Fringe: The Complete Second Season 

No two ways about it: "Fringe" sure knows how to open an episode. Among the choice prologues in its second season are a suburban man turning into a crumbling pile of ash before his loving wife's eyes; a dead girl waking up on the table spouting a string of random numbers, while doctors remove her kidneys; a hard-hat worker getting yanked underground in a cornfield; a beautiful woman becoming not-so-beautiful as boils bubble up all over her skin; and, my favorite, an office drone surviving a quake at work, only to find he's gained a third leg.

Talk about an aftershock! That's "Fringe," ladies and gentlemen! While not a ratings powerhouse, the "X-Files" for the new millennium is consistently better and more satisfying than creator/executive producer J.J. Abrams' other mind-boggler, "Lost." Yeah, I said it.

The season opens with a bang "? or a crash, to be precise "? as FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) flies through the window of her parked car to the pavement ... yet wasn't in the car. In other words, the season picks up where its freshman outing left off: Olivia discovering an alternate world.

Serving as the overarching theme, that alternate world is explored further as the hours tick by, as we also learn more about Olivia's partners, scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his son, agent Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson). Specifically, secrets are revealed about the experiments of the former, and the fate of the latter. Get ready to have your brain twisted.

While that continuing thread is interesting (and summed up well in a half-hour doc on disc six), I more enjoy the show's freak-of-the-week aspects, which entail grotesque, feature-quality effects and Walter's unconventional (to put it lightly) lab experiments. Two episodes take a break from the usual formula of investigating unexplained events: one which flashes back to the 1980s (complete with an '80s-style synth redo of the credits), and another which imagines our team in a 1940s noir tale. The first one works, even to a point of poignancy, while the last feels ... well, silly.

But "Fringe" can be forgiven for the occasional misstep, as it found its groove in this batch of strange-science stories. Our three leads wear their roles with comfort and class (Noble's work, in particular, stands unique above prime-time peers) and ... well, hell, you've gotta see the squid creatures being pulled out of corpses' throats! "?Rod Lott

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