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Exclusive: Producers Joel Wyman and Jeff Pinkner on the Freaky Future of ‘Fringe’

This season, Fringe has been experiencing a crisis on two Earths. After discovering a parallel universe, a doomsday device that can potentially be triggered by Peter, and having Olivia’s doppelganger infiltrate their ranks, the team has been busy picking up the pieces. Executive Producers Joel Wyman and Jeff Pinkner just spoke exclusively with me about the current frenzied state of Fringe, the show’s recent move to Friday nights (and the resulting ratings), all that counterpart chaos, Leonard Nimoy’s return, and much more! Check out our epic chat after the jump.

Last year when they announced Fringe was moving to Friday nights, fans were concerned about this dreaded death slot. Now that it’s been there a couple of weeks, are you pleased with the numbers?

Jeff: I think we are thrilled with the numbers. Right from the beginning, people freaked out, but we did not. Our fans have been asking Fox all season to move us off Thursday, which they consider devastating competition. Also, it’s a night with incredible shows across the board that we’re competing for people’s time so a lot of viewers were Tivoing our show. Our fans were like “Please, please, please move the show!” Of course as soon as they moved us to Fridays, those same people freaked out. “Oh God! This means Fox is losing confidence and support for the show,” which we knew internally was the opposite. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Fox was putting American Idol on Wednesdays and Thursdays so we had to move somewhere. They did their own internal calculations and figured out this was the place where if the show did well, we could live for a long time. People are afraid of change and that makes them anxious. We were suitably nervous, just because as a creator of product, it’s your baby and you’re nervous every time you send your baby off to school. But as soon as the numbers came in, I think Fox and Warner Brothers would have been happy at 70 per cent of what we did. They were over the moon and we held last week. It seems our audience, literally to a T, followed our show and hopefully some have discovered it.

Joel: It’s tough because Thursday nights are hard. As soon as we moved to Thursdays, people thought we were going to get cancelled. Fox was very supportive and had a strategy. They did exactly what they said they were going to do. What became apparent to me and Jeff was, on Thursday nights, we were up against something that was a lot bigger than the quality of a television show. Thursday nights had somehow become a romantic comedy night. People would tune into Bones and then Grey’s. They wanted to laugh, so digesting a science-fiction pill on Thursday night was not something people were ready to change their minds psychologically for. They told us through the PVR numbers they loved the show, they want to watch it, just not on Thursdays. Personally, I wasn’t entirely nervous. I thought, “We’re going to get cancelled on Thursdays.” You can’t survive on Thursdays if you’re not doing well in that landscape. When the concept of Friday nights was brought up, we thought we had a really hardcore fanbase and at this point we love our fans and write for them and that’s what the network wants. I’ve thought we could reinvent Friday nights and hopefully prove it’s not a death slot.

The Fringe universe was really turned on its head with this “crisis on parallel Earths” storyline and viewers have been wondering if you were done with doppelgangers. Obviously this week’s episode “Immortality” proves you’re not. But are we just catching up with these characters, or is there a crossover between the two worlds?

Joel: No, we are definitely going to keep it alive. That’s definitely part of our storytelling. You haven’t seen the last of those characters. It’s funny because right away, Jeff and I said, “This is cool. We’re the only show that gets to do two shows about one show.” Our goal was to make a mythology over there that was so compelling people wanted to watch that too. We feel we were successful in that regard, so we aren’t in any rush to get rid of them. And it plays a huge part in our unfolding year.

Jeff: Our goal with this series is to start at the tip of the iceberg and see that these universes are much larger. We knew from the beginning Peter was from the other side. We knew we had to earn it. You can’t just dump a concept like that on people. It would just be hard to swallow all in one bite and the more you tease and let the story unfold from the characters’ point of view, the deeper the return in interest. We’ve been planting seeds from the earliest episodes and the network and the studios were initially supportive, but resistant to the idea we were going to spend a lot of time telling stories over there. Now, they’ve come full circle and when they read stories that take place over there, we sold them in the exact way we intended to. Those stories are compelling despite the fact Olivia, Peter, and Walter don’t necessarily appear in them.

