Thanks in part to social media’s increased coverage of the television business, we live in an age where TV buffs are as familiar with the names of some writers and producers as they are with the actors. And yet Jeff Pinkner and Joel Howard Wyman, the showrunners for Fox’s cult science-fiction series Fringe, have remained fairly low-profile, even as they’ve steered the creation of J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Robert Orci from its beginnings as a freaky-case-of-the-week procedural to its current state as an operatic saga involving a long-simmering war between parallel universes. As Fringe wraps its third season and prepares for its fourth—after a surprise pick-up by Fox a few weeks ago—Pinkner and Wyman have wound up in charge of an ambitious show that can seamlessly weave in a musical episode, an animated episode, and a string of episodes where one of the main characters speaks in the voice of Leonard Nimoy. Pinkner and Wyman recently talked to The A.V. Club about their willingness to explore tangents, Fringe’s devoted fan base, and staying focused on larger themes, no matter how outlandish the show’s storytelling becomes.
The A.V. Club: This season seems to have been structured all along to lead into a fourth season, even though your ratings haven’t been great, and there was no guarantee that you’d be renewed. If you hadn’t gotten picked up, would the third-season finale have served as an acceptable ending?
Jeff Pinkner: Certainly not out of arrogance, but possibly out of willful blindness, we never for a moment entertained the idea that this would be the end. And so we built a season and a season finale—which we had already started to write before we got the pick-up—based on the premise that there would be a fourth season, and hopefully more after that. If it had turned out that this was the last-ever episode of the show, it would certainly not be a proper resolution. But you know, the best novels and movies still leave unanswered questions. If this had been the series finale, the episode would be emotionally satisfying and also deeply troubling, in a way that is kind of a cool ending. But the short answer is, we never changed the ending, nor did we ever really entertain the idea that there wouldn’t be another season.
J.H. Wyman: Also, Fox was very up-front with us. Even from our first move from Tuesdays to Thursdays, they had been consistently up-front, telling us exactly what their plans have been for the show. And extremely supportive. They were always on board with what we were doing creatively, and supported it 100 percent. So when they said, “Hey, you’re going to Fridays,” we knew, or hoped, that our fan base would follow us. And they told us, “Don’t worry, we love this show. There’s a lot of support building for it, and you guys are doing great.”
AVC: Over the course of the past three years, have you ever had to adjust the pace of your storytelling? Or are you still more or less following the plan laid out when the series began?
JP: I think we’re always adjusting, but adjusting based on what we find to be the creative needs. In season two, we had an ending planned that we decided should happen a couple of episodes earlier, so we could go further and play with the consequences. We constantly have tentpoles—markers in the sand—but sometimes we find that we want to get to them a little quicker than we’d thought, and sometimes we’ll find that there’s a really nice little pathway that we want to pursue before we get to that marker. We’ll find little nuggets where we’ll go, “Ooh, this opens up a whole new avenue of storytelling that we didn’t plan on.” So we’re constantly adjusting, while still more or less sticking to the overall map.
JHW: Yeah, we’ll stumble on something that all of a sudden will have incredible thematic importance for our general story, and we’ll want to examine that a little bit more, because it gives us an opportunity to really stress those themes. It’s always a happy surprise when that happens.
AVC: Let’s talk about a plot some fans enjoyed and some hated: the “Bellivia” storyline, which saw FBI Agent Olivia Dunham’s body taken over by the soul of dead scientist William Bell. To some, the arc seemed pointless because it didn’t advance the main storyline about the war between the universes. Others found it moving and entertaining, if only for the chance to hear Anna Torv do a Leonard Nimoy impression. Was that one of those “pathways” that came up along the way?
JP: Well, we talked early on about the idea of “soul magnets,” and it was no accident that Olivia drank tea in that scene in the second season when she was in Bell’s office. We didn’t know exactly when we would incorporate it. We also knew that Leonard was retiring, and that we wanted him still to be a part of the show. Without spoiling anything, that whole tangent will likely be a setup for something that happens further on down the line. Still, we understand that some people were frustrated, just like some people were frustrated with the idea of Bolivia having a baby. [“Bolivia” and “Fauxlivia” are nicknames for the show’s alternate-universe version of Olivia Dunham. —ed.] But there are things that we feel are entertaining to us, and that allow us to explore themes that, as Joel was just saying, we can’t otherwise access. And we think that if it’s entertaining, and it allows Anna a chance to stretch, and it gives Walter Bishop his old partner back for an episode so we can see what they were like together… those are also perfectly valid reasons for doing those episodes.
JHW: Yeah, it was important. I mean, you know, for people that say it was just a diversion, well, there was something really important involved in that Walter/William relationship. That was part of Walter’s self-actualization, that moment when William Bell says, “Look, you have to be on your own. You have to walk the path that you believe in. You gain some humility where there once was hubris, and it’s really important that you depend on yourself.” Part of our plan has always been to get Walter to embrace his flaws and uniqueness as strengths, rather than thinking of them inhibiting his performance as a scientist and as a character. We were really anxious to get that across, and the best person to do that for us was William Bell, because Walter depended so much on William in so many different ways. So that story came around at a time where we really needed to have it.
