I'm pretty sure I've written this before, but the willing suspension of disbelief is a two-way social contract between storytellers and audiences. At the heart of that social contract is the issue of trust. Viewers will believe (or suspend disbelief on) absolutely anything if they trust the person or people telling the story and that trust is something you have to earn.
That's the background I provide to explain why I remain nervous and uncertain about FOX's "Fringe" even after a strong close to last season and a strong start to Season Two and why I remain confident about "Bones" despite a doozy of a misguided finale and a premiere that's still dealing with the mess.
It's all about trust.
"Bones" is starting its second straight season on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. That's a remarkable amount of stability from a show that FOX has treated like a rag doll, bouncing it around the schedule with a reckless abandon that would have killed a lesser show.
The show's stability was provided by Hart Hanson and Stephen Nathan, plus the rest of the "Bones" creative team. Over the years, they've built their main characters -- Emily Deschanel's Brennan and David Boreanaz's Booth -- into one of TV's best pairings and surrounded them by a great supporting cast. Although "Bones" is a procedural, it's a character-driven procedural and those characters have been well enough developed that even when they do absurd things -- like Eric Millegan's Zack falling under the sway of a serial killer -- you can usually step back and go, "Well, I guess I can see how that fit with the character and his backstory."
That was what made last spring's "Bones" finale such a disappointment. I know some people really dug it. But to me, nearly every piece of the armchair psychoanalyzing of the characters, displaced into an alternate reality version of themselves, rang false. What could have been a validation of the "Bones" universe and its fandom instead felt like a violation of the carefully cultivated storytelling.
This is where trust comes in. "Lost" could not have kept viewers in its second season without the built-up trust from the first season, but the core stuck around through the rocky times because of a conviction that either things would pay off or the ship would be righted. "Heroes" could not have survived its first-season finale without the trust built up through that first season. The fact that "Heroes" still on TV at all is still attributable to Season One, which is an idea of how powerful the bond can be, since few shows in recent years have betrayed their fans as totally as "Heroes" has done.
So I'm with "Bones." I'm with "Bones" after the finale and I'm with "Bones" even though Thursday's season premiere shows that the things that happened in the finale aren't going to be easily dismissed.
When we left Booth, he was just regaining consciousness after brain surgery and his memory was shot. Don't worry. This isn't an amnesia arc that we're dealing with as the new season begins. However, Booth isn't quite right in the head. His instincts are off, his personality is glitchy and there are still things happening in his brain that aren't ideal. This is a good chance for the show to welcome in new viewers by discussing different aspects of Booth's personality, including his socks and his hatred for clowns.
One of the key things in his condition is that the feelings that Booth experienced for Brennan in the season finale hallucination/fantasies still linger in the real world, even if he can identify them as a side-effect.
Me? I'm not a 'shipper and I don't much care about an actual consummation of that fantasy relationship between Bones and Booth. The banter and flirtation between the characters has always been appealing, but I've never thought it would somehow be better if the potential were actualized. Others will differ. And for those viewers with a different perspective, they'll have to decide if this is the way they want things to play out. To my mind, it's awkward and clumsy and, after the finale, probably unavoidable. While I'd really have wanted this season to start as if the end of last season never happened, I know I'd probably have complained about that as well. I'm tough to please.
If you have a Booth who isn't really Booth and a Brennan who isn't sure how to behave around him, you aren't putting your best team on the field if you're "Bones" and the interactions between the other characters don't compensate, since everybody's walking on eggshells regarding the whole situation. Even the presence of Cyndi Lauper in the premiere doesn't help. The central mystery, involving a mass grave of New Age cult members, lacks the sort of ghoulish fun that normally propels then show. Instead, the episode is unsteady and a little sad.
But we do get to see what sort of car Patricia Belcher's Caroline drives (it's funny) and to watch Brennan on pain medication ("I feel how I imagine people of average intelligence feel all the time").
With a show I liked less than "Bones," I would feel some concern after the premiere. With "Bones," I'm assuming it's just a matter or time before we can normalize. Hopefully?
"Fringe" is in almost the opposite position.
After an annoyingly overhyped launch, "Fringe" settled into a dreadful rut of episodes that nearly sunk the show for me. Every episode was so programatic, I sat down one afternoon and drafted a "Fringe" parody episode and was able to chart out every beat from the first five or six shows. It got better. It got a lot better. By the time the season ended, with its shot-to-the-sternum shocker of an ending, "Fringe" had already shed most of its peripheral fans and those remaining were dedicated (a notion FOX is counting on with "Fringe" in an unwinnable new timeslot) and increasingly cultish.
I always stayed just to the outside because of a feeling that the writers had gone too far, too fast. Hedgehog men and truly grotesque enlarged viruses? Sure. I'll go there. Alternate dimensions, alternate timelines and a manifesto foretelling the end of civilization? I guess I never felt like the "Fringe" writers properly earned the trust for me to take that leap right away, for me to buy into the more outlandish mumbo-jumbo. As a result, some things I was supposed to follow in the closing episodes, some fairly major twists, I didn't fully grasp until hearing converts gush about the at Comic-Con and TCA Press Tour. It was either that I wasn't smart enough to understand, or that I wasn't engaged enough to really listen.
So here I am wary about "Fringe" even though Thursday's premiere is a really fine hour of TV and it begins with a pre-credit sequence that's sudden and shocking.
To some degree, the premiere takes a step back from the intensity of the finale. Nobody goes to an alternate dimension. William Bell is neither seen nor mentioned and the things we learned about Joshua Jackson's Peter aren't relevant. [I've already been told that the latter detail isn't exactly true, but my failure to notice it actually proves my grander point.]
In fact, the writers welcome new viewers through Agent Amy Jessup (Meghan Markle), one of those quintessential outsiders who senses something is odd about Fringe Division and doesn't stop until she's asked a lot of general questions, been introduced to all major characters and carefully perused case files for many of last season's adventures. It's a good device, even if it requires less screentime for Anna Torv, who began last season as a liability and got better and better once the writers figured out how to use her.
The show's clear strength is confident and snarky leading man Jackson and John Noble's Walter, still crazy enough to dedicate equal time to musing on custard than on scientific exploration. Noble and his interactions with all around him, especially still underutilized Jasika Nicole, would be reason to watch even if a broader mythology weren't popping at the seams.
The premiere has a basic surrounding a mysterious shape-shifter, but more generally sets the foundation for the season, especially positioning Fringe Division as it relates to the possibly pending war or catastrophe.
If only I were more confident in the showrunners and their ability to take the story where it seems to need to go. There are leaps I'm just not following yet and I should be. "Fringe" isn't a show that you can just watch casually, week-to-week anymore. It's already a "Lost"/"Dollhouse"-style drama where if you miss a week, you're gonna feel like an idiot. I'm OK with commitment, but I need to know that the game is going to be worth the candle. But as premieres go? "Fringe" has a good one.