On this planet, Americans are the ultimate outsiders. If you go back far enough, almost all of us come from families that crossed an ocean or braved long odds to get here. This is a land where memories of being on society's edges inform our ability to be in the middle of it.
No wonder, then, that the American entertainment tradition is rich with unusual explorations of what it means to be an outsider — mirrors that distort our reflections and imagine what it might be like to be impostors in our own world.
Consider George Bailey of "It's a Wonderful Life," who got an unsettling glimpse of a world where he never existed. Or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," in which aliens replaced a town's residents with soulless replicas, one by one, until the originals — the "real" human beings — were pushed to the edges.
Lately, compelling drama about the outsider-insider contrast is everywhere. The alien-invasion remake "V," the vampires and other creatures of "True Blood," the zombified versions of friends and family in "The Walking Dead," even Clark Kent in "Smallville" — all are meditations about who is "us" and who, exactly, isn't.
That's why Fox's "Fringe," which returns at 9 p.m. ET Friday after a hiatus of two months, is so compelling. The law-enforcement-meets-unexplained events saga postulates a world — two, if you include its parallel universe — in which everyone seems to be struggling with how to belong.
The basic premise, without any short-term spoilers, is this: An erratic genius named Walter Bishop (John Noble), whose son fell ill and died in this universe many years ago, found a gateway to a parallel one in which the boy is still alive. He slipped across to the other, very similar world, stole its version of his son and spirited him home.
That single act — an act of deep love and deep evil, simultaneously — left Walter's counterpart in the other world angry and hellbent on revenge against our world and on reclaiming the now-adult Peter (Joshua Jackson) for both familial and, apparently, nefarious purposes.
More significantly, Walter's act opens a rift between the two universes that begins to damage the other world. Over the years, the ripples of his crossover cause dimensional tears that kill thousands, change that society and lead it to conclude that it is being attacked by people who look and act the same but are agents of mass destruction.
This exploration into cause, effect and connectedness has, over two and a half seasons, pushed "Fringe" from "X-Files"-like sci-fi into something more complex. It has become one of the most nuanced reflections of American life during the past decade — the decade since 9/11, a period rich with wondering about the enemy within.
How do we deal with hidden threats and protect ourselves when necessary and, just as importantly, know when not to protect? How do we ferret out threats hidden in our midst without becoming the paranoid, violent people we fear?
And in an interconnected world — or, in the case of "Fringe," two of them — how do we approach fellow human beings who are in many ways like us but have very different agendas and may or may not have valid grievances that explain their actions?
"In every conflict, there's two sides and they're human," says J.H. Wyman, co-show-runner of "Fringe" and an executive producer. "The people on the other side, they have a right to be worried — their universe is breaking down. There's assault from everywhere that they can't really comprehend. By that token, there's good in them."
The parallel universe in "Fringe" looks a lot like ours, complete with identical counterparts to most people on this side. But it features important differences that represent the slightly different ways history unfolded.
Security in that United States is far tighter. Passenger blimps troll the skies over Manhattan. The mirror-universe Walter Bishop (dubbed, wonderfully, "Walternate") keeps a framed picture of an aging JFK on his desk in the Defense Department, which is located in a gold-plated Statue of Liberty.
And in the alternate-universe Manhattan, 9/11 never happened — or, at least, was unsuccessful, presumably because of that world's more draconian law enforcement. Because of that, the twin towers of the World Trade Center still stand, a reminder in each establishing shot that different choices lead to different outcomes.
"What we're trying to do is make a humanist statement. ... Everybody's choices inevitably interact with everything else. We are all connected, and there's nothing you can do to avoid it," says Jeff Pinkner, the program's other show-runner.
The other universe's most impactful differences are more subtle. Walternate's is a darker universe, reflecting more of the lesser angels of our nature, and its equivalents of the main characters are slightly harder, more brittle, more willing to create outcomes no matter the cost. John F. Kennedy's famous words — "tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace" — come to mind.
Under sci-fi's guise, "Fringe" offers us everything we are struggling with in the post-9/11 world: sleeper cells; embedded agents; suicide attacks; subtle references to holy war. And as it evolves, the show is becoming a meditation on people who are like us yet utterly, sometimes unrecognizably different.
In the real world, that challenge is the one we face when dealing with Muslims, illegal immigrants, anyone who seems an outsider. In Fringe, the dichotomy is more stark. Its protagonists are dealing with, in effect, themselves — people with similar reference points and perhaps even motivations who have been shaped differently by events. In "Fringe," we have met the enemy and they are, quite literally, us.
"We're all mutants," Walter Bishop philosophizes. "What's more remarkable is how many of us appear to be normal."
Ultimately, no one belongs. In one way or another, everyone's an outsider. And maybe that's the point.
Fox is owned by News Corp.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press.