The first time I encountered the idea of the multiverse was reading a Flash comic book. I was a kid in school and a recent graduate to superhero comics, which were more challenging reading than the Harvey and Archie comics that I was used to. It was also my first step away from the Batman and Superman comic books I was already reading, which were easier to read because they featured characters that were familiar to me from television.
I had been attracted to this particular Flash comic by it dramatic cover, featuring contrasting suits worn by the Flash and the Reverse-Flash, also known as Professor Zoom. Although people often look down on comics as simple reading material, they do not always make for easy reading. In this case, I had jumped into a serial story in progress, with characters I was not familiar with and a complex plot dealing with time-travel.
Although aspects of The Flash were difficult for me to comprehend, I stuck with the comic series because the characters were compelling, especially the villainous Professor Zoom. The art added a tremendous amount to my understanding of the plot. In fact, at that age I'm not sure I would have grasped the idea of parallel worlds or branching realities without illustrations of Earth-One and Earth-Two. Editorial asides filled me in on back story that I had missed. The comics format also allowed me to flip comfortably back and forth through pages and issues, which helped me keep track of the story as it wove through time and across worlds.
Skip ahead to the present day, where I'm following a story of multiple worlds on the television show, Fringe. I want to say that it's the most complicated multiverse story I've been exposed to, but that's probably not true--I think DC's Infinite Crisis and the year-long 52 saga probably take that title. Fringe is, nonetheless, an extremely intricate story of multiple worlds. (In the season two finale, Fringe acknowledged a debt to DC comics and its multiverse mythos.)
This season, several of the main actors on Fringe, including Anna Torv, John Noble and Jasika Nicole, play as many as four different versions of themselves. Although there are sometimes visual indicators to distinguish among versions--for example, one Olivia is blonde while another is redhead--the burden is on the actors to show their characters' differences. The cast does an incredible job making us believe in their characters' lives across multiple worlds.
Unfortunately, the broadcast television format is not always supportive of Fringe's complex storyline. Long season and mid-season breaks make it difficult to keep track of past and present in the show's multiple universes. While earlier seasons were light on commercials, more commercials in the current season mean less time to explain the action and flesh out story arcs.
In an interview, series creator J.J. Abrams claims Fringe was intended to be a serialized show, but that "we were instructed by the network, at the beginning of Season 3, to stop that." (Note: Corrected based on commenter input.)
While part of creating a successfully TV series involves working within the commercial demands of the medium, I can't help but feel that the power of "Fringe's" multiverse storytelling is being lost to narrow programming requirements. I hope Fringe gets renewed for a fifth season, but I hope it also receives license to develop the serialized storytelling that it's multiverse drama needs, and which have made the show such a standout in past seasons.