When last we met, “Fringe” fans, a lot of you were unhappy with me. Whereas the Season 3 worked like gangbusters for most of you, to me it felt hollow, cheap, and too clever by half. Staging a future that will no longer exist thanks to Peter’s intervention and a time-travel twist stolen from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” simply didn’t do it for me. (“Doomsday Device…remember a Doomsday Device!” I can hear Walter Bishop, Esquire, saying.) Did that undo all of my good feelings towards the show? Of course not! It’s a stellar show that got away from its strengths in the final hour. Having the show back on my television now makes me happy. But I’m still wary.

Here’s the problem: it’s not as if the show ever planned on keeping Peter off the show for good. It didn’t make a bold, fundamental change to the show’s structure when it erased Peter from existence. In a way, I’m glad, since the interplay between Olivia and The Bishop Boys sits at the heart of what makes this show work. On the other hand, we now have in the show’s present the same problem we had in its potential future: the people that we’ve followed for three seasons are gone, replaced by variants that possess the same DNA but slightly different personalities, behaviors, demeanors, and histories.

Now, that’s obviously the point of the early goings in Season 4. So, seeing a colder Olivia, a more agoraphobic Walter, and an in-field Astrid may have delighted many of you. And it’s certainly interesting from an intellectual perspective. But I like to turn my brain largely off while watching an episode of TV, using post-show analysis to turn it back on and figure out what I just saw. A structure such as the one in place right now on “Fringe” constantly calls attention to what’s different, which leaves the ability to suspend disbelief and simply experience the episode hampered. How hampered? Mileage will obviously vary. Some people will marvel at how Olivia Dunham is emotionally distant without Peter. I marveled at how good Anna Torv has gotten since Season 1, when such a cold demeanor didn’t indicate acting savvy so much as an inability to define Olivia amidst the crazy chaos of those early episodes. Neither way is looking at the show in a negative light. But I long to be able to once again connect with the show in the former way, not the latter way.

Now, in some ways, how well these episodes work before the reintegration of Peter happens is hard to judge. Episodes such as this one could work like gangbusters in hindsight, or completely fall apart when all is revealed. It all resides in the execution of his return. But I can’t help feeling like “Fringe” has given itself an enormous, unnecessary, self-inflicted narrative challenge here. Peter’s disappearance may have made for a crazy cliffhanger, but what will it ultimately add to the story? I’ll be happy to be proven wrong down the line if this all ties together in a neat little bow. I’m not rooting against this show in any way, shape or form. But if you want a recent antecedent for how I’m approaching this season of “Fringe,” look to the final season of “Lost.” That was a season in which I could appreciate individual episodes on their own merit, while affixing a metaphorical asterisk to each review, Sepinwall-style*, to each one.

* Given how the sideways world in “Lost” resolved, I think several episodes work even better in hindsight, while many now appear to serve as enormous wastes of time. And this is coming from someone that actually loved the resolution to that sideways world, even though I operated under a false hypothesis about it all season.

So there are two questions about “Neither Here Nor There” that need addressing, in terms of its place in this Peter-less “Fringe.”

 

1) How did the episode itself work?

“Fringe” doesn’t really do season-openers particularly well. Their seasons tend to gain steam as they progress, stringing together an increasingly cool set of episodes that expand upon the themes of that particular year. “Neither Here Nor There” gains one aspect of narrative power from Peter’s absence, in using Lincoln Lee as an onscreen surrogate for anyone at home that might be checking out the show for the first time. Shows such as “Fringe” usually don’t gain audience members this late in the game, but between Lee’s curiosity and the online series “Past, Present, Future,” it’s easy to see that the show is anxious to get more fans to ensure this fourth season isn’t their last.

As for the case itself, it was fairly pedestrian as far as the show goes. It existed largely to introduce a new breed of shape shifters to exploit the already tense truce that was established in the week since Peter created the bridge between the two worlds. I will confess I did not understand exactly what Peter did in the final moments of last season: I thought the bridge literally combined the two worlds, whereas all he did was provide a central link for the two worlds to cross over. Seeing two different skies from the same building was utterly thrilling, and the idea that it’s now easy for both sides to cross over and interact opens up an immense possibility for the show’s storytelling. (Next week’s hour, which I’ve already seen, takes quick advantage of this development.)

This all leads to my second question about the show…

 

2) Did they need to erase Peter in order to create this season’s conflict?

