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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Fox Drama 'VR.5' Deep-Sixes Three Comedy Premieres

March 08, 1995|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Virtual reality to virtual mediocrity.

That's the range of four network series premiering this week, deep into the second half of the 1994-95 television season.

Coming under the latter category are three hum-drum comedies, "The George Wendt Show" and "The Office" from CBS and "Hope & Gloria" from NBC. Call them the VM.3. More about that shortly, following the good news.

Category No. 1 features the drama "VR.5," a blazing laser shot from Fox that emphatically alters a chunk of TV's visual landscape. Its striking, computer-age glitz makes the rest of prime time look like a laptop.

How curious that the most fascinating, most intriguing, most scintillating, most challenging, most kick-ass new series of the season should arrive so late in the season. But then, nearly everything about this series--executive produced by John Sacret Young ("China Beach") and Thania St. John ("Life Goes On")--is . . . curious.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 9, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 10 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 14 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor's name-- The last name of "VR.5" actor Michael Easton was misspelled in a TV review Wednesday.

With "VR.5" supplanting "M.A.N.T.I.S." in the 8 p.m. slot preceding "The X-Files" on Friday, this new pairing gives Fox the best back-to-back hours in prime time, some weird theater to build an evening around.

Although bonded technologically, "VR.5" is otherwise unlike "Wild Palms," the campy 1993 ABC miniseries that earned more giggles than ratings points for its unrelieved gimmickry and obtuseness. Instead, grab your goggles and get ready for cyberspatial fun and ambiguity, featuring Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom, an ordinary telephone line-woman by day, a cyberlinking computer zealot by night. She builds a home brew system, with special eye wear, that taps her into a mysterious, perception-altering universe of virtual reality so advanced that she is able to penetrate the subconscious minds of whomever she contacts via her modem.

These great brain leaps zoom the gawky, passive, unglamorous Sydney to other environments where the atmosphere is surrealistically iridescent, where voices are echo-chambered and where she often arrives gorgeous, gussied up and glowing in vibrant greens and oranges, indulging her own fanciful side while bracing for the unexpected.

"It's like a huge hole has opened up inside me," she says, "and all these feelings I never knew I had keep flooding out."

Flooding out in the premiere are her fears about a colleague whose subconscious she invades, causing her to suspect that he's a serial murderer. So does she date this guy, to whom she is attracted, or what? And if she does, what will happen?

It's this virtual-reality sleuthing, not merely its ravishing looks, that keeps "VR.5" especially interesting, along with its brooding tone, "Twin Peaks"-ian dark moods and constant mind games that find Sydney also slipping into the brain of her catatonic mother (Louise Fletcher), an outward vegetable sitting stiff and vacant-eyed in a mental ward.

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Remaining to be seen is the significance of this familial backtracking, for locked in Sydney's mind is the source of her own torment, relating to the apparent death 17 years earlier of her scientist father (David McCallum) and twin sister.

Layering dream upon dream, "VR.5" never fully clarifies what is real and what isn't. What does it all mean? Perhaps everything, perhaps nothing. Whatever the case, it's all exquisitely seductive. Nothing here is tidy, as inky story lines bleed from one episode to another.

Overlapping many of them is a government-like organization called "The Committee," which seeks to divert Sydney's virtual-reality gifts to its own murky agenda. Related to that is her encounter with an assassin in Episode 2 and, in Episode 3, a meeting with the enigmatic Oliver Sampson (Anthony Stewart Head). Is he friend or foe?

Not all is somber in "VR.5," which expresses its sense of humor mostly through Sydney's only friend, Duncan (Michael Eaton), a free-spirited, MTV kind of guy who, when offered his own shot at virtual reality, initially dials up a pizzeria to inhale the cyberspace of "extra garlic."

That alone is funnier than the three comedies premiering this week. The first of them, tonight's "The George Wendt Show," stars Pat Finn and Wendt, whose bar stool and buttocks were inseparable as Norm on "Cheers." They play goofy brothers who host a radio talk show giving tips on automobiles as a companion to their repair business.

Wendt proved his comedy skill on "Cheers." But, while you can't judge a series entirely on one episode, this one appears about 10 gallons shy of a full tank. The premiere finds George and Dan (Finn) returning to their childhood Catholic church for a charity casino night that Dan cheerfully undermines by winning all the donation money.

The half-hour aims for witty irreverence. Fair enough. Instead of that, though, it becomes an overbearing anti-church assault in which the devout are depicted as easily corrupted by money and the Catholic clergy as cynical and deceitful. Unredeemed by anything comedic, it's not a good start.

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