'Fringe' Q&A: John Noble Explains the Low Ratings and Talks Third Universes, Reality Shows

The Australian actor sits down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk potential changes for Season 4 and what he'd like the show to tackle next.
Smallz and Raskind/FOX

When Fox made the gutsy call to renew "Fringe" for a fourth season, it came as a surprise to many. For one, the sci-fi drama – which has aired in three different time slots since its debut – has steadily dropped in the ratings. Last week’s partially animated hour, featuring an “appearance” by Leonard Nimoy, tied a series low in total viewers (3.6 million) and the key 18-49 demo (1.3).

John Noble, who plays Walter and Walternate, has maintained a positive outlook. With an international following and a steady presence on the Internet, "Fringe" has overcome what many would deem near impossible. (Read THR's interview with executive producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman the day after "Fringe" was renewed.)

Noble sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at a Starbucks coffee shop in Los Angeles to discuss the potential production challenges that may arise next season, why the show receives low ratings, how reality shows are similar to "Fringe" and the format he wants producers to incorporate on the show.

The Hollywood Reporter: The show has transitioned from the monsters of the week into heavy mythology. How has that affected the show?

John Noble: What we tried to do at the beginning was try to create a J.J. Abrams show with a weekly story. Frankly, I don’t think it ever gave us a chance to find our feet. It was halfway through Season 1 that we made the decision. The ninth episode, that was the turning point. Then we changed direction and we focused the story back on Olivia and what’s it like with Olivia and her journey, to get people to understand her better.

This year we took the great risk of creating another universe. We were nervous about it. We thought, “Well, will our audience care about a group of people they don’t know?” The risk was worth taking. By not doing the monster of the week, it meant the casual viewers stopped tuning in and that’s been part of the erosion – and we’re aware of that.

THR: Will Fringe ever go back to the weekly mysteries?

Noble: I don’t see it happening. We’ll still throw in an episode, for example, like “Marionette,” which was virtually standalone. The main story will still be carried by this massive mythology that we’ve developed.

THR: What challenges do you think you will be facing when production begins on Season 4, since the show has decreased in ratings?

Noble: One, you get renewed when your numbers are down. It’s an odd slide because we opened with effectively our weakest season, which is Season 1, and yet we were doing extremely well on Tuesday night. We were then put into this terrible position, Thursday night; it was a huge compliment for us to be put there but it was murderous up against Grey’s Anatomy, CSI and The Office, the Thursday night heavyweights. We did erode our numbers.

For me, the move to Friday night was a really good one. A lot of press saying, “Oh my goodness, it’s the death knoll. This is where they go to die.” But that wasn’t the way I felt personally. It’s the perfect spot for our type of show. All we have to do is we have to hold on to the numbers that we have had. We’ve done what we intended to do, which is to own Friday night.

THR: How can a show that has drawn a 1.3 rating in the demo sustain itself?

Noble: On Friday night slot, it’s actually a good rating, which is what we’re getting. The other thing about Fringe is that it’s a worldwide hit. Around the world, it’s being watched in many different ways, like Hulu and iTunes. There’s a larger story than the group of people who watches here.

THR: Had the show ended in May, would viewers be satisfied with the finale?

Noble: If we had been finishing, we would’ve been writing a [series] finale and we would’ve written a very good [series] finale. What I wouldn’t like to have happen is to not know we were finishing. As long as we go out with a bit of dignity, I’ll be very happy.

THR: Fringe isn't afraid to have complicated storylines. Does that speak to its audience?

Noble: We work on the basis that our audience is smart. P.T. Barnum, I think, once said, “No one lost money by underestimating public opinion.” (Editor's note: The quote was said by H.L. Mencken and reads, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.") When you work with someone like Peter Jackson or J.J. Abrams, they assume you’re smart. They assume you have knowledge.

It’s very interesting that there has been a trend across reality television. One of the things that reality television does is it doesn’t answer questions for you. You have a say in what the solution is and intelligent television does the same thing. It makes you make choices. There’s quite an interesting parallel there. Some of the modern games do the same things. They are forced to think and make decisions. To me that’s where the younger generation are going [to reality TV] – to find the stimulation, to be challenged.

THR: Viewers are intrigued by the alternative universe. Can you explain why?

Noble: That’s interesting you say that because the other universe is the victim in this and the characters, they are suffering as a result of an act of betrayal by one of us. I have no trouble justifying Walternate’s behavior at all. I think he’s a magnificent leader, as much as he’s not as charming, he’s a very good leader to have in a time like that. Walter over here is a very flawed character, although his path of redemption is well on the way. Ideally, we would see the reuniting of the two characters into one again.

THR: The producers have said that they won’t introduce a third universe any time soon, but if there were one, how would the show be different?

Noble: I wonder if there are any new ideas to be found in a third universe. We know that there are multilayered universes [on Fringe]. (The show currently features two.) The great untapped area, I think, is still the human mind. I would be happy if we took our journey inner rather than outer. The rulers of the world now are the geeks and the muscle men just move boulders.

THR: How has the medium of television changed since you entered the industry?

Noble: What I’ve observed is that television in the last decade has increased to something that’s almost unrecognizable. They are feature films. That’s a huge shift, and it’s something the audience expects. They still may want to watch their half-hour sitcom, but when they watch scripted drama, they expect that standard.

THR: What was the funniest scene to film?

Noble: I always love doing scenes with the cow. I love that cow, she’s so random. Sometimes I have bizarre scenes. I have one coming up where I’m running around the house naked and Olivia catches me. Walter doesn’t care but Olivia … that was a hoot.

THR: What do you want to see the show tackle next season?

Noble: I don’t think we have the technology to do 3D. If it was viable, I think they would do it. That’s the sort of people they are. 

Fringe airs at 9 p.m. on Fridays on Fox.

Email: philiana.ng@thr.com