Friday, May 11, 2012

THE LISTS: Best Guest Performances on "Fringe"

I was caught off guard on this week's TOP 10 SHOTS column, since there just wasn't anything I could muster the heart to dissect for the occasion. The only occasion we have this weekend is Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows", and it's generally difficult to find anything Tim Burton has done that has an abundance of strong shots. Going off cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, I tried revisiting "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", but that's honestly still a really boring film. And even going for a strained connection, "Pan's Labyrinth" was the only thing that came close, and it still failed to amuse me on revisiting.

I have to give an honorable mention to "Where the Wild Things Are", which would have made the cut if I had more time to ruminate. There will be plenty other opportunities for it, I'm sure. So in the rush of the moment, I feel like giving notice to the real event of this weekend, which will inevitably be overlooked in the presence of "The Avengers" and Tim Burton's heightened whining. "Fringe" takes up its season finale tonight, which will fortunately not be the end of the series, given their godsend renewal for season five. The prospect of the definitive end of a show that has been something of a defining attribute for me over the past several years is difficult to say the least, but also tantalizing.

To their fortunate credit, "Fringe" has not let low ratings and budget constrictions keep them from delivering one of the most impressionist and soulful series on television. I truly believe this isn't mere fan craziness acting out, but I believe that this show is the best cinematically told science fiction since "2001: A Space Odyssey". Their work across four years has been unprecedented, and the prospect of a fifth year is intoxicating in how they finish. So to sendoff their penultimate season, I took a trip down "Fringe" lane to look at the many guest performances the show has had over the years, and though they'll without a doubt have plenty more by close of season, here are the stellar ones of the now!

10. Craig Robert Young in "The Bishop Revival"

Episode 13 of "Fringe"s second season took a break from the typical format of disconnected one-off episodes and jam-packed mythology boosters in favor of something rather deliciously stranger. The poster tagline of "'Fringe' Takes on the Nazis"  was quite a risky point to tackle for the show, but they wouldn't have pulled it off without Craig Robert Young's jaw-slicing and silkily sinister performance as the episode's nameless Nazi. Without being given character background, and in fact relying almost completely on the anonymity of his character, Young's gleeful tenor line readings amounted to one fantastically bonkers villainous performance.

9. Stephen Root and Romy Rosemont in "And Those We've Left Behind"

Okay, I'm cheating on this one by handing it to two, but real-life married couple Root and Rosemont really do go hand in hand for their credit in this season four episode. At this point "Fringe" is in full gear with sinking into themes of loss, specifically how wrenching it is to live in a world without somebody you love. The parallels between case and overarching story are undeniable, but Root really emphasizes a sense of true fear and heartbreak for the person who meant so much to him that can only come from having actually been married to someone. Rosemont too deals with a heavy burden of playing somebody who is given pretty much a death sentence, and has to learn to break ties with somebody who isn't ready to let go. It's really an achingly sweet dual performance.

8. Christopher Lloyd in "The Firefly"

Perhaps the most overt one-off storyline in that it gets a ridiculously famed star in the science fiction world to play a literal rockstar in the world of the show. "Fringe"s characters are never without some kind of baggage, and Lloyd's Roscoe Joyce is a mix of those two conceits. In one corner he's an mentally beleaguered man who dealt with the unbearable loss of his son, and in the other he's a man getting back to the musical roots that gave him identity in the first place. It's a simple role, but made special by them handing it to Lloyd. He really treads the line between heartbroken and soulful. 

7. Chin Han in "Making Angels"

This may have been the much anticipated Astrid-centric episode of the series, but it clearly couldn't just be all-Astrid 24-7. The remainder of the spotlight is shared rather evenly by John Noble, Anna Torv, and our villain of the week. There's a small degree of joy that comes from knowing the actor from his short work in "The Dark Knight", but even more significant are the fantastically written monologues that he has the pleasure of doling out. He pretty much has just four scenes, but in those scenes we get a history of somebody sympathetic to people, but also very much self-righteous. Where he lies in the scheme of good and evil is up for debate, but he really gives the people he kills a show before they go. "There is no future. There's no past. Everything happens, right now."

6. Rebecca Mader in "Brave New World"

You may take this rewarding as small indication of the fact that I'm loving this season finale of "Fringe", even though we've still another hour to go before saying goodbye to the show for another four months. There are several really difficult moments in the first hour, emotionally speaking, and one rather important such interlude spans over the first twenty minutes of the episode. We're so used to seeing people die gruesome deaths on this show, but "Fringe"-fan Rebecca Mader really gives a face and identity to the souls who are constantly losing their lives on this show. Terrified, tender, but accepting of whatever fate has in store. If she continues this streak this evening, I will be very pleased indeed.

