Like the other new show this season, "Fringe" has quite the pedigree. JJ Abrams is a hit commodity these days, thanks to his brilliantly entertaining reboot of "Star Trek", but his list of successes within the genre is long and deserved. Just in terms of television, "Alias" and "Lost" have a devoted following. In both cases, it was all about setting up the right production staff and letting them take the reins.
Abrams' typical creative hook is simple. He thinks of something that he and his generation enjoyed, something successful in its own right over the past few decades, and he puts a modern spin on it. It's not so much his ideas that are original, but rather, the execution of those ideas. In the television world, he takes that idea and builds it into a show that manages to optimize the delicate relationship between episodic and serialized formats. In this respect, his shows tend to be similar to the Joss Whedon mold.
"Fringe" is very similar to "The X-Files", as many early critics noted. Some of those same critics used that excuse to dismiss the series, when it didn't seem to meet the high nostalgia-based standards of its forebear. But it didn't take long for the differences to emerge. In particular, the various encounters with creatures, conspiracies, and terrorists were all related to something much greater, something that the writers clearly had in mind from the beginning. (The writers of "The X-Files", somewhat infamously, had no plan until it was clear the audience expected one.)
It is The Pattern, and eventually the much larger meaning behind it, that gives "Fringe" its depth. At any moment, a minor detail can be revealed as something significant. Simple background facts about a character can be called into question. In fact, it is the interconnected nature of the characters and their history that has become one of the series' most compelling aspects. Not only are these character bound by the present and future, but by the past.
The writers have proven to be quite subtle in their treatment of evolving characterization. Olivia began as a dour, depressing character, and many felt that she wasn't interesting or dynamic enough to carry the lead. In retrospect, her behavior makes a lot more sense; she was clearly in mourning from a personal loss, and over time, she began to heal. What seemed like a mistake was a risky but satisfying choice.
Of course, the breakout character of "Fringe" is Walter Bishop. It's hard to believe that the writers were able to take such a disturbing and even frightening individual and make him so sympathetic. Objectively speaking, Walter is responsible for some horrific experiments on human subjects, and his morals are questionable at best. Yet he is also the source of most of the humor in the series, especially his banter with his son Peter.
The series has now firmly brought the implications of the Many Worlds Theory of Quantum Mechanics into the fabric of its mythology, and that should make for quite an interesting second season. Even now, fans are feverishly debating the meaning of every slight clue as to the differences between realities, as revealed in the season finale. That kind of fervent fandom is exactly what drove the success of "Alias" and "Lost", for almost exactly the same reasons.
With all that in mind, it's little surprise that the first season of "Fringe" earned a Critical Myth Rating of 7.7, which is well above average. It leaves the second season with a high standard to meet, but I have confidence that the writers will be equal to the challenge.