Ever since ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ got away with it nine years ago (has it really been that long?), numerous other shows have attempted to recapture the magic of the “special musical episode.” Honestly, it’s become a tired cliché at this point. Generally, comedies (like ‘Scrubs’ and ‘How I Met Your Mother’) have the best chance of pulling it off without embarrassing themselves too badly. Starting last night and running through the middle of next week, the Fox network goes for broke with its “Fox Rocks Week” promotion, in which no fewer than twelve primetime shows will “feature a variety of musical elements.” (I have no idea why they didn’t start this on a Monday and program it for a normal work week.) Now, ‘American Idol’ and ‘Glee’ are natural fits for this, obviously. And the animated comedies like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Family Guy’ already incorporate musical elements on a regular basis. But the promotion started off last night with ‘Fringe’, of all things, and that’s just weird.
Weird is what ‘Fringe’ does, of course. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. So here’s the set-up for ‘Brown Betty’: Since Peter ran away after discovering his true identity, Walter has been racked with guilt and has tried to drown his sorrows in a special extra-potent hybrid batch of mary-jane that he cooked up himself. Crazy plus drugs often does not make for a good combo, but he doesn’t seem to be acting any stranger than usual. Olivia shows up at the lab with her young niece Ella, whom she’s looking after for the day, and asks Astrid to babysit for an hour while she tracks down a lead. The precocious child asks Walter to tell her a story, at which point we spin off into the fantasy portion of the episode.
In the tale that Walter concocts, the show’s regular cast appear as characters in a ’40s noir-mystery-cum-musical. I guess Walter is a fan of ‘The Singing Detective’. Olivia stars as a female Sam Spade type who’s been hired to track down the thief (Peter) who stole a “glass heart” thingamajig from a kindly-but-nutso inventor (Walter, ‘natch). The story very loosely parallels the show’s main narrative, in a whimsical, child-friendly sort of way. Deliberate anachronisms abound, such as computers and cell phones in the 1940s setting. Walter claims to have invented all the most wonderful things in the world, including Teddy Bears and rainbows and hugs. However, it turns out that he’s only accomplished this by stealing the dreams of children, who are left with nightmares instead. (An obvious analogy for his Cortexiphan experiments in Jacksonville.)
Does it work? Eh… vaguely. The episode isn’t a complete embarrassment or anything. But it’s also not nearly as much fun as it could have been. Olivia (Anna Torv) looks pretty great in the period costumes, but is less than convincing at delivering the hard-boiled dialogue. Or the singing, which is simply not good, from anyone. Pretty much no one is this cast is a trained singer, and so the producers keep the musical segments to a minimum. They’re few and far between, which only makes it all the more awkward when characters randomly burst into song for a few seconds.
All in all, the episode is more dull than awful. It’s not nearly as wild or “out there” as the concept might suggest, and is pretty tame compared to the weird plotlines that the show normally delivers. I think even the producers acknowledge this a little. The end of Walter’s story is, quite literally, half-hearted.