Thursday, April 20, 1995
Page: B6

John O'Connor, New York Times

What, you might be wondering, is Rupert Murdoch up to these days, apart from wresting eye-popping tax breaks from Washington politicians?

Well, Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting, still aggressively wooing the young audience dear to the scheming hearts of advertisers, is doing its best to make sure viewers focus on any world other than the world they live in. Forget about what is really happening; fantasize about what might happen. Diversions, diversions.

Going determinedly out of this world are two new one-hour adventure series: ``Sliders,'' Wednesdays at 8 p.m., and ``VR 5,'' Fridays at 7 p.m. (KBRR, Grand Forks cable channel 10), just before ``The X-Files,'' another spacey excursion into, using the catch-all term, the unknown.

In ``Sliders,'' Jerry O'Connell, once an 11-year-old in ``Stand by Me,'' is a physics graduate student named Quinn. Fiddling about in his home lab, he accidentally opens a gateway to parallel universes in which everything looks familiar but is historically jumbled.

In one, it turns out that the Soviets have triumphed and California is dotted with gulags; in another, the British won the Revolutionary War, hanging George Washington in 1789 and using British monarchs to rule the colonies ever since.

Joining Quinn on his ``slides'' into these new dimensions are his blustery physics professor, Maximillian (John Rhys-Davies); an attractive computer whiz named Wade (Sabrina Lloyd), and, fleshing out the demographics, Rembrandt, also known as Crying Man (Cleavant Derricks), a rhythm-and-blues singer formerly with a group called the Spinning Tops. As he drives through the neighborhood, Rembrandt and his car are sucked into Quinn's vortex by mistake. Don't ask. Things happen.

Having discovered what someone calls ``the Holy Grail of theoretical physics,'' the quartet exists on a kind of roulette wheel that keeps spinning them off into new and initially puzzling dimensions, while Quinn's unsuspecting mother constantly frets about his eating and sleeping habits.

The style and humor in these romps is generally broad. When the corrupt sheriff of monarchical America goes on television to hoodwink the citizens yet again, he assures them: ``I feel your pain. Let us create a kinder and gentler nation.''

``VR 5'' is far more dark, if not downright spooky. VR is virtual reality. Level 5 is far beyond where the artificial experience exists today. It is tapped into, accidentally, of course, through a home computer system that has become the obsessive toy of Sydney Bloom (Lori Singer).

Sydney's life has been damaged by a childhood car crash that killed her father (David McCallum), a neurobiologist and pioneer in virtual-reality experiments, and her twin sister. Her mother (Louise Fletcher) remains hospitalized as a catatonic. The withdrawn Sydney works by day as a telephone lineswoman.

Sydney discovers that, via a telephone connection, she can take herself and another person into any landscape of her choosing: past, present or future. But although she can create the setting, she cannot control it.

Maybe television is ready for a series that gets beyond the cuteness of ``Back to the Future.'' Singer and a strong cast make ``VR 5'' a worthy contender.

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