First episode impressions: ‘Fringe’ Season 4 (TV review)

Most shows are naturally constrained by their narrative — sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure book where every choice is locked in once it happens. But at the staff meetings for “Fringe” (8 p.m. Central Fridays on Fox), I imagine that if a writer says “What if this were to happen?,” he never hears “Oh, that can’t happen” as a response.

Season 4 takes the idea of endless narrative possibilities a step further by introducing a third reality. First we got the Blue World, which is our own world with some fringier science. Then we got the Red World, where 9/11 didn’t happen, where unstable dimensional rips are sealed with amber, and where Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) was kidnapped by his Blue World dad, Walter (John Noble).

At the end of Season 3, Peter attached himself to a machine constructed by today’s engineers but based on detailed blueprints by the mysterious First People. He disappeared, and in doing so solidified a trans-dimensional room where the Blue and Red Worlders can gather together without worrying about dimensional instabilities. (In the season premiere, the two Olivias trade boxes of Fringe Division files; I guess the two worlds’ computer systems aren’t compatible.)

However, by disappearing into the ether, Peter gave “Fringe” the Orange World, where people know him only as Walter’s son who tragically died as a child. But Walter is being haunted by him (Peter pops up as the faintest shadow of a ghost in the lab and in Walter’s TV set), and we know he’ll return at some point.

Peter is so much the backbone of the Blue World that his absence shows us key differences in the Orange World versions of the characters. Peter’s banter with his dad and love for Olivia did a lot to humanize the show, and in these early Season 4 episodes, he truly is the absent center (the same way Mulder was the absent center of Season 8 of “The X-Files,” although that was hard to embrace at the time because we knew the writers were forced into it).

Season 4 allows the writers to follow through on “What ifs” that would be left in the dust on other shows. What if Walter didn’t have the reassuring presence of Peter and never left his lab? Well, then Jasika Nicole’s Astrid can be his field agent, remotely connected by video. (There are great comedic possibilities here too. When Walter says a typical Walter line like “I’ll need to examine her anus,” Astrid is now forced to repeat that request in the field.) We saw the Red World Fringe Division’s Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) — what about the Blue World’s? Well, with Peter’s absence, Lincoln can step in as Olivia’s (Anna Torv) investigative partner.

Even with Peter merely being a ghost in Walter’s head for the time being, I like the Orange World setup. Lincoln provides a fresh perspective on the cases, and it’s cool to see Astrid in the field rather than as Walter’s babysitter. The premiere episode’s case was a little hard to follow: Something about organic-mechanical hybrid killers. Coming on the heels of last season’s convoluted conclusive arc (which included a cartoon segment inside Olivia’s brain!), there are moments when “Fringe” almost causes me to throw my hands up in the air and say the heck with it.

But I’m not bailing yet, because other moments keep me hooked. There’s a scene in the World-Meeting Room where Lincoln looks up to the skylight and sees a gloomy sky with a zeppelin on one side and sunshine and wispy clouds on the other. It illustrates the magic “Fringe” has had since the beginning.

I don’t understand every single thing that happens on “Fringe,” but I get enough of it — and there are enough intriguing questions floating out there, such as “Who are the First People?” — that I’ll keep tuning in. Also, I still enjoy watching the team (mainly the Blue World team, but I’ll give the Orange Worlders a fair shot) banter and bicker and put their heads together to crack a case. As hard as it is to believe now, “Fringe” was conceived as a procedural about weird science, and that foundation is still there, providing the writers free reign to say “What if?”

What are your thoughts on the Season 4 premiere? Are you OK with a stretch of episodes without Peter? What mythology questions are you most intrigued by?