The first season of "Fringe" was an interesting and unexpected success. While the first 13 episodes seemed to struggle with direction and varying levels of quality, the second half of the season stepped up the narrative and introduced several elements that demonstrated the potential of the series. The first season finale appeared to promise an acceleration of the pace, which was also welcome.
After all, "Fringe" was essentially the next iteration of the JJ Abrams Genre Model. It began with "Alias", which took several pop culture espionage concepts and linked them to an intricate mythology that unspooled over the course of five seasons. Unfortunately, it was also a show that shifted format time and again as the network tried to deserialize the story and de-emphasize the overarching Rambaldi mythology. Ultimately, the series came to a rushed and dissatisfying conclusion.
The second evolution came with "Lost", a sprawling tale of redemption set within the confines of a modern take on "Mysterious Island". "Lost" had the popularity and critical acclaim of "Alias", but little to none of the network interference. This led to a much more consistent series that successfully melded character and plot arcs within the complex mysteries of the island itself.
"Fringe" was originally envisioned as something of a step back towards a less serialized, more episodic format for a genre series. It was also, very clearly, an attempt to take the much-beloved "X-Files" concept and update it. Where "X-Files" had a flawed format that attempted to advance a central mythology through "event" episodes, interspersed among stand-alone episodes of varying quality and relevance, "Fringe" would attempt to merge the two into a more cohesive approach.
The first season saw much progress on that front, and there was every reason to believe that the second season was going to follow in its footsteps. After all, the producers admitted that they were not in a "Lost" scenario, where the popularity of the series threatened to extend its run past the natural boundaries of its story. "Fringe", especially in the second season, has always been fighting for its survival. This led to a public declaration that the writers would not be holding back on telling the story and revealing the scope of the mythology.
After the first few episodes, however, the second season bogged down into a long run of largely stand-alone episodes that seemed to have little or nothing to do with the larger plot threads of the season. Considering that one major plot element was the manhunt for Mr. Newton, an agent of Alt-Fringe (the hostile alternate universe behind the Pattern) trying to open a door into Alt-Fringe that would supposedly bring about the end of Fringe Prime, it seemed hard to reconcile the lack of progress in the story.
It all changed with "Jacksonville", an episode roughly halfway through the season that marked a return to prominence of the larger story arcs and a greater sense of urgency. This was also the episode that paid off the many nagging hints regarding Peter's true nature and the events that began the inter-universe conflict. While some aspects of the progression of the season arc up to and including the season finale were predictable, it was still far better than some of the mediocre "monster of the week" episodes earlier in the season.
Considering the duality of the season, there was a remarkably subtle bit of character development throughout the course of the story arc. While the first season left Walter, Peter, and Olivia in a good position for mutual trust and understanding, the second season brought father and son into a much more comfortable bond and drew Peter and Olivia together. It was minimalist in its treatment, but it was discernable, particularly in retrospect, as the new bonds were threatened and then frayed by the truth behind Peter's origins.
That pivotal episode ("Peter") was the crowning achievement of the series to date, and it will be hard for the writers to pull off anything of equal power. (Ironically, it was an episode that felt very similar to the best episodes of "Lost", thus proving that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) It was beautifully written, the acting from John Noble was superb, and the direction fit the "fairy tale" aspects of the story perfectly.
If there was one stumbling block in the second half of the season, it was the ill-advised "Brown Betty". Ostensibly the product of Walter's drug-addled mind, it actually left many wondering what the writers were smoking when they thought this was a good idea. Billed as a musical episode, it was a half-hearted mash-up of noir and modern influences with a few abbreviated musical interludes. Given that it was part of a cross-promotion for "Glee", it was a terrible example of network-think, and quite possibly the worst episode of "Fringe" ever produced.
The second season of "Fringe" earned a Critical Myth rating of 7.3, slightly above average. This is a mild drop from the first season (7.7), and effectively confirms that the series suffered from a minor sophomore slump. That said, it's nothing that can't be cured, especially if the writers can return to a more cohesive approach and prevent a long run of stand-alone, "monster of the week" episodes like the one that plagued the second season.