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Catch up on 'Fringe' -- and help save it

Dale Roe

So, the fantastic "Fringe" exists in two universes, and it's still pulling numbers that put it in danger of cancellation? That's just not right.

In the middle of a mind-blowing third season, Fox shifted the unique science-fiction procedural to Fridays — the evening where network programming is routinely sent to die. Kevin Reilly, Fox network honcho, insists that the show is not being put out to pasture.

"I'd be heartbroken if it went away," Reilly told reporters during the Television Critics Association's Winter press tour in January. He insisted that all the drama had to do was pull the same numbers on Fridays that it did on Thursdays. In other words, if all of the show's current fans continued to watch, everybody could just relax.

So how's that going?

Well, "Fringe" maintained 100 percent of its Thursday average in its first Friday outing, on Jan. 21, and those numbers held up the following week, according to the ratings analysts over at TVbytheNumbers.com. But those broadcasts were up against reruns of the CW's "Supernatural" and CBS' "CSI: NY." Battling first-run competition in its third Friday outing, on Feb. 4, "Fringe's" ratings dipped 16 percent (ratings for last Friday's broadcast were not available at press time but will be posted at www.austin360.com/tvblog).

I love "Fringe," but I'm not surprised that it has had trouble finding an audience. First of all, it's a very specific and hard-sell genre show. Fox did "Fringe" no favors by moving it from Tuesdays to a highly competitive Thursday slot in 2009. And the first season — when viewers decide whether a show is going to be worth the investment (or wonder whether it will stick around long enough to provide a payoff) — was so muddled and unfocused that I almost stopped watching.

Those early mythology episodes (which explore a series' ongoing background story) introduced some elements that have been called back to and elaborated upon, but much of what we were told in the first season has been completely forgotten.

But the most mind-boggling thing about "Fringe" is that it became almost a completely different show after Season 1 — a really good show that keeps getting better. It's as if the entire first season was just a set-up for the actual show, which began in Season 2.

For those of you who haven't yet watched and wish to remain unspoiled, stop reading now and pick up the DVDs (Seasons 1 and 2 are available on disc from Netflix, and episodes can be purchased on iTunes or rented via Amazon Video on Demand). And, actually, you can pretty much skip the first season, as long as you know this:

Olivia Dunham is an FBI agent in the "Fringe Division," which explores mysterious and, frankly, gross and creepy events, usually involving some horrifying cause of death. Dunham's first Fringe case led her to Dr. Walter Bishop, a discredited Harvard scientist who has been institutionalized and declared dangerous. In order to spring him, she enlists his estranged son, Peter, a con man in Iraq. She sets Walter up in his old Harvard lab, and father and son become consultants of sorts, helping Dunham solve Fringe cases. Which is good because it turns out that almost every one of them is the result of some clandestine experiment that Walter and his genius partner William Bell performed back in the 1960s, often for secret and questionable government applications. The reclusive Bell went on to form Massive Dynamic, a multinational technology conglomerate currently run by Nina Sharp, a mysterious woman with a robotic arm, in Bell's absence.

Dunham, too, has a history with Walter and Bell, having been experimented on by them as a child. She, along with many other children, was given a drug called Cortexiphan, which alters perceptions of reality and gives those exposed to it enhanced — almost supernatural — abilities.

Toward the end of Season 1, the Fringe Division discovered the existence of an alternate universe and Sharp informed Dunham that William Bell was hiding there. She arranged for Dunham to cross over to the alternate universe to meet with Bell, whose office was, shockingly, in the still-standing World Trade Center. Back in our universe, Walter visits a cemetery and stands over a gravestone. Its inscription reads "Peter Bishop 1978-1985."

There. Now you don't have to watch the first season.

If you're going to try and jump in now, without having watched any "Fringe," here's what else you need to know:

The parallel universe contains its own Fringe Division with identical agents. It turns out the Peter that Walter Bishop raised was not his son, but the Peter from the alternate universe. Peter from here had died as a child. Having created a device that would let him see into the alternate universe, Walter discovered that the Peter over there was also ill and would die without his help. Walter crossed over into the alternate universe with the intention of delivering a cure for alternate Peter's illness. Instead, he ended up bringing the child back to our universe and curing him, and then keeping him here and raising him as his own.

Each time somebody crosses from our universe into the alternate world, part of that world is destroyed. This is viewed as an act of war by the alternate universe's Walter, who is secretary of defense. Having never indulged in narcotics like the Walter on our side, "Walternate" (as our Walter calls him) is single-minded, stern and lucid.

Walternate sent agents to our side to persuade the adult Peter to return home. The Fringe team from our universe crossed over to rescue him, and, unknown to them, the alternate universe's Dunham had taken the place of our Olivia when they returned. Initially on an intelligence-gathering mission to find parts for a doomsday machine that are hidden on our side (Walternate wants to use it to destroy our universe) the undercover alternate Dunham developed feelings for Peter and they began a physical relationship. Shape-shifting agents from the alternate universe who have infiltrated our world often aided her in her mission.

Our Olivia, meanwhile, was trapped in the alternate universe and reprogrammed to think she was her alternate universe counterpart until scientists on that side could learn how she was able to cross over. Eventually she escaped and returned to our universe, but not before scientists on the other side synthesized Cortexiphan, the drug that enables her to hop realities. Olivia's alternate universe counterpart, identified as a phony by Peter, also escaped and returned home.

The Fringe team on our side located all the parts of the doomsday machine and assembled it, only to discover that Peter somehow powers the device. Not only that, his choice of universes, depending on which version of Dunham he ends up with, will apparently decide which universe survives and which is destroyed.

It sounds confusing, but when you watch from week to week, the story is surprisingly simple (and so rewarding). Once a weak clone of "The X-Files," "Fringe" has developed an ongoing, underlying mythology that is more original, coherent and satisfying than that show's alien conceit and has delivered creepy visuals and heartbreaking (and terrifying) "monster-of-the-week" scenarios every bit as creative and disturbing as the stuff Mulder and Scully routinely ran up against. The acting is great, especially the virtuoso performance of John Noble as the whacked-out and tortured Walter. It is a crime that he has not won — let alone been nominated for — an Emmy.

If this turns out to be "Fringe's" final season, it will be a shame. But it will head out on a high note as one of the most inventive prime-time shows in recent memory. Still, let's just get all of our friends with Nielsen boxes to watch and keep it on the air. If I haven't made a convincing case for the show, then how about a personal appeal to viewers of the most popular series on network television?

Are you a "Two and a Half Men" fan? Watch "Fringe" — Charlie Sheen's got nothing on whacked-out-on-hallucinogens Walter. Do you like "The Big Bang Theory"? I got your weird scientists, right here. If you're a faithful viewer of any of the 427 "CSIs" currently running (I'm looking at you, "CSI: Boise") well, "Fringe's" procedurals are more than a little odd, but they make perfect sense within (either of) the show's universe(s).

Finally, a note to "Glee" fans: Move along. "Fringe" is too well-written and consistent in its character treatment to appeal to you.

'Fringe': 8 p.m. Friday, Fox