Fringe Benefits 2018

Every few years I head to the Edinburgh Fringe for a week of theatre, comedy and impromptu games of Avoid The Leafleteers. This year we were once again ready to brave the professional performances, the amateur dramatics and the wind, drizzle and fog. As always, the range of shows to see was immense: from queasy comedy (or is it?) about toxic masculinity via Korean mashups of Shakespeare, folklore and calligraphy to immersive flights on Schroedinger Airlines, but also from accomplished acting and acrobatics to the decidedly more homespun and rough around the edges – but often no less engaging for that.

Edinburgh Fringe

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Fringe dwellers

Remember the old days, when Lost was one of my favorite non-HBO TV series, a tasty snack in between the substantial but demanding Sopranos, The Wire or Deadwood? And Fringe was basically an X-Files knockoff for the 21st century – fun enough, but flimsy and without much of a voice of its own apart from having a gooey, gorey imagination?

Well, we’re now watching the final season of Lost on TV (Switzerland may have the cheese, chocolates and watches, but we get TV series late since everything has to be dubbed), and I’m afraid I’ve lost most of my interest. Sideways universe, shmideways universe, added to which I have pretty much had my fill of Jack, Kate et al. Yes, they obviously know where they want to take the series for the finale, but so many of the answers we get for the mysteries built up in the previous five seasons are banal, boring and not particularly convincing. Case in point: how did the Black Rock end up in the middle of the jungle? Big wave. Never mind that it smashed into a gigantic statue hard enough to smash the statue, but the ship’s still mostly, well, ship-shape.

But no, the series writers tell us, Lost is not about the mysteries – it’s about the characters! Obviously! I mean, it’s not as if the series’ main driver was that what kept the series going was questions like: What is the hatch? What are the numbers? What is the black smoke? Who are the others? Yes, Lost also spent a lot of time on its characters, especially in the flashbacks (and flash-forwards, flash-sideways and quite possible flash-upside-downs), but the impetus always, always came from the mysteries.

Fringe, on the other hand… It’s still frivolous entertainment, and like so many US series it suffers from the need to do 20+ episodes per season, but they’ve definitely shifted the overall mythology up a gear or two. They’ve become much more confident with their storytelling, to the point where they play with the format and the audience in delightful ways. To give just one example, consider the usual intro of the series:

… and now check out the intro they did for one episode set roughly 30 years earlier:

There’s a winking self-awareness that Lost has, well, lost if it ever had it (well, perhaps in “Exposé”, Nikki and Paolo’s final episode). There’s an awareness that this is silly stuff, but let’s just roll with it. And most of all, while the mythology is being built into something riveting and surprisingly poignant, it is never as convoluted as Lost has become. For all the heavy-duty plotting in Fringe, it’s the characters that keep the weirdness grounded – and enjoyable. Bring on season 3 of Fringe, and finally bring Lost to an end, so we can go back to remembering its early days when it was fresh and exciting.