Viewers are certainly invested in these counterparts so will there be self contained episodes or crossovers between the two worlds?

Jeff: We’ll do both, but there are at least three more episodes that take place entirely on the opposite side.

There’s certainly still plenty of fallout to contend with in our universe. Looking at that, how will the Peter/Faux Olivia/Olivia relationship continue to be a sore spot for our characters?

Jeff: I think it’s going to affect them for the rest of their lives. One of the things that we made as a goal from the beginning is to use mystery as a source for driving forward. Some shows we’ve worked on, or that we adored, used mystery as the endgame and the goal. The mystery sort of dragged you along. Our goal was the opposite. Our goal was to set up the mysteries, set up questions, answer the questions, and then let those answers lead to consequences. Obviously, Peter and Olivia learning this other woman was living with him has had devastating consequences for the two of these people. It will certainly influence their relationship on the show forever. We know we’ve hardly seen the last of Faux Olivia.

Joel: Part of the drama of our show is character based. A lot of times people ask us how hard it is to write science fiction. And it’s not. To us, the better the science fiction is, the more about the human condition it becomes. We always look for the human element and that of course is reflected in our characters. It’s such a rich environment when dimensionalized characters have good or bad days. Or they feel they are in control of their lives, but they are not. We feel there is so much rich territory to get into with that relationship. First of all, it’s so bizarre. Who has their doppelganger fool around with their boyfriend? It’s kinda crazy.

With everything Peter has learned, what’s going through his mind these days?

Jeff: He’s hungry a lot. [Laughs.] Kidding. I don’t think there are any secrets there. He allowed himself to open up to this woman only to find out it wasn’t her, that he was being used. This is a person who’s not very easy at allowing himself to be vulnerable, so when he finally is, he’s betrayed among the worst ways imaginable by a woman who works for people who are intent on sticking him inside of a doomsday device. There’s a lot on his mind, but he’s also smart enough to know these huge overwhelming questions aren’t going to be answered anytime soon. So while he’s looking for answers, he’s dealing with the cases that come in front of him everyday. And he’s trying to work out his feelings and relationship with Olivia.        

Peter also seems to have activated or weaponized this doomsday device and the device seems to have affected him as well. When and how much will we learn about why that’s happening and who’s behind it?

Jeff: By the end of season nine.

Joel: We don’t want to frustrate people. As Jeff said earlier, a lot of shows depend on their mystery and every time you get close to getting an answer, another mystery pops up. I know that frustrates Jeff, me and the viewers, so we always want to give people answers that make total sense in the long run. We’re going to give you answers, but we look at the series like a great novel. Once you get to the end of the chapter, you get an answer and start a totally different period. “Why am I watching this and how is it relevant to the overall arc?” You’re going to find out a lot of things and there will be more things you want to know.

Nonetheless, you must enjoy creating water cooler moments. In “Firefly” we had the Observer saying to Peter, “It must be hard being a father.”

Joel: First of all, we always know where we’re going in the season. Thematically, we know exactly where we’re going and then as far as the episodes go, we have a very good idea. If things come up in the room or whatever, we can investigate that storyline, but we know thematically where we’re heading. Whenever we can, we try and put in things that will foreshadow things to come in a way where you’re like, “WOW!”

Is Walter going to become obsessed with this doomsday machine and maintaining a balance between the two universes?

Jeff: Walter’s obsession is saving his son and everything else flows from that. There’s a drawing of this device bestowed by an Observer who seems to know various possible futures and this is clearly one of them; so Walter is doing everything he can to save his son’s life in any way he can. At the same time, Walter is crazy enough that he can get obsessed with a strawberry milkshake!

What is Walter planning on doing with the controlling interest of Massive Dynamics and how will it affect his relationship with Nina?

