2016 Film Essays

A Trip to the Sensory Deprivation Tank: Comparing ‘Fringe’ and ‘Stranger Things’


Alternate dimensions. Pseudo-scientific experiments. Children with strange powers. Isolation tanks. I could very easily be describing Netflix’s new wunderkind, Stranger Things, but I’m not: I’m talking about J.J. Abrams’ Fringe, a show that was largely overlooked and has been largely forgotten. Fringe also found a home on Netflix, where it rests eternal in bingeable syndication. But what could Fringe have been if it was born to a different time?

Fringe, which ran from 2008–2013, was the better-cooked brainchild of J. J. Abrams (who also wrote the super catchy theme song), a millennial answer to The X-Files. It followed agent Olivia Dunham and the rest of the crew over at Fringe Division, a spurious division of the FBI dedicated to “fringe science,” aka that which is usually chalked up to quackery but has a surprising truth to it in the universe of the show. Fringe quickly turned from a “monster of the week” serial to an ever-expanding universe of alternate dimensions, timelines and characters (see: Faux-Livia). But, living on network TV, Fringe was subject to ratings and the whims of a network that thought its viewers would rather tune into the ninth season of American Idol than see Anna Torv, Pacey from Dawson’s Creek and Denethor from The Lord of the Rings drop acid and leap through time and space.


Fringe’s fifth and final season, which depicted a future in which the bald-headed Observers took over the world and banned all human emotion, managed to round out the show with a heart-breaking bang. But it also left many questions. It’s easy to see where, stretched over five network seasons, viewers could have gotten confused along the way. A plot-point in which Torv’s character was part of a set of childhood experiments that gave her the ability to travel through space-time (and light things on fire with her mind) was all but dropped.

But Olivia Dunham’s drug-induced powers bear eerie similarities to Eleven’s own lysergic-fueled abilities on Stranger Things. Both Eleven and Olivia have telekinetic (and perhaps pyrokinetic) abilities. With the help of sensory-deprivation tanks, both can access things that normal humans cannot, including other dimensions.

The similarities don’t stop there. Fringe frequently featured trips back to the 1980s, when universe-tearing experiments first began, and competently handled the nostalgic aesthetic, though perhaps not as breathtakingly as the carefully composed Stranger Things manages on Netflix’s budget. Both feature mysterious corporations that may or may not have links to the government (Massive Dynamic in the Fringe Universe, run by the late great Leonard Nimoy; Hawkins National Laboratory in Stranger Things’ Indiana). There are grotesque monsters conjured by government-funded experiments, and bald-headed children with limited vocabularies in both.

The massive popularity of Stranger Things proves that television sci-fi is far from niche. Had Fringe been conceived slightly later, could it have been a hit? Fringe might have stood a better chance if it was given the space to grow and thrive that only a streaming service can provide. Perhaps, in an alternate-parallel-upside-down universe somewhere, Fringe was a massive sensation on Netflix or Amazon Prime.


With no word on a Season Two premiere date for Stranger Things, you can get your fix of weird occurrences through Fringe, but beware: you might find yourself wishing for more when you mysteriously lose the better part of a week.

Elyse Endick lives and writes in New York City, where she recently graduated with an MFA in screenwriting from Tisch. She enjoys watching the Star Wars prequels with her cat, Jay Catsby.