Honestly, the idea that these two worlds have to work together in and of itself seems like enough conflict for a fourth season. I could watch nothing but Olivia/Fauxlivia scenes and be pretty content. Having Walternate still present but largely offscreen works to that character’s advantage. Astrid as potential peacekeeper/voice of reason gives her something new to add to her arsenal. That Peter didn’t simply solve things but instead provide a chance to avoid mutual destruction feels right: it’s not like he cured humanity’s inherent ills, after all. But he sits in a pivotal position: he belongs to both, yet neither, universe. He himself is as much a bridge as the one he constructed with his mind. So why did he have to leave the show entirely for a brief period only to haunt the show, both literally and figuratively?

 

Again, all of these questions will be answered upon his return. Whether we’ll like those answers or not is another story. What made Over There work so well was not that we were seeing “what if” scenarios for our people over here. What made it work is that we got to know those “secondary” versions as every bit as real as those we’d initially followed. I hate calling the red-headed version of Olivia “Fauxlivia,” since it implies that she’s inferior in some way to the one we originally knew. I only use it to avoid confusion in these reviews, but I want to reemphasize just how equal both are to each other in terms of relevance and importance. And yet, now we’re watching two sets of people fundamentally altered by the removal of Peter Bishop, which in my mind makes them facsimiles of the real thing. In other words, by erasing Peter, “Fringe” has created the exact problem that it so skillfully avoided last season.

“But,” you say, “When Peter comes back, those characters will return. What’s the problem?” The problem is that this might be the show’s final season, and I want to spend as much time with the “real” characters before it bows out. If Peter’s return reboots everyone to normal, that means we’ve spent a chunk of episodes watching a “what if” scenario that doesn’t interest me. What we’ll get are lots of cases in which our characters will be faced with anvilicious plots about friends/partners/loved ones lost, as they edge closer towards what they can’t and shouldn’t remember. It’s part of the show’s romantic streak that The Observers couldn’t erase Peter from the minds/hearts of those that loved him. But I didn’t need to have Peter removed to show what he meant to those around him. Why? Because I’ve watched “Fringe” for three years, that’s why! I’ve seen what a skillful job they’ve done in demonstrating his affect on those around him. The show has already done the work, and has done it wonderfully. Having to do it again seems redundant at this point.

 

But hey, in a few weeks time, when his return pays off in ways I can’t imagine, and I’m applauding the show’s ingenuity, I’ll be happy to eat crow. I’d LOVE to eat it. For now, though, I’m watching from a distance instead of being immersed in the action. There are a lot of good things still going on in this show, but it’s all hampered by the elephant in the room. Or rather, the elephant that is no longer in the room.

 

Some bullets on tonight’s premiere

 

*** New intro! Love the yellow-ish hues of that title sequence now. I didn’t catch any new type of cases in it, but I’ll trust some of you caught some new ones.

*** Part of what really bugs me about Peter’s absence ties into my need to finally learn things about The Observers. Why did Peter need to die as a boy? To whom do they answer? I imagine out central Observer represents the introduction of emotion into pure calculation, but until we know more about them, it just seems like our characters are pawns in a game. And I’d rather them be active players, especially when we know so little about The Observers.

*** I’m a big fan of free will over fate, but there’s something nice about Lincoln’s line to Olivia about his former partner: “He believed that everything happened for a reason. I'm having a hard time believing there's a reason for this." The idea that certain people form impenetrable bonds certainly formed a backbone of “Lost,” and this case bringing Lincoln and Olivia back into contact suggests how immoral The Observers’ manipulation of Peter truly was.

*** That being said, all the on-the-nose dialogue wore on me after a while. "There is no one else. There is just me.” "He just never had anything to tether him to the world." "I know what it's like to have a hole in my life. It's been there as long as I can remember." We get it, show. We really, really get it. And yet, we get so much more of this next week.

*** I imagine the interference on Astrid’s communication link will factor into the true nature of the new shapeshifters. It went out within a few feet of each victim, and I imagine the microwave in the lab was a decoy reason for its second malfunction.

*** Walter may be more of a recluse without Peter, but he’s still plenty funny all the same. And now Astrid is not only his hands in the lab, but also in the field. Which comes in handy during certain examinations. Extra bonus? He seems to know her name now, but doesn’t know the name of his overnight guard.

*** “Alias” fans: get a familiar vibe when Olivia took Lincoln into the bridge room?

 

What did you think of the premiere? Happy with this Peter-less world, or do you share my concerns? Is “Fringe” taking things to a new level or taking things a bit too far? Sound off below!