Fox' 'VR.5' plumbs the depths of virtual reality

March 10, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Virtual reality is real.

Get used to it. That's the mantra for "VR.5," a knockout new Fox series about virtual reality that premieres at 8 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45).

Sydney Bloom (Lori Singer), the twentysomething heroine of "VR.5," whispers the mantra at the start of each commercial break and lives it in a series of red-hot, surreal, sci-fi adventures during the program segments in between.

I have a feeling we're also going to soon be seeing the message on T-shirts worn by legions of teen-age boys trying to feel a little closer to Sydney Bloom by wearing the words across their chests. She's one of the most intriguing television heroes since Agents Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny), of "X-Files," the series Fox is cleverly pairing "VR.5" with in its new Friday lineup.

This is the point in the review where middle-aged reviewers (like me) usually help readers connect the dots labeled "twentysomething," "teen" and "Fox" and suggest that while it might be hot TV, a show like "VR.5" is not smart TV.

That's not going happen in this review, because "VR.5" is also deep -- very deep. You can watch it as entertainment-only, and it's a great ride. But there are also several rich layers of mythology and psychology to be savored by those who are so inclined. In its own way, "VR.5" is as much a quality drama as "NYPD Blue" -- it's just aimed at a different generation.

The pilot opens in 1978 in the California home of Dr. Joseph Bloom (David McCallum of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."), a neurobiologist and pioneer in the study of virtual reality -- a computer technology that artificially creates sensations that the brain reads as reality. After an argument with a mysterious guest, Dr. Bloom bundles his twin daughters in the family car and drives off into the rainy night. There's a horrible accident, and only the twin named Sydney survives.

We next meet Sydney 17 years later, when she's a telephone linewoman by day and a lonely computer hacker by night. Through distillation of image and word, screenwriter Thania St. John manages to tell us volumes about Sydney and her world by the first commercial break.

"You have zero messages," her computer tells Sydney as she returns home to her small southern California apartment at the end of a work day.

"Did you get any messages?" she teasingly asks Penelope, her white parrot, the only living thing Sydney seems at ease with emotionally (kind of like Robert Blake's character in "Baretta").

But the androgynous Sydney is more than shy and beyond with drawn. She is totally out of touch with her sexuality. She is also emotionally maimed by the accident that killed her father and sister (news of the accident also traumatized her mother, played by Louise Fletcher, into a coma, in which she remains). And she's alienated; the way so many heroes, anti-heroes and other assorted protagonists of major 20th-century literature are alienated -- like, for example, Bloom in James Joyce's "Ulysses."

It might seem like a stretch to bring Joyce into a review about a TV show airing on the network that Al Bundy made famous. But Joyce is relevant in several ways. He also coined the term "monomyth" to describe the one narrative that underlies hero tales in all cultures. From "Jonah and the Whale" to "Star Wars," it's the story of the hero leaving home, going out into the world to do battle with forces of darkness, then returning to her/his community to share the boon of victory.

That is exactly what Sydney Bloom does each time she enters the world of virtual reality through her computer. The forces she does battle with tonight range from sexual desires buried in her subconscious to a serial killer who wants to make Sydney his next victim. Their encounter in a forest is so drenched in the imagery of Jungian and Freudian psychology that it would take the late Joseph Campbell to detail its mythic richness.

Singer plays nicely against her beauty in the same way Daryl Hannah occasionally does. And Singer has an engagingly quirky, supporting cast to lighten the load whenever things get too heavy or too deep.

This is, after all, Fox, and there's only so much James Joyce a red-blooded, teen-age boy can take on a Friday night while waiting for Sydney Bloom to seductively whisper, "Virtual reality is real."

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