Olivia Dunham might be the worst fictional FBI agent in history. That, in and of itself, doesn’t annoy me. It doesn’t bother me that she — especially in this season — rarely investigates anything, rarely figures anything out using her alleged investigative prowess, and frequently has reams of expository dialogue spoonfed to her by Walter Bishop, Peter Bishop, Nina Sharp, and now even the mysterious bowling alley owner played by Kevin Corrigan (Sam Weiss Gamgee). It doesn’t bother me that she repeatedly learns things she should already know, and her eyes boggle as if her world has just come crumbling down. It doesn’t bother me that she can’t remember, as recently as three weeks ago, discovering that pathological terror is her link to her MAGICAL POWERS when she desperately needs to use said powers and is, one could argue, pathologically terrified vis-à-vis the impending end of the world.
What bothers me is the show’s repeated insistence that she’s great at what she does. She’s special, according to Walter. She’s one of the finest agents Broyles has had the pleasure of ineffectually monitoring from a safe distance. Nina Sharp believes she’s brilliant. Peter Bishop has inexplicably fallen in love with her. All of this despite repeated demonstrations of raging, comical incompetence, without counterbalancing her blunders with equal moments of actual brilliance.
Characters are allowed to have Achilles’ heels. I think Fringe would be a much more entertaining show, overall, if it acknowledged Olivia’s basic incompetence. Think about it: she stumbles into Fringe Division accidentally. She’s not handpicked by anyone for the assignment. Imagine how much more interestingly things could have played out if Broyles was effectively stuck with an agent he didn’t want, just because she Knew Too Much and they had to put her somewhere. She’s awful at her job, but occasionally a broken clock is right twice a day, and as the mythology deepens, her importance to The Pattern and all the other bullshit makes her more of an asset to the team than her alleged skills.
To compare Fringe to Alias — the show it’s increasingly becoming, as the convoluted mythology has attained Rambaldi-esque absurdity, replete with ancient sketches of the main character prophesizing her importance to the overall plot — one has to consider Sydney Bristow. Granted, she spent significantly more time shaking her moneymaker than Olivia does, but Syd also completed missions using her own cunning and guile, and took the pieces of various puzzles and usually figured them out without needing someone smarter to explain it to her. Olivia spends more time getting kidnapped than solving cases, and it’s rarely her intellect or investigative skills that save the day. The writers of Fringe seem to think they’ve created a strong female character like Syd, but the reality is, they’ve created a damsel in distress whose dumb girl brain can’t process anything unless a big, smart man does the thinking for her.
In the first season and part of the second, the show had a basic formula. Something weird would happen. Olivia and Broyles would investigate the crime scene. Olivia would notice something (usually something patently obvious, which more calls into question the skills of other Fringe agents than exposes her genius) tangentially related to The Pattern, and she’d go to Walter for an explanation. Sci-fi wackiness would ensue. As the show has evolved from a vaguely procedural X-Files knockoff into a mythology-driven soap opera, the show has abandoned any delusions that Olivia can do anything on her own. From the moment she mysteriously teleported into William Bell’s office at the end of the first season, every major piece of the puzzle that Olivia has uncovered has happened by either accident or intervention. She’s a weak, inactive protagonist, and refusing to acknowledge that fact (while heightening her importance within the mythology) has become an Achilles’ heel of the show itself.
“Inactive?” you scoff. “But she frequently has to fight her way out of the many kidnapping scenarios she finds herself in.” Really, though, these bursts of action don’t translate to an active protagonist, any more than it makes her better than a damsel in distress. An active protagonist, at least in this type of show, hunts for clues, searches for the truth, figures things out, and avoids the type of idiotic scenarios Olivia often finds herself in. I can’t remember the last time Olivia actually took the time to think about something and come to an understanding on her own. It may not have ever happened in the show’s history. Usually, she just stumbles on conveniently all-encompassing information, or another character hands it to her on a silver platter, whether it’s the subconscious “ghost” of her dead lover or a mystery man who just happens to be part of the family who wrote The First People and knows everything you ever wanted to know about the doomsday device and The Other Side (but were afraid to ask).
I’ve never been fully sold on the show. I liked enough elements of it — notably the Walter-Peter relationship and some of the more interesting turns of mythology — to keep watching in the hopes that it would get better. Midway through the second season, it became legitimately good from my perspective, but this season has been a disaster. The writers have pushed the show’s flaws to the forefront: they’ve built an alternate universe that’s cool in theory but falls apart when one examines the finer details, they’ve put an excessive emphasis on Other Side characters without really doing much to develop them beyond bland clichés, and — perhaps most detrimentally — have saddled talent vacuum Anna Torv with not one, not two, but three separate characters.
The apex of these miscalculations occurred a few weeks ago, when they allowed William Bell to take over her mind. Over the course of two embarrassing, virtually unwatchable episodes, Torv affected the strange New England lilt of the Pepperidge Farm guy in an attempt to impersonate Leonard Nimoy. As I always have with the shows, I appreciated moments here and there — particularly being able to see Walter interact with “Bell” — but overall, the show has made bad decisions and executed them poorly. That’s a problem when the show, particularly in small but vocal internet circles, receives high praise as the best sci-fi show on TV. (On that, I’d have to agree — but that mostly illustrates how bad most sci-fi on TV is these days, not how great Fringe is.) In the minds of its fans, the show can do no wrong, but this season has thrown away the goodwill it generated last season by randomly dropping story and character threads (Olivia’s aforementioned fear-based power activation, not to mention pretty much anything involving Other Side characters), devoting almost Inception-levels of circular exposition to explain a mythology that isn’t as complicated as it thinks it is, and trying to blow minds with ill-conceived plot twists that even the worst soap opera writers would discard as too hackneyed (Fauxlivia’s pregnant! Bell is alive and inside Olivia’s brain!).
And then, in the season’s penultimate episode, Peter found himself in a third alternate universe, on the set of Cyborg, where a monument to the fallen WTC looms over the chaos reigning on the Manhattan streets. An interesting twist that may be made more interested with the new knowledge that the doomsday machine has the power to both destroy and create universes — wouldn’t it be interesting if this universe blinked into existence upon Peter’s interaction with the machine, as a reflection of his own post-9/11 anxieties? I’m sure they’ll go somewhere infinitely stupider with it, but it’s nice to derive some Lost-like pleasure in speculating on the possibilities.
I’m not sure what this week’s season finale will bring, but I know one thing: I’ll be done with the show. Fox’s decision to renew it after weeks of “series low” ratings was both inexplicable and laughable, and I can’t take another season of this shit. If I had any faith that the writers would realize what they’ve done to the show and make an effort to course-correct, I might stick with it. However, with the collective smoke the internet keeps blowing up the show’s ass regarding its high quality, I have no doubt the show will get worse instead of better. And that’s disappointing, because it showed a lot of potential in its second season. They squandered all of it this year and lost a viewer because of it. Based on their current ratings, that means their viewership just dropped by 33%.
But man, I’m pretty sure just acknowledging Olivia’s ineptitude would be enough to make the show entertaining again. Why is this show too afraid to make her fallible? Every other character on the show has some kind of major flaw, even Astrid. What makes Olivia so perfect, other than the writers constantly reminding us of it in the hopes that we’ll start to believe it if they say it enough? Humanizing her by showing the character flaws that are evident to anyone with eyes can only help the show. Right now, we’re expected to believe she’s quite literally a superhero (she has fucking MAGICAL POWERS), and that’s as boring as it is bullshit.
Posted by D. B. Bates on May 2, 2011 11:55 AM