Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman are more than just co-showrunners of the Fox science fiction hour Fringe. They’re also the gatekeepers of its genre-expanding premise that’s been described as a hybrid of The X-Files, Altered States, and The Twilight Zone. Despite being a critical darling through much of its first 3 seasons, however, the series has come up short with the TV Academy, generating only Emmy nominations in 2009 for special effects and 2010 for sound editing. Its stars Anna Torv, Josh Jackson and John Noble remain otherwise unrecognized from Emmy (though Noble just this week won a Critics’ Choice Television Award). Pinkner and Wyman spoke with Deadline TV Contributor Ray Richmond about the show’s distinct sensibility and its third season:
DEADLINE: How was the decision made to introduce to Fringe the premise of having the action alternate between parallel universes this past season?
JEFF PINKNER: One of the things we’d said to our studio and network partners from the beginning is, this is very much a series that has to move forward and keep changing in order to be successful. It’s an unfolding story as opposed to a condition. It isn’t about a hospital where bodies come through or a police precinct with suspects. We knew early on that the series and saga involved two universes. But it was important
to let it unfold relatively slowly, to have it open up to characters and viewers over time as opposed to the middle of season one. Because we knew it was a pretty heady concept.
JOEL WYMAN: In Jurassic Park, by the time you see the dinosaurs, you already were introduced to the idea of a fly stuck in amber. The table is set long before to you get to that place of wonder, so when you finally reach it you’ve accepted it as being real. We felt that was important to establish for Fringe as well, to first set up the desires and intentions of the characters and let the wonder of this world unfold in front of them before going full-on to that alternate universe.
DEADLINE: It’s always a big risk to change up your creative game when you’re already an established show. You were asking the audience to in essence accept utterly different personas for the same character.
WYMAN: We’re thrilled with how our fans have responded to it. But we were careful at the same time not to abandon any of our main characters. At the same time, we thought that if we were going to ask people to invest in these doppelganger characters, we’d best do it full-out as well, so viewers got to know them and spent enough time understanding their dilemmas.
DEADLINE: But your ratings numbers did slip from Season 2 to Season 3, going from a 2.8 with adults 18-49 to a 2.2. Of course, Fox also moved from Thursday to Friday nights midway through the season, which may have had something to do with it.
PINKNER: The numbers were of course a concern. The network and studio need to make money in order to keep us on the air. We get that. At the same time, we’ve never tried to design stories just to appeal to a larger audience. And the kind of storytelling we’re doing isn’t going to appeal to everyone no matter what we do?
DEADLINE: What kind of storytelling is that?
PINKNER: Well, basically humanistic science fiction. What we’ve discovered is, not everyone likes licorice but the ones who do really, really like it. That’s how our fans are, too. They followed us from Thursday to Friday night without a lot of drop-off, both live and on DVR.
WYMAN: But we understand we’re fighting very hard against the science fiction moniker. There’s a group of people who just say, ‘We’re not interested in that.’ We’re trying to work in metaphors and deliver a little bit of a movie each week, as well as finding deeper thematic elements than network TV normally tries to tackle.
DEADLINE: But was there any point during the past season when you had legitimate reason to worry that Fox might not renew?
PINKNER: You know, maybe out of naïvete, we weren’t that concerned that this would be the end of the journey for us. We did have an ending in place just in case. But we’re very fortunate to have legitimate fans at the network and the studio who are really upfront with us. They knew the story we were telling this past season and celebrated how bold we were trying to be on network television.
DEADLINE: How much does it bother you to always see the cable dramas getting awards hype while most network series don’t?
WYMAN: The truth is that we watch those shows, too. We find the work that’s going on in cable to be astounding. If the acclaim and promotion they’re getting makes us feel anything, it’s motivation to maybe pave some new ground for network television. And it’s tough to pull off. Network TV, in a lot of ways, doesn’t have the ability to tell the same kind of story as they do on cable. You’re fighting to draw in an audience whose life is often too busy to schedule any appoint TV. We’re just hoping that people say, ‘Hey, Fringe is doing something different and going deeper than network TV usually tries to go.’
PINKNER: If there’s any frustration at all, it’s that there’s clearly a different expectation when you try to tell a story over 22 episodes than when you’re doing 10, 11 or 13 episodes.
DEADLINE: And, again, there’s the whole stigma of the science fiction label that you consistently need to overcome.
WYMAN: And the frustration is that we feel like we’re so much more than science fiction. We’re doing things through the eye of Fringe that are altogether new. Rarely do you get to tell a story about a three-way love triangle where two of the three people are the same person, as we did this past season.
DEADLINE: In terms of next season, will you be keeping the parallel universes conceit going? And what’s going to become of Josh Jackson’s character Peter?
PINKNER: Well, Peter no longer exists. All we’ll say is that in Season 4, we’ll very much see the consequences of what happened in Seasons 1, 2 and 3. What happens to Peter remains a very big question. But a new chapter will unfold next season. As it does every year on this show.