From 2008-2013, Fox ran FRINGE, a science fiction show created by JJ Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman. JJ Abrams is one of the world’s most famous directors now, but back then he was known as the guy that created LOST. Which means he also took a lot of heat for the ways in which LOST spun its wheels, often introducing ideas or mysteries for short-term gain without a long-term plan.
Rewatching FRINGE now, you can sense the desire from all involved to simultaneously push back against that (there are multiple times throughout the series where a character says, “Sometimes answers lead to more questions.”) and avoid the same trap. In fact, it’s apparent on my rewatch just how much the show knew about its mythology and characters from the very first episode.
The most obvious of these is the Observers that appear in every episode, beginning with the pilot episode. As the show goes on, they weave in and out of the narrative until their purpose and endgame become clear in the final season.
Setting that aside, as it’s more of a plot machination, FRINGE shows the importance of understanding your characters as early as possible. Before I continue, I should provide a SPOILER WARNING for a decade-old show. So, ya know, spoiler warning going forward. Here’s a picture of the Observer from the pilot as a break.
With that out of the way, it becomes apparent early on in the series that something is off about Peter’s history and his relationship with his father. We’re led to believe that it’s because of their fractured relationship–Walter has been in a mental institution for the past 17 years, and Peter hasn’t visited–but there is always a sense of something else beneath their interactions. A lot of this has to do with the acting, John Noble and Joshua Jackson annihilate their roles, but as the first season progresses more and more hints are dropped about Peter’s history.
Things Walter says when Peter is in danger (the most on the nose of which is when he tells Astrid, “I can’t lose him again.”), hints provided through the cinematography and lighting. Because the writers knew the secret before the characters did (Peter doesn’t find out until episode 15 of the second season, nearly 40 episodes into the 100 episode series), they are able to foreshadow the reveal early and often. This adds a layer of intrigue and mystery to an already intriguing and mysterious show.
Some writing advice says that you can’t write your story until you know the ending. Others prefer the act of discovery as they go. I think it depends on the type of story you’re trying to tell. I also think that it’s important to know your characters, if nothing else, and their secrets. In long-form storytelling especially, characters are what will keep your audience with you through the major plot revelations (parallel universe?!) and the missteps (alternate timeline?).