With a title like "The End of All Things," it's difficult to look at tonight's episode of Fringe without thinking about behind-the-scenes negotiations to bring the Fox sci-fi drama back for a fifth season. But while cancellation isn't far from their minds, executive producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman confess they can't afford to dwell on the possibility.
"This is God's honest truth: Jeff and I just do what we do. You have no control," Wyman said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. "We didn't have control last year or the year before or the year before. We can only do what we do, which is make the show that we love, continue to follow the path of the stories we want to tell -- great, compelling stories week to week that interest our fans and really hope for the best. I think that any show that doesn’t have huge ratings, that's kind of what you're always up against. Meanwhile, conversations are ongoing. Everything's running the way that things usually run in these types of situations and I guess we'll find out like everybody else. We don't fret about it because really it's out of our control. We can only step back and do our work and therein lies the path to serenity. We're hoping for the best and doing what we love."
"I think we're the Little Engine That Could," Pinkner added. "We're always struggling and struggling and hoping and hoping, but we just keep making the show we love. We can never rest on our laurels of knowing we're going to be on forever. We're constantly challenged to write the best story we can week in and week out and hoping they'll let us continue to tell more of them."
Never exactly a ratings powerhouse in either its original Thursday or current Friday time slots, Fringe is an expensive series that Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly admitted last month loses money for the network. “At that rating, on that night, it’s almost impossible to make money on it," he told reporters at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour. "That’s been the case now over the last season. You know, we’re not in the business of losing money. So we really have to sit down and figure out, ‘Is there a number at which it makes sense?’" Some saw the comments as a message to Warner Bros. Television executives to cut the show's licensing fees if they had any hopes for a fifth season.
But on Thursday Wyman highlighted what an accomplishment it is just for a science fiction series to complete four seasons, and stressed that there's a satisfying end prepared for Fringe, should it not be renewed.
"It's a strange thing because it's a sci-fi show on network television. Everybody knows that in and of itself is an amazing feat that we've been on for so many years," he said. "You guys have been so incredibly kind and so incredibly supportive that we feel like it's a success in any way, shape or form. It's an expensive canvas, everybody knows it. To do what we do every week, it costs a lot of money and you have to have a return on it. That's show business and you've got to do it. We just hope the dollars and cents continue to make sense and we can continue doing it. If this is the last season, I would feel obviously incredibly sad because I know how much of the stories I'd love to tell and we'd love to tell. In the same breath, I would feel I could take care of the fans and that's most important to us. We have an ending that would leave people feeling sad but satiated and feel like it was definitely worth their four years of investment. … That's what we're concerned about, that the fans don't feel like, 'Wait, what? What happened?'"
Tonight's episode, the last before the show goes on a month-long hiatus, is described by Pinkner as "a game changer" that lays the groundwork for the rest of the season.
"Our characters learn a lot more and the audience is going to learn a lot more about the uber-plot of the season's bad guys," he said. "The character journey for Peter, Olivia and Walter is going to start to unfold in ways that hopefully will be both satisfying and challenging to our characters. It's the 14th out of 22 episodes, and it's very much a hinge episode that's going to launch us into the back half of the season."
Wyman said the enigmatic Observers play a key role in "The End of All Things," much to the showrunners' delight.
"We always said you would find out about the Observers this season and we were going to investigate them a lot more," he said. "We're excited about it all. That's a highlight -- the Observers are a highlight. For us to constantly break what you know and reset and have people go, 'Wow, I didn't see that coming!' That's why we get up in the morning is to take people along for the ride. We're excited about what's coming up, too."
According to Pinkner, the producers had been under the impression that next week's episode, rather than tonight's, would herald the show's four-week break (it returns March 23). However, because of where they were in the season's arc, the shift didn't pose a problem.
"We're sort of in a zone of episodes where each one is amazing and each one either turns the story or resolves something important or there's a cliffhanger -- several episodes where each one is pretty awesome in itself and is also important to the overall patchwork of the season," he said. "We were very happy this ended up being one before we went on a little break. I think the fans are going to be well satisfied to come back and watch the next one as well."
Although the season, and possibly series, finale hasn't been written, Pinkner said, "We do know what it is and we've known the shape of our season before it started."
"At the end of every season we sort of close a chapter and start anew," Wyman added. "That's sort of the language of the series. It can just organically come to a conclusion that we love."
With that conclusion, whether temporary or permanent, fast approaching, they're trying not to pay too much attention to ratings, and instead remain focused on simply producing a good series.
"There are TV producers that spend a lot of time analyzing numbers and analyzing the competition and knocking on the doors of the people who are working at the studios saying, 'Change our night, change our time. Don't you see what you're doing to us by having us at this time?'" Pinkner said. "We don't do that. Our approach has always been, maybe to our determent, that the best thing we can do for our show is to write the best show possible. [...] We leave these questions and issues we can't control to the people who can and we just make the best version of Fringe we know how -- one that satisfies us, one that makes us excited to go into work every day, the one that makes us feel something. And we've been really, really gratified that people who watch the show respond to it in the way that they do. Beyond that, we just leave it to the gods."
Fringe airs tonight at 9 ET/PT on Fox.