The characters in the popular Fringe television series, of which the first season is now out on DVD & Blu-Ray, spend a lot of time talking about classical music. Only problem is that none of them actually listens to the stuff . . .

In Fringe, the new TV show by Lost creator J.J. Abrams, an FBI agent named Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv) investigates unexplained phenomena with the help of an eccentric scientist named Walter Bishop (John Noble in a show-stealing performance) and his son Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson). One Internet poster has accurately described Fringe as “The X-Files on crack.”

It is also very, very good, dealing with a lot of science fiction concepts such as alternate universes, teleportation, telekinesis, etc. which will be familiar to sci-fi readers but which most mainstream TV shows wouldn’t touch with a five-foot pole. (The jaw-dropping season finale – episode 20 “There Is More Than One Of Everything” – has to be seen to be believed.) Unlike the X-Files, there is nothing supernatural in it. Nor are there any UFOs or aliens. Fringe is all rooted in science, or rather pseudoscience.

In episode 1.03 “The Ghost Network,” which first aired September 23 9/8c on FOX, the team has put the finishing touches on their secret lab slash HQ – a basement at Harvard University! The brilliant, but eccentric “mad scientist” Walter remarks that what the place still needs is some music, preferably Bach’s Mass in B (composed circa 1749), which he claims helps him think. In a later episode (number 16 – “Unleashed”) Walter claims that to solve a particular difficult scientific problem he needs, amongst other things, “some Mahler for the late nights.” (Gustav Mahler was a classical composer of the so-called “Late Romantic” period.)

The only problem is that while Walter – and agent Dunham - professes a love for classical music, we never actually see them listening to the stuff throughout the entire show. And while the show features a wide range of incidental music on the soundtrack – from old Blues standards to more “trendy” contemporary dance music such as Lady Gaga – there are no classical music in it.

"Maybe Walter and agent Dunham don’t want to appear backward . . ."

In the same episode that Walter says he likes Bach (1685-1750), he and agent Dunham asks Walter’s son Peter to play them some Bach on the piano – their lab actually comes equipped with a piano! Peter, being the vagabond he is, however states that Bach is “too stuffy” and instead plays 10 seconds from the old jazz standard “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Neither Walter nor agent Dunham are too upset by this, and actually look downright relieved that they don’t have to listen to any Bach. (Incidentally, Broyles - agent Dunham’s Homeland Security boss played by Lance Reddick - also likes jazz. In one episode she meets up with him at a jazz club.)

Even though Agent Dunham also professes a love for Bach, we never actually see her listening to the guy. In later episodes she listens to some rock music at home. Maybe it is because her live-in sister hogs the hi-fi set, who knows? Walter doesn’t listen to any Bach, Mahler or any other classical music for that matter either. In one scene his son Peter sings him “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to help him go to sleep. (One of the inmates in the mental asylum where has locked up – long story! - used to sing the song in the evenings.) In another scene the character quotes lyrics from the Pina Colada Song. In yet another scene he dances to Al Green’s song “Love and Happiness.”

Much is made in several episodes of Walter’s large vinyl collection (you know, those black round things with holes in them you find at flea markets) – but no Bach. When we do finally glimpse Walter listening to a record from his collection in private, it is to “Traveling Riverside Blues,” a song by 1930s Blues legend Robert Johnson.

So why profess a liking for music you don’t actually listen to? Well, maybe Walter (and agent Dunham) is aware of the old movie cliché that intellectual and mad scientist types listen to classical music and don’t want to appear “backward.” It is a genuine cliché by the way. In X-2 and Superman Returns both Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) both listen to Mozart. Lover of fine wine, human flesh and general sophisticate Dr Hannibal Lecter loves Bach’s Goldberg Variations. We can go on, but we’re sure you get the general idea.

It won’t be that the show’s producers are cheapskates either. Hollywood producers love classical music because you can always find royalty-free recordings of music that have been long in the public domain by now. Maybe they have an eye on a possible soundtrack CD one day and decided that Bach would feel out of place next to more marketable names such as The Killers, Franz Ferdinand and Lady Gaga. Who knows?

So what does this all mean?

If you’re skeptical of Fringe’s science fiction bona fides, then you might use it as fodder for your argument that the show is nothing but a derivative X-Files rip-off. After all, in the X-Files episode titled Chinga (co-written by Stephen King!) we find special FBI agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) listening to Hummel’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 89. Not only is Hummel (1778-1837) a much more obscure composer than either Mahler or Bach giving agent Scully instant street cred in the process, but you can argue that unlike the pretentious poseurs in Fringe she just listens to the dammed stuff instead of making a show and dance out of it! Agent Scully is still the real thing . . .

(Note: We won’t mind a Fringe soundtrack at all. Any sampling of music with Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi Is Dead on it is fine by us.)



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