing Fringe — The Evolution of a Series
Tonight on Fox, FRINGE, one of television’s most innovative series, kicks off its third season. To herald the show’s return, our SciFi Media Zone page features an exclusive interview with executive producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman on the writing and evolution of the series.
Interview conducted by and © Edward Gross
When FRINGE began three seasons ago, many critics dismissed it — despite the Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman “created by” pedigree — as a take off of THE X-FILES. But as quickly became evident, the show was anything but.
The focus is on the so-called “Fringe Division,” which investigates fringe science and the dangers it poses to humanity. Part of that fringe science has been the gradually introduction and exploration of an alternate earth that is promising to serve as a battleground between both worlds. The show stars Anna Torv as special agent Olivia Dunham, John Noble as eccentric/mad scientist Walter Bishop and Joshua Jackson as his son, Peter.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: How would you say the nature of the storytelling on FRINGE has changed and evolved from the beginning?
J.H. WYMAN: Organically, it really has. The first season, obviously, was all about set-up. You have to get an idea of who the characters are, and as an audience member it's sort of more of an objective view. Season two became a little bit more about starting to slowly uncover a larger mythology that allowed people to get more of a subjective point of view from the characters. And now in season three, we're truly ensconced in the subjective, from the character's point of view, and very, I guess, settled on watching their self-actualization. So it took three seasons to really begin to care to a certain extent about the people and their positions in this story. As soon as you start looking at the objective and subjective viewpoints, any first season of a show is really, “Hey, we're going to set the table for you.” And then, as you get to know them you're allowed to tell stories about personal things, because you actually care for the characters. So that sort of changed. We learned a great deal in that the first season was more standalones with some mythology.
The second season, we sort of stumbled into more and realized, “Hey, the fans don't really like the standalones.” That was a big realization for us, because the network and the studios are really into the standalones, but Jeff and I realized they don’t satiate our core fans, and that's who we really want to impress. So near the end of last season we coined a term called a “myth-alone.” It sounds crazy, but it makes perfect sense. “White Tulip” is a perfect example of a myth-alone – you're watching a compelling story, and it’s FRINGE-like, and you'll get the benefit of that creepiness, and that's a far out idea – but you're also going to have the through-lines of the mythology of Walter dealing with the secret of Peter. The response for those kinds of episodes was really overwhelming from our fans, and that was a large get for us as far as a realization.
JEFF PINKNER: You can't force a show down an audience's throat; that's the worse thing you can do, and we've all seen shows that very nobly try to do this, but it doesn't work. You can't force an audience to like characters. It has to happen organically. And so initially, the storytelling, sort of at the request of the studio and network, was about the characters just trying to get to know each other. These three characters were forced by choice, not by circumstances, and the storytelling was very much from the outside in. And then as we tried to reveal more about the characters, it enabled us to tell stories from the characters’ point of view. We knew from the beginning that we were telling a show about an alternate universe, we knew from the beginning we were telling a show that was going to be about Peter being stolen from an alternate universe, but that's not just a story you can get into immediately.
We referred to it, using LOST language, as a hatch – we knew there was a hatch on our island and we knew the secrets of the storytelling, but we couldn't reveal them to the audience until we had sort of earned their trust and earned the surprise of that. So by the end of the first season, when we could actually reveal what the show was about organically, like Joel said, it changed the storytelling, and now that the secret is out. We can tell stories about the consequences of that. In regards to the myth-alone, every episode of ER is about the patient of the week, but you're really watching the show because you love the characters and you want to find out what their stories are. So for us, we're not, as much as we all love LOST, telling a story inherently about mysteries. We're actually acknowledging our mysteries and our secrets, and then we reveal them and play their consequences. With myth-alones we're advancing our characters’ journey while every episode has a beginning, a middle and an end, so if you only watch one out of every five episodes, you can enjoy the case and you know enough about the characters to know, in a couple of minutes, where they are, and get sucked into their internal drama. For the more regular fans of the show, the narrative is constantly evolving while they're seeing the little story of the week.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: A couple of minutes ago you said something about the show earning the right for its revelations. I remember many moons ago when STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION launched. They did “The Naked Time,” a remake of an original series episode in which the crew’s inhibitions were stripped away and you got to see another side of them. Unfortunately this was only the second episode, so it really didn’t have much an impact.
J.H. WYMAN: Because you have no point of reference – you have no context. If I don't know you, and I see you walk across the street and choose to get involved with an accident scene – you could leave, but instead you make the decision to go and help – that's an interesting story, but it's much more interesting if I know that you've never done anything good in your life, and you've just turned the corner and this is something that has stakes for you. Well, that's how we can evaluate our characters – through the decisions that they make.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: One thing that’s always bugged me about mythology heavy shows is the way that something unbelievably traumatic happens in a mythology episode, but then the next week they go back to normal until the next mythology episode shows up. Shows that come to mind are THE X-FILES, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and SMALLVILLE.
