Review | Fringe, 'Olivia' & 'The Box'

Ask any Fringe fan which episodes are there favorites, and a vast majority of them will tell you that they prefer the mythology-driven episodes over the standalone ones — unless those fans are from the dreaded "over there," that is. For the third season of the critically acclaimed Fox series, executive producers and co-showrunners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman have responded to their audience's demands by creating a new kind of episode: the mythalone, designed to propel the story and characters forward while still keeping the show accessible to new viewers on a weekly basis.

Given the fact that the second season finale ended with lead character Olivia Dunham trapped in an alternate universe surrounded by unfamiliar versions of the show's core cast members, it's nothing short of amazing that the new mythalone approach to Fringe works wonders, if only in the first two episodes of the new season.

The season premiere, titled "Olivia," picks up on the cliffhanger of "Over There" by showing our Olivia as a broken and desperate woman who coolly resists the urge to concede to her captors' demands. Before long, Olivia is back to doing what she does best — kicking butt and taking names — but in entirely unfamiliar surroundings, as she's still stuck in the all-too-alien alternate reality. We're introduced to several new characters — a taxi cab driver played by The Wire veteran Andre Royo is particularly memorable — while simultaneously getting to know Walternate and the alternate versions of Charlie Francis, Phillip Broyles and others much better.

Longtime viewers will have little trouble sympathizing with Olivia's plight, but at the same time, expect to feel some pangs of guilt in the pit of your stomach as you realize a painful truth: this other side is a cool, sleek world that has boundless potential. Thankfully for us — not so much for Olivia — we'll be spending several episodes in the alternate universe, affording viewers an every-other-weekly opportunity to escape to an unquestionably brave new world.

Those of you holding out for the familiar faces of Walter, Peter, Astrid and more won't have to wait long, as Pinkner and Wyman have both confirmed that this season of Fringe will alternate between worlds every other episode, at least for the time being. The characters we know and love make a brief appearance towards the end of "Olivia," and they're front and center in "The Box," the second episode of the third season.

But once again, the eyes drift and eventually settle on Olivia Dunham — except this isn't the Olivia we've come to know over the course of Fringe. This is a ruthless woman, almost disturbing in her enjoyment of all facets of the job. Her chemistry with Peter is beyond electric, but there's an unnerving quality as well when you consider that Peter is once again being duped by someone close to him.

It's not just her dynamic with Peter that sends shivers down the spine, either. There's a moment towards the middle of "The Box" where this version of Olivia — dubbed Bolivia by the production team — acts in such a surprising manner that you'll stare at your television set in disbelief for several minutes. If there was any doubt that we are dealing with two very different versions of Olivia Dunham, Bolivia makes who she is and what she's capable of perfectly clear. The success of Bolivia is a testament to the excellent writing staff and, of course, to lead actress Anna Torv, who is delivering the performance of her career with these two characters.

Despite all of the plot momentum and the intricacies that follow from parallel universe storytelling, these episodes of Fringe are still accessible to new viewers. The mission-of-the-week format remains, but it has undergone a subtle, nuanced makeover. Somehow, someway, the creative team behind Fringe established a new format in the mythalone — a format that succeeds with flying colors in "Olivia" and "The Box."

The third season of Fringe premieres tonight (Sept. 23) on FOX at 9/8 c. The second episode airs next Thursday (Sept. 30) at the same place and time.

What We Do in the Shadows Creators Break Down the Vampire Rules

More in TV