TV Review: ‘Virtuality’

06.26.09 8 years ago


FOX’s “Virtuality,” being aired as a movie event on Friday (June 26), is a difficult project to approach.

Speaking punctuationally, movies tend to be periods or exclamation points. Though obviously there are exceptions (many), movies are usually designed as a two-hour build toward a self-contained end. They’re designed to put you in your seat for a finite period and sell popcorn. They’re a temporary escape.

In contrast, television pilots are question marks or ellipses. They’re designed to entertain you, of course, but more than that, they’re designed to make you want to return the next week, to make you book an entire extended voyage. As a well-orchestrated pilot reaches its conclusion, you should be pushed forward into the next episode, one that promises to be coming right around the corner.

FOX has already tinkered with those expectations once in the past couple months with the one-night-only premiere of “Glee,” a debut that tests the assumption that if you whip an audience into a Journey-fueled frenzy, that audience can be sustained for four months by iTunes and Hulu downloads and they’ll return with the same appetite. 

At least “Glee” is guaranteed to return.

No matter how FOX tries to describe it, “Virtuality” isn’t a movie, or at least it isn’t a vaguely satisfying one. Imagine watching the pilot for “Lost,” the best pilot since I began this gig more than six years ago, and being told at the end that you were never going to see what happened to the people on the island, that you were never going to learn anything about the monster in the forest, Kate’s crimes or any of the other mini-mysteries distributed across those two hours. Imagine being forced to pretend like what you had just seen was all that you were ever supposed to see or know from that particular universe.

Welcome to “Virtuality.” No, it’s not as good as “Lost,” but in two hours, it creates an interesting and original world, establishes an assortment of complicated characters and sets some pretty high stakes. It also raises more questions than I can count, questions of ethics, spirituality and technology. And no effort is made to answer any of them. And why would there be? “Virtuality” creators Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor meant what you’re seeing Friday to be the opening of a door and they never intended for it to close after only two hours.

[Full review of “Virtuality” after the break…]

I’m not a sci-fi guy, at least not usually. And “Virtuality” is pretty hard sci-fi. That is to say that it isn’t “A Western Set In Space” or “A Soap Opera In Space” or “My Fair Lady on Mars.” 

No, it’s hard speculative fiction about the 12-person crew aboard the Phaeton, a space vessel on the eve of a very big decision. They’re at the go-or-no-go point where they either high-tail it back to Earth, or they adjust their course for a 10-year mission toward a distant solar system. Weighing on their minds are the psychological and physical risks of such a long trip, but they all know that the very fate of the Earth may require they take that epic journey. No pressure or anything.

The astronauts on the Phaeton are all highly trained doctors, pilots, physicists, botanists, chemists, experts in their respective fields. They’re also the stars of a voyeuristic reality show that’s become Earth’s most popular program, attracting more than five billion viewers to FOX. In addition to their devotion to this mission, that means they’re also slaves to ratings, to their sponsors and to The Consortium, the corporate entity whose motives are doubtlessly shady. So some of these astronauts are producing the show, some are hosting and some are just being politely goaded into generating more drama for the viewers at home. Again, no pressure or anything.

So what are 12 strapping explorers and reality stars to do to let off a little steam? Well, the Phaeton has been equipped with a virtual reality system that lets them surf, Civil War reenact or commit adultery all within the safe confines of a chair or bed. But something’s wrong with the Virt system. Their fantasies are taking unplanned detours into reality and there’s some creepy dude popping into their Virts without warning and without explanation.

Does that sound like there’s enough imbedded drama for 100 episodes? Well, you can add in the relationships between the characters, as somebody thought it was a good idea to populate the ship with two married couples, one committed gay couple and at least two people with an unspecified pre-Phaeton past. Jammed into a tin can for months at a time without any privacy, that’s a recipe for sparks. Or disaster. Or a prolonged meditation on the nature of being.

Moore and Taylor, “Battlestar Galactica” veterans, are juggling this many chainsaws and flaming batons because they wrote the script confident that they wouldn’t be required to focus immediately. “Virtuality” tackles those fantasy vs. reality questions, initially starting off with clear dividing lines between the two, but eventually blurring the boundaries so much that few viewers will be prepared to commit to which things are actually occurring. The pilot looks at the way reality television has shaped even scripted storytelling, showing the way editing and production can script even the truth into a lie. There’s an environmental warning, as it’s pretty well implied that whatever’s about to render the Earth uninhabitable, it was our fault. And then there are the classic sci-fi dilemmas of what happens when old human desires and new, untested technologies mesh.

It’s a busy, busy movie-pilot-thing.

While “Battlestar”-weaned fanboys will give Moore and Taylor much of the credit for “Virtuality,” I’m inclined to hail director Peter Berg. It’s one thing to have this sort of writerly ambition, but finding a way to tie it all together into two hours could be even more complicated. Berg is entrusted with keeping all of the ideas in the story alive (visualizing some conceptual and fantastical leaps), delivering high-value visual gloss and introducing 12 characters and a foreign physical geography. What Berg does is make you believe that the lack of cohesion in the story telling is actually cohesive, that the fragmentation is essential to the whole and he effectively obfuscates that “Virtuality” lacks the sort of development and climax that a movie would require. 

Berg also produces one or two set-pieces that are as close to Kubrickian as you’re going to get on this budget. In addition to Kubrick and “2001,” other inspirations appear to be “Alien,” “Solaris” (original and remake) and Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine.”

The cast of “Virtuality” is a mixture of TV veterans and relatively newcomers, pretty faces and interesting faces. It might be easiest to latch onto “New Amsterdam” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as the ship’s square-jawed captain, or James D’Arcy, as the unsettling psychological officer, or Clea DuVall, as a tough-as-nails pilot, or Sienna Guillory, as a sexy botanist, just because of their familiarity. But after two hours, I was just as interested in Erik Jensen’s Jules, a navigator with a tragic past, or Kerry Bishe’s Billie, a computer scientists with dreams of being a Japanese pop star, or Gene Farber’s Val and Jose Pablo Cantillo’s Manny, the aforementioned gay couple who give the show its heart. 

I didn’t always buy what “Virtuality” was selling, but I didn’t doubt that a foundation was being laid for something really interesting. Just as “Lost” almost immediately stopped being the show that it looked like it was in the beginning, “Virtuality” offers the potential to detour or course-correct in many possible directions.

What will it take to see more?

My guess? FOX wants to see engagement and the network has put a very calculated amount of effort into generating that engagement. The June 26 air-date reads as a summer dump, but the multiple conference calls for the press and the mailing of screeners read a different way. The outreach isn’t sufficient for mainstream viewers to know or care what “Virtuality” is, but it’s been exactly enough for a small core to be aware, the sort of potentially passionate kernel that made enough noise to get pickups for “Chuck” and “Dollhouse” this spring. 

Last Friday, FOX’s “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and a repeat of “Mental” averaged just under 3.15 million viewers and a 1.0 rating in the 18-49 demo, which isn’t all that much different than the network’s Friday dramas did in the spring. I can’t tell you what would constitute a success in comparison, nor how much of a DVR bump or how many downloads FOX would want to see. I can’t guess how many letters or e-mails would look like an outpouring of support.

What I do know is that “Virtuality” isn’t a satisfying movie, but it’s a tantalizing pilot and the viewer who see these two hours will want to see more, so you’d better show some enthusiasm, starting Friday night, but really starting on Monday morning.

“Virtuality” premieres on FOX on Friday, June 26 at 8 p.m. 

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