J.H. WYMAN: We would not be good storytellers if we didn’t look at what came before us and examined what worked and what didn't. Now that X-FILES has come and gone, we felt a lot of backlash from people saying, “We want to know more about the mythology.” And at first our reaction was, “Come on, it's like you're trying to open all the presents before Christmas; you've got to wait.” And soon we examined their complaint a little more closely, and we finally got what the fans were saying: “It's not that I want to know everything now, I just find that the mythology you've keyed in to is so compelling to us, that we don't want to forget from week to week. We’re inviting these people into our homes, we want to know where they're coming from.” Once we started to get into that, that's where we looked at each other, and we said, “OK, there's a new paradigm that we can create with what we've got going on,” and that's what the myth-alone is for us.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: As an audience at least we feel like there’s a pretty steady forward progression as opposed to be being made to feel that we’re running in place.
J.H. WYMAN: It sounds so simple, but the truth is it wasn't simple. It was like one of those puzzles where once you get to the other side, you’re like, “Wow, that was really easy.” It was difficult, because you're battling all these different forces in the form of the studio and the network, and our own writer's room, so there are a whole bunch of different people who have a vote, and to try and come to this conclusion… it's funny, because we're saying it now and it seems so easy.
JEFF PINKNER: Look, the truth is, we're not re-inventing the wheel – but what we are doing is a hybrid of a bunch of different kinds of storytelling. There are some shows which are 100% serialized, and that's both in the sort of FlashForward formula or the daily soap opera – they're both 100% serialized. And then there are shows which are sort of condition shows, like ER or Grey's Anatomy, which are ultimately shows about a hospital, where there's a patient of the week, and meanwhile there are the characters who you love, who you're really watching the show for whether you realize it or not.
J.H. WYMAN: You bring up and excellent point with ER: it's not the cases that came through the door; the cases that came through the door illuminated the characters who we loved every week, and that was a feat.
JEFF PINKNER: So what we're doing, and it's something procedurals rarely do, is we're both advancing our characters’ journey while we're telling a case of the week, all of which is set against the backdrop of this fairly insane mythological story about this father and a son, which also involves Olivia. All of our characters are interconnected against a much larger background which now entails two universes, while still maintaining story of the week storytelling.
SCIFI MEDIA ZONE: Is the challenge NOT to get buried by the mythology?
JEFF PINKNER: No, because I think our mythology is designed to not be the kind of mythology that would bury you. Using a show like ALIAS as an example, there were times that ALIAS put the mythology at the forefront of the storytelling, and as soon as that happened we stopped engaging with the characters. Through our own errors in storytelling, the mythology became bigger than the characters. We learned from that and by the end of ALIAS we had brought the story back to our characters' point of view and what they wanted. So we allowed the mythology to reflect on that rather than the other way around. And LOST constantly had the same push and pull: is the mythology larger than the characters? And clearly what I thought was so brilliant about the finale was that they acknowledged their mythology, but they made it about the emotions of the characters. What’s fun for us is we're world building and fleshing out a universe, but at the same time the mythology is not that complicated at all. It's an abduction, an adoption…
J.H. WYMAN: The quintessential kidnapping story!
JEFF PINKNER: And anybody can relate. We’re just telling it through this unique set of circumstances – it's about the love of a father for his son, and Olivia is obviously deeply connected to that, because she was experimented on as a kid which resulted in Walter's ability to take his child. It's really about these three characters who are on the fringe of society, and they've formed this quasi-family unit. As a consequence, they’re charged with investigating these cases that threaten our way of living. As we say, it's a family drama masquerading as a sort of quasi-science fiction procedural show. So to answer your question, we have always strived to maintain a mythology that isn't too big; our eyes aren't larger than our stomachs, we're not trying to bite off more than we can chew – just to throw in a bunch of bad analogies all at once. If we've done our jobs successfully, at the end of the day people are going to say, “I remember that episode ‘White Tulip’ – that was the one where Peter Weller was trying to travel through time in order to save his wife.” Other people will say, “Oh, ‘White Tulip,’ that was the episode where Walter was struggling with whether or not to tell Peter the truth about who he was.”
J.H. WYMAN: What we’re interested in as writers is what makes you feel, and what is it like to be a human being? We want to explore the human condition. We’ve had lengthy discussions about it, and that's when science fiction fires on all cylinders for us, when the more you become science fiction, the more about the human condition it ultimately is. That’s the challenge, and we get such a kick out of exploring these great morality questions, having things about right and wrong, too much knowledge, dangerous knowledge, where are we going as a people and a society? We can tell the most fantastic stories like ‘White Tulip’ in a prism that no one else can touch because of the science fiction genre we're in. But there are themes …
JEFF PINKNER: … that we constantly go back to, that are sort of inherent in the arc and texture of the show – should man play God? By saving his son, what Walter ultimately did, even though fundamentally it’s an emotional decision we can all empathize with, was break a universe. Do the ends justify the means? That’s a grand theme of the show. Science, in itself, and human actions – science is neutral, it's just the application of it that can be positive or negative. A grand theme of the show. The ideas of choices and the consequences of those choices, which specifically for us gets played out in two different universes – grand theme of the show. And all these themes are very human themes, they're not plot driven ideas, and then we build plots on to those ideas. For us, that’s where the fun in storytelling lies.
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