Friday, March 9, 2012

My Personal Problem with Fringe

It’s been a formula in the last decade to have a character in a television show that is problematic. Not politically correct. Someone broken. Archie Bunker is an example of this, and more recently South Park’s Eric Cartman. The character often serves as the engine for the show, their inherent rudeness or insensitivity tends to drive the plots.

Notably, this has been primarily a trope of comedies. Because when the story is done, we can laugh off Cartman’s Hitler obsession, or Arnold Rimmer being a complete smeghead, because they are shown to be pompous, ignorant buffons who deserve to be mocked. It's a lot more difficult to dismiss when the show is a drama that keeps a continuity from week to week.

For Fringe, that problematic character is Dr. Walter Bishop. Drug-taking, unethical human experiementer Walter Bishop.

Everyone who has watched the show is aware that he's an archetypal mad scientist, but he reminds me of the very real, very cruel experiments in America's past. Think of what kind of monster it would take to inject children with experimental chemicals. To me, it's right up there with the doctors in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, the guys who gave more than eight hundred pregnant mothers women what they called vitamin drinks, but in fact contained radioactive iron, or those doctors who who killed 83 Guatemalans in a syphillis experiment. Would you watch a show that lionized the doctors performing these unethical experiements? Check out the wikipedia entry on Unethical human experimentation in the United States. Such experiments were real.

Mad science in the real world is horribly victimizing. People are scarred, or maimed, and have lifelong repercussions. Often these doctors preyed on, ironically, fringe individuals whose voice is faintly heard by the legal system.

Fringe us not honest about the experiements Walter performed. For a little while, Walter is shown as seeking redemption for his ethical transgressions, but that thread is dropped at the end of season two. It stops the moment he receives forgiveness from four of his test subjects in the season two closer, "Over There." These former subjects conveniently die later in the episode, absolving Walter of the responsibility of ever having to think of them again. He again gets what he wants that their expense, and the camera spends no time mourning or remembering them. Instead, it is preoccupied with Walter's gunshot wound.

The following season, Walter's quest for forgiveness is concentrated solely on his son, Peter Bishop.

I find the lionization of Dr. Walter Bishop enormously disquieting. John Noble plays him with extraordinary sympathy, but the writing never truly comes to grips with the moral issues the character raises. Walter Bishop is the smartest guy in the world, the only person who can make sense of what the onrushing doom that is the show's overarching plot. For this, he is given a pass for the monstrous acts he performed, because he is the key to the plot. I continue to find this a very dishonest of Fringe writing staff.

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