Sunday, September 19, 2010

VR-5: The Pre-Matrix Is Pretty Intriguing!

The Good: Excellent effects, interesting plot, believable characters
The Bad: Well, it's campy. Some of the acting doesn't measure up.
The Basics: A must for science fiction fans, good for anyone bored with television today and willing to look past the obvious here. Essentially an anti-hero's soap opera.

Before The Matrix there was VR.5, a far too short run series on FOX. VR.5 refers to the fifth level of Virtual Reality - Subconscious virtual reality environments - and was a series set on Fox before The X-Files on Friday nights while The X-Files was still on Friday. For half a season, Fox actually had a solid two-hour block of television.

Canceled just as most people were beginning to discover the unique and interesting show, Fox has never tried to pick VR.5 up in any form again. So, why should you? For the most part, because it's fun.

The show centers around Sydney Bloom (Lori Singer), traumatized at an early age by watching her father and sister drown, as the anti-hero who is struggling to make ends meet at her CalTel job. She's bored, she's boring, she lives in an apartment playing on her computer in her off hours and consorting with the vastly more interesting Duncan (Michael Easton). Then, in one of television's most improbable turn of events ever, Sydney mistakenly hangs the telephone up into a device that seems to serve no purpose other than . . . to enter VR.5. Excusing the plot-necessary convenience of the interface device becomes easier and easier after the pilot episode. Why? Because after the first episode, the show becomes far less about the technology and more about the people Sydney meets and they are interesting and varied!

It's easy to write VR.5 off as a special effect laden science fiction piece, but it rapidly overcomes that by actually being an excellent character study. Outside of the confused Sydney (who it's hard to determine how good she truly is - that is her character is supposed to be shell shocked, but it's often hard to tell if Singer is truly dull or masterfully acting!) and the equally fringe Duncan (who we never see doing any sort of occupational work), there are Committee members Dr. Morgan (who is the reluctant "Deep Throat"-type character) and Oliver Sampson (who is basically a shadowy hit man-type character).

The actual magic of VR.5 is not in its special effects, but in its intense psychological realism. In addition to each episode being about pressing personal issues - indeed, the most remarkable aspect about most of the people Sydney meets in VR.5 is how normal they are - there is an intense realism to Sydney in her reactions to the extraordinary people and circumstances she encounters. That is, unlike so many television and movie heroes who suddenly defy their original characterization, Sydney remains rather true to herself. Yes, that usually means dull and boring, BUT from the very beginning she has a spark of intelligence to her and it's in many ways refreshing to see something so outside the mold of television hero.

VR.5 also has the benefit of having a perfect episode. Yes, in the pantheon of great television, the VR.5 episode "Simon's Choice" ranks right up there. It's beautifully shot and explores compelling aspects of psychology. It is easily one of the greatest "hour long" pieces of television.

Other excellent episodes are "The Many Faces of Alex," "Control Freak" (There are a surprising number of planes crashing in the series after Oliver arrives!) and "Parallel Lives." The weakest link in the series is "Dr. Strangechild."

For more details on the series via the actual episodes, please check out my reviews of each episode at:
Dr. Strangechild/Sisters
Love And Death/5D
Escape/Facing The Fire
Simon's Choice/Send Me An Angel
Control Freak/The Many Faces Of Alex
Parallel Lives/Reunion


For other television series' reviewed by me, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2008, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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