JP: Among other things, one of the ideas that really fascinates us is the idea of creative partnerships, which is what Walter and William had. You know, it’s like Lennon and McCartney. And you never get over that. We have from the beginning played variations on the Walter Bishop-William Bell relationship, including William removing chunks of Walter’s memory. This was just another way to explore that same idea.
AVC: Did you have to make sure before you embarked on this that Anna Torv could pull it off?
JP: Oh my gosh, she’s so incredible. When we actually wrote it, she got the script, read it, and then she called us and went, “This is really cool. Okay, I think I know what you guys are going for, let me take a crack at it.” She’s totally responsible for playing it the way that she did.
JHW: In other words, we had not pitched it to her until we were already way down the road. But she’s amazing.
JP: Yeah, she really is. She never ceases to amaze us, just sort of hitting the ground running and trying anything.
JHW: Similarly, we didn’t tell her she was going to be playing another version of Olivia until we wrote that.
AVC: Early on in Fringe’s run, even people who liked the show often pointed to Anna Torv’s performance as a weakness, but not many fans would say that now.
JP: You know what’s really funny? We believe that’s because of how great she is, because Olivia was designed from the get-go as somebody who doesn’t have many sharp corners. She was designed as bland, because of her conditioning as a child and everything she’s been through. Now, one can argue that maybe that wasn’t the best way for us to introduce the main character, but there was a purpose. So Anna had to listen to all these people saying “She’s really doing nothing,” when really it was our issue. We didn’t write anything for her because… well, now you know why. But at the time, people were like, “Wow, this girl really is not much,” which is so not true. Anna was just so professional, and so great. She did it with excellence, and now she’s really getting the chance to show people, “Hey, I’m a really hard worker and a terrific actor.” We’re so thankful that people can start to see her for who she really is.
JHW: She had created a character, and people were unfairly connecting her acting chops to the character, because, you know, she was just new. No one here had ever seen her before.
AVC: Given the way science-fiction and fantasy fans have reacted to shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost in the past, how cautious do you have to be about introducing elements of relationship drama or spirituality, both of which have played a major role this season?
JP: I think that our approach to this show is that we’re in love with the characters. We’re most interested in the character journeys, and using all of the stories as different means of exploring the existential questions and themes that are embodied by our characters. We say all the time that in many ways, Fringe is a family drama masquerading as a science-fiction procedural. If Lost was a show about characters in search of redemption, our show is called Fringe because it’s about characters on the fringe of humanity, each in their own way, looking for a connection with each other. It just happens to be set against the backdrop of this sort of insane story about two interconnected worlds.
JHW: Right now’s a great time to be telling these stories, we think. To a large degree, Jeff and I view ourselves as reporters of what’s going on in the world, kind of. The things we talk about, we think are relevant to society today. A lot of people have questions about existence and about what we can depend on. There have been some significant deficits in trust, in politics and religion and all these different areas. I think people are struggling to find something they can count on, and wondering if there’s something out there that they don’t know. We never set out to answer these questions, but just to get people thinking about them. Is God science? Is science God? That’s really interesting for us. You make the show and allow the viewers to fill in the blanks, to ask themselves questions about, “Is that too much knowledge for a human to have?” That’s the idea, that we just want to pose the questions.
JP: Back when Walter and William—these fictional characters—were at the height of their collaboration, it was the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time in our society when a lot of people were asking these kinds of questions. Is what we perceive reality? Is what we’re presented as being the reality the only reality? You question authority, question existence. We’re using these characters as a format for reintroducing that kind of dialogue.
AVC: Has the reduced viewership—or what could be charitably called a niche viewership—given you some freedom to indulge yourselves? Because in the past season and a half, you seem to be holding nothing back in terms of the style or the content of Fringe.
JHW: You know, we’re very mindful of our audience. We’re very mindful of their taste, and we’re very mindful of their passion. What we strive very hard not to be mindful of is how big the audience is. It’s more important to us that the people who are watching are passionate, and we’ve been incredibly fortunate that our studio and network partners are supportive of the creative side. And they’re aware of the numbers. We felt very confident when we moved to Friday nights that our audience would come with us, and they did. So we’ve just been emboldened by our audience, getting the same enjoyment for the most part out of the storytelling that we are. We started being adventurous as we built more of a world and more of a foundation to tell these stories in. We’ve been adventurous in the ways we always hoped to be. It’s more driven by the storytelling and less driven by, like, “Hey, we can go crazy.” We’ve never ever approached something as, “Hey, let’s go crazy.” We always approach it as, “How can we, in an entertaining, fun fashion, tell the thematically resonant story that we want to tell this week?”
JP: We’re allowed to be frivolous as long as we maintain integrity in the stories that we’re telling.