Joel: It’s going to be a lot of fun. It sort of keys into your last question. Walter crossed a line where he is responsible for everything you see on the show. There’s a whole thing where it’s like, “I’m damned. I’m doomed. I am going to do everything to find a resolution, put the team back together, and try not to kill billions of people.” Massive Dynamics will always be a platform for him to investigate new ideas. Of course they are at the forefront of new technology and have all kinds of out-of-the-box ideas. You actually discover other work from William he started but never finished. It’s like a playing field we want to open up for a specific reason. As far as his relationship with Nina, it’s such a nice relationship. We really love it because she was there when he was damaged and she watched him come full circle. There’s a lot of history there and it’s always a pleasure to write for them. We always try and keep a little teeth in Massive Dynamics. You remember in season one where you really didn’t know where they stood. We’re always going to have a little bit of “How much do they know, and what else do they know that we don’t even know?” We always want to keep that alive.

We saw the two Olivias duke it out, so what kind of confrontation can we expect between Walter and Walternate?

Jeff: There will be a confrontation. It may not be this season. There’s also the possibility these two men are going to have to figure out a way to get along to save both universes.

It almost makes sense for them to combine their intellectual pools to find a solution.

Jeff: Or to fight off a third party. Or just to find a way to heal Peter, who’s dying. I’m not leaking anything here but if I was a fan, those are the different things I’d be considering.

Well, the Observers returned in “Firefly”. Will their back story and agenda start coming into light?

Jeff: Yes, again it’s funny because a lot of the questions you are asking are answered under the heading of “We have plans for this unfolding story.” Harry Potter, which we both adore, set up things in the first book that didn’t pay off until the fifth or sixth. What was so amazing about those books is just you always knew J.K. Rowling was in control. You always knew she was never just flailing to make up stuff as she went along. Maybe she went down paths that proved to be more of a dead end than she expected initially so she course corrected along the way, but she had created a universe when she started. In no way at all are we suggesting we share the level of brilliance that she does, but we certainly set out with the same level of expectations that we wanted to give our fans that there is a universe at play here. And with the Observers storyline, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface and God willing, we’ll have several seasons to really tell their story. At the moment, we’re telling the story of Walter, Walternate, Peter, and this machine. The Observers are certainly privy to it because there are obviously stakes for them in the outcome. Or perhaps like scientists, they are just observers. They could just be curious. We haven’t come out and said one way or the other.

Why are there no female Observers?

Jeff: There may be. You are assuming the ones you have seen are male.

Joel: Maybe they are asexual.

Jeff: The name September certainly doesn’t suggest male or female.

There was a lot of buzz surrounding Leonard Nimoy’s return in “Firefly”, which of course didn’t happen. When can we expect Bell to appear again?

Jeff: Relatively soon. If you follow Leonard’s Twitter page, a couple of weeks ago, he was tweeting the return of William Bell was imminent.

The gore factor seems down this season. Was that a conscious decision?

Jeff: Things come around.

Joel: Not at all. There is stuff coming up that I think is pretty awesome. People are really going to love it. Fringe is its best when it’s unimaginably insane and gross. We have things that I don’t think are going to disappoint.

Looking at the ratings and where you are heading, would you be shocked if Fringe wasn’t renewed for a fourth season?

Jeff: I don’t think we’d ever say we would be really shocked if it wasn’t. We recognize that every episode we get to make we are lucky. As we’ve indicated several times during this conversation, we have lots of stories we hope to have the good fortune to tell. I’m superstitious enough not to expect anything.

Joel: We’ve been in this game so long and you never know. You don’t know from one day to the next. You just have to hit the ground running every morning; and at the end of the day, if Jeff and I look at each other and say, “Good job today!” then we’re happy.

On the other hand, are you taking the possibility of cancellation into account when crafting the remaining episodes?

Joel: We have been instructed not to take that into account.

Jeff: At the same time, being fans of televised entertainment, we certainly don’t want to leave our fans in a lurch.

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