Fox’s ‘Fringe’ not going gently into Friday night

Remember “The X-Files”? The guy from “Californication” and the redhead chasing little green men nearly two decades ago? That was the last time Fox made any real noise airing sci-fi on Fridays.

“Sliders.” “Millennium.” “The Visitor.” “Harsh Realm.” “FreakyLinks.” “Dark Angel.” “Firefly.” “John Doe.” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” “Dollhouse.” Since the mid-’90s, Fox Fridays have done more to break the hearts of nerds than school dances and Jar Jar Binks combined.

Yet that 0-for-15 years streak isn’t keeping Fox from hoisting its critically acclaimed “Fringe” (9 p.m. Friday, KVVU-TV, Channel 5) onto the altar of bad scheduling and setting it ablaze.

At the beginning of the season, and for the first time in years, the networks were putting actual effort into programming Fridays. It looked for all the world as though there might be a renaissance on the night given all the series headed there.

But four months later, only The CW’s “Supernatural” is really taking hold on its new night. Fox’s “The Good Guys” bombed. NBC’s “Outlaw” crashed and burned. Fox’s “Human Target” and CBS’ “Blue Bloods” both escaped to Wednesdays. And ABC pushed Dana Delany’s “Body of Proof” from last fall all the way to March 29 just to get it away from Fridays.

So why move “Fringe” there when it was putting up solid if unspectacular ratings on Thursdays, the toughest night of the week? To make room for “American Idol” (8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Channel 5).

A fixture for years on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, “Idol” kicks off its 10th season by shifting back a day. On the surface, the move lets Fox get a bigger piece of the lucrative Thursday ad budgets as movie studios make their last-gasp efforts to reach viewers before the weekend. But it also allows “Idol” to get its performance shows out of the way of the “Dancing with the Stars” results shows, and it positions Fox to be able to blame the expected ratings drop-off on the new night instead of the loss of Simon Cowell.

Remember “The X-Files”? It was hard not to when “Fringe” launched in 2008, with its coed duo investigating seemingly impossible phenomena under the auspices of the FBI, with a taciturn, bald boss running interference for them. But the drama, from “Lost’s” J.J. Abrams, has since morphed into a staggeringly complex tale of parallel universes about to go to war with each other, and it’s proudly letting its geek flag fly.

“Fringe” sort of had to ease into this new direction, as it never would have survived its first episode in its current state — assuming it would have made it to the air at all. But while the progression has been gradual, “Fringe” has covered so much ground in its two-plus seasons, it would be like “Lost” having gone from “Was that a polar bear?” to “Whaddya mean we’re all dead?” in a little over a month.

A heartbreaking episode last season revealed that mad scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) lost his son, Peter, to a rare illness as a child. Looking into the alternate universe through a portal he’d designed, Walter saw that the Peter in that world, being genetically identical to his own, also was dying. So when Walter discovered the cure, he created a wormhole, traveled to the other universe and brought that Peter to our world to save him. Only once Peter was cured, Walter couldn’t bring himself to return the boy that by almost every measure was his son.

Ethical issues aside, Walter’s meddling created tears that are slowly destroying the other world. Worse, it emboldened that world’s Walter, dubbed the Walternate, who is now actively working at the highest levels of government to destroy our universe in the belief that it will save his.

Yeah, it’s pretty heady stuff. But it plays surprisingly well even for those of us who are fluent in neither Vulcan nor Na’vi.

In our world, Fringe Division seems to consist primarily of the doddering former mental patient Walter; Peter (Joshua Jackson); FBI agents Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole); their boss, Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick); and a cow named Gene. But over there, Fringe Division has eclipsed the now-defunct FBI and is a part of the Department of Defense, run by Walternate with a ruthless streak that would make Donald Rumsfeld look like the Girl Scout other Girl Scouts picked on.

It’s a fascinating, emotional tale that’s improving every week. And now all that’s at risk after having been sent to what’s commonly referred to as “the death slot.” But at least “Fringe” isn’t going quietly.

A cheeky promo assembled a string of media quotes bemoaning the show’s upheaval, with the tagline “You might think Friday night is dead … but we’re gonna re-animate it” — an allusion to one of the fringe sciences at the heart of the series.

And after learning of the move, producers titled this week’s episode “Firefly,” an homage to Joss Whedon’s late, great Friday night casualty.

In announcing the decision, Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly, who still champions the show, stressed that DVR use already accounts for nearly half the show’s audience. So, in theory, if anybody at all shows up to watch “Fringe” live on Fridays, it could thrive there for years to come.

Stranger things have happened.

Remember “The X-Files”?

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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