IT'S INCOHERENT, IT'S overwrought, it's ridiculously obvious in its desire to become TV's next hip cult phenomenon, yet there's no denying that VR.5 (Fox, Fridays, 8-9 p.m.) exerts its own uncanny pull. By contrast, Fox's other new sci-fi show, SLIDERS (Fox, Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m.), repels--because it's incoherent, overwrought, and ridiculous.
In VR.5, Lori Singer (Fame, Short Cuts) stars as Sydney Bloom, a telephone lineswoman whose avid interest in computers leads her to happen upon a way to time-travel via people's subconscious minds. I'm no cyberpunk, so as best as I can figure out after watching no fewer than five episodes of this series, Sydney taps out a desired destination on her screen, uses her phone to call someone she wants to take along on a journey to another dimension, and when the caller answers, she slams the phone into the computer modem and--kablooey!--she and some lucky person attain the fifth level of virtual reality, or VR.5. (I could be wrong about any of these details; I used to find changing my typewriter ribbon a reality-altering experience.)
What all this malarkey means as television entertainment is that Sydney has a lot of disorienting adventures, most of which just happen to require her to wear clothes much skimpier than her usual work boots and jeans. But because this show comes from the man who helped bring us China Beach, executive producer John Sacret Young, you may be sure that VR.5 is also Serious Television, full of metaphysical musings about the moral implications of technology. One character even says, "Life is finally just about living and dying."
And watching television. Future episodes of VR.5 contain overt parodies of The Avengers and Peter Gunn. And, in its aura of well-founded paranoia--a mysterious organization known as The Committee is always after Sydney--there's an implied homage to The Prisoner. It's safe to bet that David McCallum was cast as Sydney's father not merely because he's a good actor, but also for his intrinsic Man From U.N.C.L.E. camp value. Then too, VR.5 is straining mightily to ape the series it precedes, the excellent X-Files; the new show is trying to float an X-Filey slogan ("Virtual reality is real") by repeating it over and over.
All this said, VR.5 is kind of charming, in its shaggy-cyberdog kind of way. Story lines are introduced and then dropped, only to reappear a week or two later, which at least makes the narrative messiness intentional. Singer is a good hero-hacker; her eyes are as blank as a dead computer screen, which enables her to come off admirably restrained in the midst of the show's visual razzle-dazzle. I'm even starting to like Duncan (Michael Easton), her slack-jawed slacker best friend. And any show that makes a villain out of the smarmy guy in those Taster's Choice commercials (Anthony Stewart Head, in a recurring role) can't be bad.
As for Sliders, well, Jerry O'Connell stars as Quinn Mallory, a genius physics student but an otherwise standard-issue grad-student lout. He can slide through what jaded sci-fi types call a "wormhole" in space and visit different versions of our world. Sliders' idea of a good joke is to have Quinn visit an Earth on which Elvis Presley is still alive. Sliders features ceaseless blustering by John Rhys-Davies (of the Indiana Jones movies) as Quinn's physics teacher, and a character named Rembrandt "Crying Man" Brown (Cleavant Derricks) who, in the pilot episode at least, is written in such a way as to make Amos and Andy look like sophisticated paragons of African-Americanism.
GRADES: VR.5, B- ; SLIDERS, D
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