To reach home, 'Sliders' needs more than cute hero

March 22, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Sliders" is "Quantum Leap" for teen-age viewers. Or you might think of it as a low-rent, male version of "VR.5."

The promotional campaign for the new Fox action-adventure series states the premise this way: "All Quinn Mallory wanted was an 'A' on his physics project . . . But the only 'A' he got was in Adventure." (If only as much distillation of thought was brought to the script.)

Quinn Mallory (Jerry O'Connell) is the hero of "Sliders," which premieres at 8 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45). The Fox press release describes him as "a handsome physics grad student who accidentally creates a wormhole or gateway between dimensions . . . that allows him to slide to parallel universes." Sliding through the wormhole is where the title comes from, not from any ability by our hero to throw a baseball so it looks like a fastball but breaks like a curve.

Besides being handsome, Mallory is also brilliant. The emphasis, though, is definitely on handsome; he looks like a young John Travolta.

Mallory lives in California with his loving mom, drives an old BMW, works part-time at a computer store and is the object of desire of Wade Wells (Sabrina Lloyd), a tomboyish co-worker. But Mallory's passion is for the experiments that he conducts in the physics laboratory he built in mom's basement. One of the experiments leads him to the formula for those happenin' wormholes.

The smart part of "Sliders" is that, like "VR.5," it is an updated, video version of the hero quest -- one of the most powerful narratives of virtually every culture in the world. In that story line, the young hero passes from his own community into another realm, where he must do battle with the forces of darkness before returning, triumphant, to his home. The wisdom or booty won on the journey is then used by the hero to transform and re-invigorate his community.

Mallory makes his first passage to another universe by himself. But he quickly assembles a team for future journeys, which includes several key archetypes. There's John Rhys- Davies as Professor Maximillian Arturo, the brilliant physicist Mallory studies under. Professor Arturo is the Guide, a modern-day kind of Merlin to our young Arthur.

The other two fellow travelers are Wells and Rembrandt "Crying Man" Brown (Cleavant Derricks). Brown is a former rhythm and blues singer who gets sucked into one of Mallory's wormholes by mistake. He's supposed to be a comic, Sancho Panza-like figure -- cowardly and regularly in tears. I think it's an offensive depiction of an African-American straight out of 19th-century minstrel shows. Not as offensive, but just as dumb, are the producers' repeated attempts at humor based on pop-cultural references.

For example, Mallory and the others find themselves tonight transported to a universe in which Russia won the Cold War and rules America. Brown winds up being tried for his capitalist crimes on "The People's Court" television show. The real Judge Wapner appears as the judge, only he's Commissar Wapner in this universe.

Maybe if you're 15, living in mom's basement and obsessed with wormholes, you'll find a laugh or two in the scenario. As for me, I was checking the press release to see if tonight's pilot was really two hours long. It is.

Starting next week, each episode of "Sliders" will be one hour long. It will air at 9 Wednesday nights, replacing "Party of Five" in the post-"90210" Fox lineup.

The only way "Sliders" is going to hold even half the audience from "Beverly Hills, 90210" is if Mallory meets Shannen Doherty in one of those parallel universes and finds a way to get her interested in wormholes.

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