Roush Review: Fringe, Supernatural, Spartacus: Friday Night Lights Up
As someone who spends a healthy (if that's the word) chunk of most weekends catching up on Friday night TV, here are some very strong arguments for even the most cabin-feverish among us to stay in this Friday night. It's also a classic DVR dilemma. Which to watch live, which to record?
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My vote is on having a real-time Fringe experience — which in this case means flashing back in time to another pivotal moment in the worlds-collide mythology. This terrifically imaginative series, hitting its peak in its third season in every way but ratings, needs every fan's support. I do think Fox believes in the show and is rooting for it to succeed, but the move to Fridays is proving to be as challenging as trying to tell the two Walter Bishops apart back in 1985. (I had to play back one scene twice because I temporarily lost track of which world we were in.)
Fringe reminds me of Lost in the way that over time it has abandoned almost any pretext of reeling in the casual viewer. You're either into this gripping and sprawling story, that positions a one-of-a-kind love triangle (involving two versions of the Olivia Dunham character) in the middle of a war between two fraying universes, or you're completely lost. The good news is that Fringe rewards a fan's investment with episodes like this week's "Subject 13."
The episode title refers to yet a third Olivia Dunham, the child version who in the mid-'80s was a lab-rat test subject of Walter Bishop's in Jacksonville. Dr. Bishop hopes to use "Olive's" abilities to cross over more safely to the alt-world from whence he stole the other Peter to replace his own dead son. (It's a long, twisted and very tormented tale of the ill effects of playing God with science.) But how far will he push little Olivia, a vulnerable girl being terrorized by an abusive stepfather, to achieve his goals? That's what Walter's worried wife Elizabeth (the wonderful Orla Brady) wants to know, even as she frets over the mental well-being of young Peter, who has yet to adjust to his new world, six months after the abduction. He knows something's off about these replacement parents, and he just wants to go back home. But then he meets poor wounded Olivia, who so desperately doesn't want to be sent back to her own home.
The first encounter of Olivia and Peter is a tender and fateful moment, bittersweet and heartbreaking for the viewer who knows what's to come for them as adults. This isn't a particularly creepy episode of Fringe, although there's one surprise that had me gasping at its implications, but it reinforces the emotional stakes that engulf its most unforgettable character: the remorseful Walter Bishop (and, during this period, the still-grieving Walternate), so poignantly played by Emmy-worthy John Noble. As he considers the damage he has done to both universes, and the psychic toll it takes on his own loved ones, the desperation is palpable and at times unbearable. (No wonder he eventually lost his bearings, while Walternate only grew more steely in his resolve to regain what was taken from him.)
While Fringe is powerfully affecting, this week's Supernatural (in the same time period, aggravatingly enough) is ridiculously entertaining, a welcome satirical change of pace from the grim events of this so-far-spotty post-apocalyptic sixth season. In the tradition of comically self-referential episodes like last season's superlative "Changing Channels," this week's "The French Mistake" (read our back story here) doesn't just break down the fourth wall. It obliterates it, hilariously.
When the ongoing war in Heaven, which has been much talked about but little seen, spills over into Earth, the Winchester brothers are launched for their protection into an alternate universe where Sam and Dean are actually actors named Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles who work on a TV show named Supernatural. "So what, now, you're Polish?" barks Dean/Ackles. Even more unsettling, they realize they've landed someplace ostensibly worse than Hell: Canada. "Dude, we're not even in America," mutters one of the boys. (The actual show is filmed in Vancouver, of course.)
More than any episode to date, this cheeky hour reveals the artifice behind the artifice: showing us the sets, the multiple prop Impalas, the impatient crew (startled to see the guys actually talking to each other, in a wink at TV-star egos), the frantic calls from the home office, and the weariness that invades a production cranking away on "Season 6." I don't want to give away any more of the inspired meta in-jokes, but let's just say that if you're familiar with Misha Collins' tweets, you'll get a special kick out of the way the actor-who-plays-Castiel gets to shed his trench coat — and his implacable reserve.
It isn't entirely fun and games. There are moments when our awkward hunters-turned-actors reflect on a world where demons are all fictional, where there is no magic, where supernatural is just the name of a TV show and where, despite the wealth and the fame, "we just don't mean the same thing here."
Speaking of games, gird your loins for the graphic finale of Starz' Spartacus: Gods of the Arena prequel, which concludes its six-week run Friday night. (A new season of Spartacus with a new lead actor begins filming later this year.) With the opening of the new gladiator arena as a backdrop to the murderously vengeful power plays being enacted by the ruthlessly ambitious Batiatus (John Hannah, savoring his mendacity to the end), this lusty, garishly gory melodrama spares no blood, shows no mercy and gives no quarter to its many pawns, high-born or low.
The yuck factor is, as usual, intense, especially when the games reach their fiery climax, but this miniseries diversion ultimately (and not surprisingly) lacks the impact of the operatically staged carnage that ended the freshman season of Spartacus in an audacious bloodbath. Still, those with a taste for betrayals and beheadings, who like their triumphs always tainted by tragedy, will be well sated. Thumbs mostly up.
Fringe airs Friday, 9/8c, on Fox
Supernatural airs Friday, 9/8c, on the CW
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena airs Friday, 10/9c, on Starz
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