Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello wrote a famous play in the early part of the 20th century called “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Post-modern before such a thing really took hold in pop culture, it involves an acting company rehearsing a play (also written by Pirandello) but interrupted by six strangers, who claim to be characters from an unfinished story. The acting troupe at first scoffs at this tale, but their Director agrees to stage the characters’ stories all the same. Eventually, the line between what is real and what is unreal becomes utterly unclear, leaving both the Director and the audience unnerved by what transpires before the curtain drops.

I bring all this up not simply to justify the amount of money that my parents sank into my college education, but also because “Fringe” for a while felt like “Three Characters in Search of a Story.” Since the show couldn’t seem to settle upon what it wanted to be, it stranded Olivia, Walter, and Peter amidst a sea of “Patterns of the Week” and half-hearted, contradictory attempts at mythology. Even mentioning the word “Pattern” at this point feels hopelessly anachronistic, as if I was talking about riding one of those old-timey bikes with the enormous front wheel and small rear one.

But now? Well, a penny-farthing appears onscreen, and I cackle mercilessly.

[Full recap of Thursday's (Sept. 23) "Fringe" after the break...]

“Fringe” is a show that’s both easy to grasp at the start of its third season for newbies but probably impossible to truly appreciate. More than any of the “Lost” would-be successors, “Fringe” understood that character, not complex mythology, would be the key to make this a show to love more than simply appreciate. While it ducked and weaved in its first season in terms of overall arcs, it did a great job at forging an unlikely, dysfunctional family out of the central trio. The smartest thing it did was create its eventual universe-building around that core trio, giving the impossibly large stakes an emotional grounding.

If the first two seasons were about grounding a war between two realities in a simple yet powerful bond between these people, then the third season will be about questioning just why this side should get to actually win this war. Calling those familiar looking faces in the amber-filled universe “Walternate” (as the show does) and “Fauxlivia” (as the internet has) is great fun, but also goes a long way in showing just how perspective alters one’s stance on morally ambiguous actions.

Since we understand the world of “Fringe” for the past two seasons to be analogous to the world outside of our homes, it’s easy to justify Walter’s kidnapping of Peter. We might not condone it, but we understand it. But what if the world outside our door contained a park co-dedicated to Martin Luther King AND Eldridge Cleaver? Would Walternate’s plan to use Olivia’s cortiphexan-enhanced biology to preserve that world seem less monstrous? Would we be rooting for Lincoln to heal in that hyperbaric chamber as quickly as possible? More than likely.

In addition, calling that world’s Olivia “Fauxlivia” helps people like me differentiate the two when writing about them, but does a disservice to what “Fringe” is attempting with this dual universe storyline. The two Olivias are fundamentally the same, albeit different, unwhole versions of that common base. Neither side lives a life that is complete, which is why the Walternate’s plan is so incredibly, insidiously brilliant. Most shows would have ensured that a cliffhanger such as last year’s would be resolved by the end of the following season’s premiere. Walternate, and the show, flipped that expectation on its head by asking not how to prevent Olivia from leaving, but how to convince her to actually stay.

The solution to Walternate’s problem of brainwashing Olivia might have been unintentional on her end, but clearly conscious on the part of the show’s writers. Having learned that the show’s outlandish concepts go down much better when personal stakes are involved, it used a potentially off-putting plot involving the injection of B-lymphocytes into a intensely personal mission for Olivia to reconnect with her long-lost mother. Her resistance to the drug regimen melt away at the precise moment in which she achieves the illusion of coming “home” to a place she herself had never physically been before.  

Like many people that have written about “Fringe” over the years, I’ve not always written warmly about Anna Torv’s performance, but on every conceivable level she knocked tonight’s episode out of the park. From her butt-kicking exit from Liberty Island to the effective way she handled her cab driver/unwilling chauffeur Henry to the way she “turned” into the other Olivia to the way her alternate self tried to “play” her doppelganger outside of the White House…each aspect was spot-on, believable, and thrilling. Since this week’s episode happened primarily “Over There,” I look forward to seeing how Fauxlivia interacts with her environments in the weeks to come with equal excitement.

And now, a hail of bullets that may or may not come from this universe…

  • Bubbles! Nice to see Andre Royo show up, in what looks like a multi-episode arc as Henry, Unwilling Cab Driver. I will confess that my planned watch of the entire series of “The Wire” this summer didn’t get past Season 2, so please, if you can, no spoilers about his role in future seasons in the comments below.

  • Speaking of guests stars, that was Amy Madigan as Olivia/Fauxlivia’s mom. I remember her most fondly as The Most Understanding Wife in the History of History in “Field of Dreams.” And, having mentioned that movie, I now have to call my Dad and see if he’ll have a catch with me.

  • Looking forward to seeing Fauxlivia’s reaction upon seeing her sister in this world. (Last year, she revealed that her version of Rachel died.) I can safely say this is the first time I’ve actively looked forward to the potential of seeing Rachel, an awkward character introduced for no reason but to try and make Olivia seem less like a robot in Season 1. Well, Torv rocks now. No need for a sister. Or a niece. All good here. Thanks.

  • File under “what could have been…”: Imagine if the show started in what we now call “The Other Side,” and, at the end of two years, what we call Fauxlivia crosses over into a world that feels exactly like our own. Try figuring out allegiances in THAT scenario, people. (My head hurts. But in the good way.)

  • Keep an eye on Alterna-Broyles, who may be key (along with Henry) in finally sending Olivia home. But frankly, I’m fine in waiting until say, November sweeps for that to finally happen.

  • Fun stuff that’s different over there: “Dogs”, not “Cats”, is a hit musical. Tom Cruise is a star of the smallscreen, not big screen. Glatterflug Airlines doesn’t land in Logan Aiport with a planeful of corpses; it takes daily trips to the moon. “Amber Alerts” have different meanings. As mentioned before, apparently Martin Luther King lived long enough to work with the leader of the Black Panther Party. Luckily, “Star Wars” apparently exists in both worlds, though hopefully Henry never had to endure the prequels over there.

The hour ends with the ominous note that our Olivia is now “their” Olivia, although as I’ve tried to stress, such binary oppositions are why these two worlds are at war with each other. Claiming individual pieces as opposed to celebrating and protecting commonality not only caused strife between tribes, states, and countries throughout the course of human history, but in “Fringe” is threatening to eradicate the existence of an entire history in and of itself. This is a heady war, which is why it’s so refreshing to see the show constantly worry about the show’s heart, not its head.

What did you think of the season premiere? Leave your thoughts below!