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Gripping ‘Fringe’ returns

Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson star in the sci-fi series “Fringe.”
Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson star in the sci-fi series “Fringe.”

Parallel universes meet in sci-fi series

Lately, television dramas about the contrast between insiders and outsiders are everywhere.

The alien-invasion remake “V,” the vampires and other creatures of “True Blood,” the zombified versions of friends and family in “The Walking Dead,” even Clark Kent in “Smallville” – all are meditations about who is “us” and who, exactly, isn’t.

That’s why Fox’s “Fringe,” which returns tonight at 9 after a two-month hiatus, is so compelling. The law-enforcement-meets- unexplained events saga postulates a world – two, if you include its parallel universe – in which everyone seems to be struggling with how to belong.

The basic premise: An erratic genius named Walter Bishop (John Noble), whose son fell ill and died in this universe many years ago, found a gateway to a parallel one in which the boy is still alive. He stole its version of his son and spirited him home.

That left Walter’s counterpart in the other world hellbent on revenge against ours, and on reclaiming the now-adult Peter (Joshua Jackson).

More significantly, Walter’s act opens a rift between the two universes that begins to damage the other world. Over the years, the ripples of his crossover cause dimensional tears that kill thousands, change that society and lead it to conclude that it is being attacked by people who look and act the same but are agents of mass destruction.

This exploration into cause, effect and connectedness has, over two and a half seasons, pushed “Fringe” from “X-Files”-like sci-fi into something more complex.

It has become one of the most nuanced reflections of American life during the past decade – the decade since 9/11, a period rich with wondering about the enemy within.

How do we deal with hidden threats and protect ourselves when necessary and, just as importantly, know when not to protect? How do we ferret out threats hidden in our midst without becoming the paranoid, violent people we fear?

“In every conflict, there’s two sides and they’re human,” says J.H. Wyman, one of the “Fringe” show-runners and an executive producer.

“The people on the other side, they have a right to be worried – their universe is breaking down. There’s assault from everywhere that they can’t really comprehend. By that token, there’s good in them.”

The parallel universe in “Fringe” looks a lot like ours, complete with identical counterparts to most people on this side. But there are important differences.

Passenger blimps troll the skies over Manhattan. The mirror-universe Walter Bishop (dubbed, wonderfully, “Walternate”) keeps a framed picture of an aging JFK on his desk in the Defense Department, which is located in a gold-plated Statue of Liberty.

And in the alternate-universe Manhattan, 9/11 never happened – or, at least, was unsuccessful, presumably because of that world’s more draconian law enforcement.

“What we’re trying to do is make a humanist statement. … Everybody’s choices inevitably interact with everything else. We are all connected, and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it,” says Jeff Pinkner, the program’s other show-runner.

Under sci-fi’s guise, “Fringe” offers us everything we are struggling with in the post-9/11 world: sleeper cells; embedded agents; suicide attacks; subtle references to holy war.

Its protagonists are dealing with, in effect, themselves – people with similar reference points and perhaps even motivations who have been shaped differently by events.

In “Fringe,” we have met the enemy and they are, quite literally, us.