FOX’S INGENIOUS MARKETING CAMPAIGN HAS MADE ONE THING CLEAR: THE OBSERVER HAS NO HAIR.
The Fox TV Network has a bald man and he’s got his eyes on you.
Okay, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but The Observer, a character from Fox’s cult hit science fiction series, “Fringe,” has popped up on in a lot of TV spots in the past few months, and viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the mysterious figure that’s been lurking on their screens is somehow looking for them.
In fact, all that “The Observer” – played by multi-talented actor Michael Cerveris – is really doing is participating in a viral marketing campaign to attract attention to “Fringe.”
It’s actually a pretty cool move on Fox’s part. The relative subtlety of it is a breath of fresh air when compared with the constant barrage of in-your-face commercials that is more typical of marketing in TV land. It’s also in keeping with the character itself as he (or perhaps “it,” as there is some question as to the character’s actual humanity) has been presented on “Fringe.”
Boiled down to its nuts and bolts, here’s what “Fringe” is about. Created by J.J. Abrams of “Lost” fame, “Fringe” has a core trio of characters – FBI special agent Olivia Dunham, long-institutionalized scientist Walter Bishop and his estranged son Peter – who find themselves constantly investigating “fringe science” events. There’s a “Pattern” that has developed that involves strange, weird things happening seemingly at random, but which are perhaps actually being controlled either by a sophisticated group of international terrorists or a huge worldwide research firm. There’s a lot more, involving strange “blips,” a bizarre drug called Cortexiphan and a parallel universe in which the World Trade Center still exists as it did pre-9/11.
How does The Observer fit into all this? Only J.J. Abrams knows for sure, but as The Observer’s name implies, he so far has been an outside force observing much of the action but not participating in a linear way. One gets the impression that he’s playing an important, perhaps crucial, part in what is going on; but exactly what that part is can only be guessed at.
In other words, his role is the enigmatic outsider. Is he goo d? Is he bad? Is he even a human or a native of this planet? At this point, the “big” facts are not known. Viewers piece together what they can from the quirks he exhibits, such as ordering a roast beef sandwich raw with exactly 11 jalapenos on the side, or writing (backwards) in an obscure language.
The Observer: No hair, no eyebrows
In April, Fox began its “Observer” viral marketing campaign, dubbed “Where’s Baldo?” a pun on the popular “Where’s Waldo?” books and thereby acknowledging the fact that The Observer has no hair on his head (including eyebrows). Suddenly, The Observer began popping up in totally unexpected places – at an NFL playoff game, watching the New York Yankees, visiting NASCAR, even observing an episode of “American Idol.” It’s all done very casually, with the camera finding the character in a crowd and lingering on him for a few seconds, but with no one on the show mentioning him or drawing any other attention to his presence.
This sounds strange, but it’s familiar to fans of “Fringe,” as many episodes have featured similar quick, brief glimpses of The Observer, particularly a memorable one in which characters watching a televised soccer game suddenly see him sprinting naked down the field.
Most of these off-“Fringe” appearances occurred during April and May, presumably timed to coincide with the important Nielsen ratings period that covers most of May. Since that time, The Observer seems to have abandoned his “extracurricular” appearances, although it’s likely that he will pop up in unexpected places at a later date.
Clearly, one of the things that makes the character stand out is his totally bald pate. When a character is as purposely obscure at this one, his physical appearance commands even more attention. His lack of hair is intended to make him seem different, and judging by the interest he arouses, it seems to have worked.
Yet doesn’t that fact say something curious about our society? People with hair loss are around us every day, including many men (and some women) who are bald and take no pains to disguise or apologize for this fact. Yes, in terms of sheer numbers, it is more typical to be “haired” than “hairless,” but baldness is hardly exotic or unusual. Still, the presence of a gleamingly bald character on a TV series excites comment and creates a strong reaction.
All of which once again brings home the fact that hairlessness simply is not portrayed on TV (and in other media) as the everyday fact of life that it so clearly is.
“Where’s Baldo?” is entertaining and helps draw attention to a marvelous bald actor; but hopefully we will someday have fair media representation of baldness that makes a character’s hair status irrelevant as to how “different’ he is.