5. Alon Aboutboul in "Immortality"

The strongest straight-up villain on this list will be noticed worldwide very soon as the man in the prologue for Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises". I will always remember him, however, as the most brilliant and fantastic one-off villain to grace this show. The alternate universe of the show is a very strange place indeed, and Aboutboul's Armond Silva is rather opposing to the multiple doors closed by decay of the world. The show has passed around several ideas about scientists risking the deaths of many people in favor of their own slice of legacy. Aboutboul relishes every moment of his evil, not marred by tricky conceptions of guilt. He's a man with a goal, and is devoted to it even to his hilarious end.

4. Peter Weller in "White Tulip"

"White Tulip" is damn close to my favorite episode "Fringe" has done in its entire four-year run, though it receives the inevitable boot by the devastating "Peter". All that aside, there are plenty of things that make the episode work like gangbusters, most especially guest star Peter Weller. This was the first moment that got us joyously excited to see Walter go toe-to-toe with William Bell, because of the prospect of two great minds debating issues of science and morality. Weller truly gives it his all as yet another broken individual who is using science as a means to an end, and is so deeply unburdened by his mission because he's two steps ahead of the team. Weller is quite decisive, though not in a heartbreaking way. He's just got a mad deal of charisma to back a strong story for his character.

3. Emily Meade in "The Day We Died"

I do hope people aren't too torn up to find that Emily Meade didn't mushroom into a regular on the show like Seth Gable did after "Over There", but she really doesn't need to. She has quite an endeavor to take on in portraying the future Ella Dunham, Olivia's niece, who has clearly gone through some serious heartache, first losing her mother, and then her aunt. She really juggles that half-child half-adult midsection of somebody who isn't on to a new life, but has lost her old one too soon. The scene she shares with John Noble at the end is quite possibly the most beautiful thing the show has ever done. Heartbreaking, crushing, but optimistic to the very end.

2. John-Pyper Ferguson in "One Night in October"

Right here is a case of an actor who goes above and beyond the call of duty and delivers a brilliant performance that could have so easily gone overlooked. This could so easily have been plain, dull, and overtly melodramatic, but John-Pyper Ferguson really came out of nowhere to give us something special. In playing the kind professor McClennan and the conversely sinister John Lewis McClennan, Ferguson finds subtle shades to give each their proper due. Though one of these McClennans is obviously more sinister than the other, but Ferguson keeps the darkness itching just below the surface of the struggling over-here McClennan. It's a tightrope act that finishes up wondrously.

1. Orla Brady in "Subject 13"

Another cheat, since this is the only character on the list who isn't simply a one-off, and ends up returning on multiple occasions when the show allows it, but I simply couldn't bare omitting the most beautiful and heartbreaking non-lead performance the show has ever had. We'd experience Elizabeth Bishop before, but this episode was almost entirely centric on her character, or characters. She's playing Walternate's wife, trying desperately to hold onto their marriage, but ultimately seeing it come apart. She's also playing our Elizabeth, and we see the slippery slope of how she takes on the guilt that causes her to commit suicide. This is the woman who told Peter to "be a better man than your father", and we find that she's dealing with that same guilt to. It's devastating, and I can only hope we bring her on one last time in the final season.


  1. You picked Emily Meade over Christopher Lloyd? That's just crazy. She wasn't even worth being in the top 10!

    And where the heck is Michael Eklund? ("The Plateau")

    1. Definitely Rebecca Mader above Lloyd (half of the "eyes" scene was VFX but the other half was her skill). Lloyd is a famous carved face but hasn't really done much beyond reading the lines. Rebecca's performance was Fringe-surreal on the spot.

  2. No Martha Plimpton from "Northwest Passage?"

  3. Georgina Haig in "Letters of Transit" was way above Emily Mead who was barely noticeable while Georgina and Henry Ian Cusick carried their episode (and should become regulars in S05).

  4. The thing about Haig and Cusick is that I feel there's much more on the way for them to establish themselves. Emily Mead was an absolute one off, and much of what clinches her spot here is that one immensely heartbreaking scene between her and Walter.

    And Martha Plimpton was on the edge there, and almost made it. A #11 if I have one.