Fringe 2.20: "Brown Betty"

Ever since they managed to make it work more than once on “The X-Files”, it seems that every show that follows in its footsteps must find a way to break format in a way that both reveres and mocks itself. The classic episode “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”, for instance, hit on nearly every trope of the show while also keeping true to the nature of the premise.

But it doesn’t always work. A negative example would be the “Supernatural” episode “Hollywood Babylon”. This was meant to be an episode that poked fun at the seriousness of the show’s premise and its characters. Instead, it was a self-indulgent mess that was more about commenting on the entertainment industry than anything else.

“Brown Betty” sits somewhere in the middle. It is definitely connected to the overall season arc, because it is a reflection of Walter’s psychology regarding Peter and the whole mythology of the show. Yet it also falls into the self-indulgent trap, often dispensing with storytelling basics to force a perspective that doesn’t measure up to the intentions.

The premise is simple enough: Walter, high as a kite, is telling Ella a story. The result is a mish-mash of Walter’s feelings about the events of the past two years, but mostly it is about his relationship with Peter. Walter renders his story in something of a modern day noir style, along with odd synchronicities of bygone and current objects and short bursts of music.

Enjoyment of this premise (and the episode) will come down to how well one thinks this perspective was communicated. I personally thought they missed the mark. At no time did I buy that Walter, the kind of altered consciousness, would come up with something so stilted and pedestrian. From the very beginning, it was clear that the noir pastiche was going to clash horribly with the idea of a “musical” episode.

Part of the problem is that the cast just didn’t sell the idea that they were in a dreamworld version of a classic noir crime story. They played their parts well enough, but it just didn’t gel. A good comparison would be the classic “X-Files” episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus”. While equally self-indulgent, it was cast as a fairy-tale story, and everything about it sold the dream-like quality of the premise: the visuals, the music, the dialogue, even the casting.

Another part of the problem is that Walter had to narrate the story and dole out enormous chunks of exposition. This exposition was essentially a reworked interpretation of the show’s mythology, from broad sweeping reimagining of key plot elements to insertion of very specific details in a new context. In essence, the writers took a far too detailed outline of two years worth of mythology, shoved it into less than a normal episode, and completely changed it to fit the pseudo-noir fairy-tale premise. The result was confusing as hell.

So just on that level, the episode didn’t work. The pseudo-noir concept was never taken to the depths necessary to make it really seem like Walter’s drug-induced musings, and the story was too dense and complicated. Adding musical numbers into the story was never going to make these problems go away, and actually compounded them.

Many genre fans will rightfully point to the much-lauded “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode “Once More, With Feeling” as the standard-bearer for musical episodes. Not only did it manage to advance the story at the time, while introducing a series-appropriate rationale for the sudden singing and dancing, but the musical numbers were brilliantly designed to reveal character psychology while being, at the core, truly viable songs in the film-musical style. In other words, it was a deeply organic extension of the existing story and world.

The musical numbers in this episode felt contrived and unnecessary. They felt like something that was forced into the pseudo-noir concept, not something that evolved out of it naturally. Every time there was a musical moment, it felt like an imposition. And considering how sparse the musical numbers were, it just didn’t fit the explanation within the premise of the story: that this was a reflection of how Walter’s mind was processing the story. After all, if Walter’s drug-induced mind was pulling music into this little fantasy world, wouldn’t it slip into the flow of the narrative more seamlessly?

It all adds up to something that was certainly ambitious, but perhaps both too alien to the world of “Fringe” to ever work. It would be like having a musical episode of “Lost”. The tonal and narrative shift would be so jarring that it simply wouldn’t work; the context would be all wrong. The same is true with “Fringe”. For it to have worked, the writers would have needed to gone deeper, using Walter’s perspective in a more direct sense. The storytelling concept was a good start, but they just didn’t take it far enough to make the fantasy elements work.

I get the very clear sense that the original idea was to focus on the pseudo-noir style, and that the FOX Network forced the musical aspect into the mix. After all, this episode is part of a cross-promotion for “Glee” (FOX Rocks Week). The producers probably figured that the planned break in format would allow them to concede to the promotional department, especially since the ratings require that the show stay in the network’s good graces.

That might also explain why there was a sudden promotion of this episode as a “musical”. That seemed to come out of nowhere, and considering that the musical numbers felt shoehorned into the script, it would explain why it wasn’t developed more organically. I’m sure the cast had fun with the creative change of pace, but even then, it never felt convincing.

While I could just chalk it up to a matter of taste (and to some extent, it is), I think the nature of the episode will not help the show at all. The episode was heavily promoted, which had some potential to bring new viewers to the table. And what was delivered was a dense, confusing mess with unnecessary musical numbers tossed in the mix. I can’t imagine anyone fresh to the series watching this episode and coming away with a desire to watch more. In fact, I think they would wonder what the producers were smoking themselves.


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