The X-Files was one of the biggest shows of the 90’s, hot off the heels of Twin Peaks. It was a horror-mystery serial that fed into the cynical society of the time. It was full of conspiracies and a troublesome bureaucracy that had been compromised by exterior and interior forces alike. However, Fringe leans more towards mind-bending, misused pseudo-science rather than monsters or governmental conspiracies. It is a series of mystery boxes, the likes of which could be expected from series creator J.J. Abrams. Truthfully, I posit that Fringe has a great deal of X-Files' DNA in it. Therefore, we must simply do our best to distinguish the strengths of each show.
10 Fringe Was Better: Balancing Episodic And Serial Stories
Generally speaking, The X-Files was all over the place with its overarching story. To be fair, it was certainly a new kind of storytelling. It’s hard to believe these days, but the majority of TV shows had been episodic until the 90’s. And yet, The X-Files mainly thrived by the creative, addictive “monsters of the week”. It would take ages to get another crumb to follow, regarding the backbone plot of the series. Fringe is quite the opposite. After the inaugural season, where episodes only ended with significant steps forward, it propelled into a very brisk story. From season two onward, every episode mattered. Season five only cemented how much more effective Fringe is with taut storytelling.
9 X-Files Was Better: Horror
Every now and then, Fringe wandered into horror. For example, that episode about a mutant insect definitely had disturbing images. And yet, the ability to terrify was always The X-Files’ strong point. With countless memorable creatures and bloody deaths, that show handled its scary moments more successfully. The pilot of Fringe opens with people rotting to pieces, but even that felt more mysterious than scary. The darkness and fog of The X-Files lent itself to the genre more innately. But its pace was also more slow and deliberate, emphasizing that atmosphere. It's generally a less sensational show, actually, which reinforces the dread.
8 Fringe Was Better: Action
How many times can Mulder get hit in the back of the head? Someone should keep a tally. Although we were definitely invested in Mulder and Scully, which made the suspense effective, the direction was always dated. The show is simply of its time. So, whenever it tried to dip its toe into action scenes, the blocking and execution lacked visceral energy. In fact, even the revival seasons felt this way. The X-Files could compose top-notch horror sequences, though. But Fringe absolutely blows its action out of the water. Fringe delivered exciting chase scenes and shootouts that you’d see in any feature with studio money.
7 X-Files Was Better: Satire
Fringe was always keen to wear the subtext of its social commentary on its sleeve. There wasn’t quite as much of it, because that wasn’t really the point of the show. So, anytime it had something to say—no matter how creative the agent of the message—it wasn’t quite as meaningful. However, even the premise of The X-Files is conversely effective by comparison. Many of the shadowy elements in The X-Files were accurate reflections of us, and our government. There has been plenty of commentary about the flaws of bureaucratic inner-workings. It was always witty satire, even if the revival seasons were far more blatant about it. But even monsters of the week were thematically rich—they were more than just a mystery.
6 Fringe Was Better: Ending Appropriately
Sadly, The X-Files somewhat overstayed its welcome for a while. Once David Duchovny was absent, it was difficult to maintain interest. He was a core protagonist, the perpetual believer. The revival seasons are certainly an improvement over the later seasons preceding them. But the show just didn’t end when it should have.
Fringe, barely allowed the fifth and final season, resolved its lingering storylines far more effectively. It was even filled with doting fan service. It also delivered on the promise of a season four flash-forward even more poignantly than anyone could have expected. It is heartbreaking, but fitting; and above all else, a love letter to the fans.
5 X-Files Was Better: Incorporating New Characters
Fringe settled into a group of characters, and built on them very well. However, there wasn’t nearly as much variety, somehow. The X-Files was able to establish newer characters like The Lone Gunmen and Jeffrey Spender in very organic ways. At the very least, they became likable and intriguing additions. And even when the protagonists needed replacements, Doggett and Reyes were actually pretty successful characters. It may not feel that way in your memory, because of your disappointment in those seasons. But conceptually, they do work. All of this, and the series of interesting governmental figures that consistently joined. Fringe had a smaller population, even with the mirror universe. This makes The X-Files feel more lived-in.
4 Fringe Was Better: Character Development
Although there’s no denying the chemistry between the X-Files leads, and Skinner too, they never had much of an arc. Scully became less of a skeptic, but never abandoned that role. Even the inevitable romance between them didn’t feel particularly organic. Despite taking an appropriate number of seasons to get there.
Although mysteries unfolded, the characters remained adamantly stagnant, though well-performed and likable. Fringe, however, felt a lot more like a family drama. Not just because of Walter’s relationship with Peter, but because of everyone’s teamwork. Peter learns to forgive his father, and Walter confronts his past. Olivia learns to trust again, and contentious enemies become allies. There’s just more to sink your teeth into, with Fringe.
3 X-Files Was Better: Franchising
Unfortunately, Fringe never quite knew how to expand on its universe. It didn’t have the same viewership or effect that The X-Files did. Perhaps that’s because of Fringe’s dated first season, or its coinciding release with Breaking Bad. The Vince Gilligan connection really makes that quite ironic. But ultimately, The X-Files branched out into comics, books, and movies. Both shows have an equal level of mythology, but Mulder and Scully simply made more content available. In fact, the corresponding actors have even lent their voices to an audiobook, Cold Cases. There’s no question that The X-Files knew how to franchise well. If only Fringe had a fraction of those die-hard fans.
2 Fringe Was Better: Overarching Threat
The recurring alien conspiracy in The X-Files never had much direction. Even something as meaningful as the mystery of Mulder’s sister ended up with some pretty tacky concepts. Super-strong aliens with shifting motivations, hidden parentage; it just wasn’t very rewarding. Especially given the long wait in-between answers. Generally, they only led to more questions. Surprisingly, especially given Abrams’ habits, Fringe doesn’t do this. It wraps up its villains pretty succinctly, telling a complete story each season. Particularly so after season one. The show simply had to adapt to modern narratives, which have been overwhelmingly abundant and serialized.
1 X-Files Was Better: Having Fun
The X-Files knew how to have more fun. Not just by embracing comedy itself, but for being self-aware, too. There are many episodes which are intentionally wacky, like Mulder and Scully watching a movie about themselves. It was very Scream 2 of them. But then there’s classic episodes like Bad Blood, with Luke Wilson. That wasn’t only effective because of slapstick comedy. It was because Mulder and Scully got to rib each other. Through their points of view, we get exaggerated versions of the leads. This allowed the writers to flaunt their understanding of the characters. Mulder’s wry humor was also a consistently rewarding element of the show. Fringe wasn’t without its laughs, but it didn’t quite know how to take itself a little less seriously in practice. That Brown Betty episode didn’t quite work.