Monday, June 29, 2009

Pilot Review: Virtuality

Virtuality (FOX)
Premiered June 26 at 8pm

*Important note: I both recommend watching this pilot, and watching this pilot before you read this review. It’s available via the Internet Movie Database. Enjoy!*

Science fiction pilots are tough for several reasons. The first important notion is not to leave an audience that doesn’t enjoy futuristic themes and space travel behind, making the characters relatable and the story engaging enough to attract a diverse group. Shows like “Firefly,” “Threshold,” and “Battlestar Galactica,” much as I love them, do suffer a bit from that problem, which only means that sci-fans can appreciate it all that much more. In the case of “Virtuality,” I think that the story is extremely well-presented. A crew of twelve people is headed to find new possibilities for life in a faraway system aboard a spaceship. While David Hinckley of the New York Daily News suggests that “it all feels pretty dense and confusing to those outside the sci-fi world,” I don’t agree. Interview segments are spliced in frequently to humanize the characters and have each of them explain their perspective on the mission. The second major handicap in a new sci-fi series is making sure the science isn’t too difficult to comprehend, too lofty, or simply too impossible. The main technological gimmick is a virtual reality program which the crew members can use by placing a Geordi LaForge-like visor over their eyes and which provides them with a necessary escape from the confinement of the ship over this ten-year period. The simulations, especially the one the show opens with, a Civil War scene, are extremely reminiscent of holodeck sequences from “Star Trek,” but that’s not a problem. It makes sense that this is how these people might be able to relax, and while I’m not an expert on the technology, it’s not hard to fathom that this kind of thing would be possible in the near future. The real scientific innovation – traveling into deep space – is still treated like a monumental event with true amazement in the eyes of the crew members and the music that plays during the launch. The third truly crucial necessary element of a sci-fi show is making sure that it doesn’t get lost in space. There must be something tying the show back to reality and to Earth, as well as enough characters so that the world of the show isn’t confined just to the cockpit of a small ship. That’s hardly a problem here, since there are twelve fully fleshed-out characters who all have distinct personality traits, and all of them seek to escape the happenings of their daily lives through their individualized virtual simulations. It’s the perfect avenue to explore all the characters, and having the interview segments recur as part of a reality show being beamed back to Earth is a terrific additional route into the characters’ minds.

“Virtuality” contains all the necessary elements of a sci-fi pilot, but it also bears the characteristics of an excellent pilot, regardless of genre. Its two-hour launching pad starts at just the right point, coming in when the mission has already begun, and a critical decision point is fast approaching. There’s no time wasted on establishing characters outside of the ship’s confinement, and that’s instead cleverly done through the lens of virtuality. It makes things infinitely more exciting that something’s going wrong right away – a glitch in the virtual reality software in the form of a menacing-looking blond-haired man with a penchant for shooting characters while they’re in the virtual world. The additionally tacked-on facet of a reality show could have gone horribly wrong, but it’s actually quite interesting. The term “reality show” is probably a misnomer, since the show is more of a continuous documentary that would air on the Discovery Channel rather than people being forced to eat things to survive on an island before voting each other off. These twelve strangers aren’t stranded on a ship – they all came there for a reason, and the revelations of their motivations for doing so are entirely fascinating. The fact that nearly everyone is coupled up, including a gay duo who serve as the ship’s chefs, isn’t a cliché feature of the series; instead, it provides an intriguing window into their interactions. The cast is all-around terrific, most notably Clea DuVall as hotheaded pilot Sue (“Get that thing out of my face before I annihilate you!”), Omar Metwally as the sick Dr. Meyer, and particularly James D’Arcy as reality show producer slash psych officer Roger Fallon. Even star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a perfect fit for the role of Commander Pike. The virtual simulation with him at the beginning had me thinking this would be just like “New Amsterdam,” and that he wouldn’t be aging at all. It turns out I was slightly right about him not going anywhere, just in a slightly more virtual sense. The ending was simply awesome, and makes me so excited for where this show could go.

Unfortunately, there’s not much hope. This show wasn’t picked up after the pilot was ordered, so this was likely the only shot this show will ever get at seeing the real world. It’s really too bad that it wasn’t picked up, since I think that this show could really have gone very far, exploring the complexities of reality and the depth of the virtual world, while simultaneously focusing on all the crew members and their fascinating lives. For all the characters whose psyches were probed extensively in the pilot, there are still more, like chef Manny and second-in-command Jimmy, who have a lot more to share and find out about themselves. Unfortunately, I know I’m in the minority and that chances of this show getting picked up are pretty much nonexistent. The show performed terribly in the ratings, though what’s really to be expected from a summer Friday night launch of a show that was hardly promoted by its network? Even though the show has an impressive 68 ranking on Metacritic, I’ve read some reviews which are very negative and tear the show apart. This situation, while it was never quite as optimistic, is reminiscent of another poorly-reviewed, poorly-rated sci-fi series that was extremely short-lived, “Threshold.” This is certainly the best pilot since the two-hour start of “Threshold” blew me away, and I think I’m even most impressed with “Virtuality.” On that note, I think “Virtuality” may be the best pilot I’ve seen since the 2001-2002 season, when “24,” “Scrubs,” and “The Shield” all launched, and it’s definitely on par with both “Desperate Housewives” and “Threshold,” my recent favorite pilots. My point is, this was one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen. I thought “Virtuality” was incredible, and I hope at least someone agrees with me so they can appreciate its unbelievable greatness.



G1000 said...

It looks good, but I'm not interested in watching the pilot for a show that's already been canceled (at least that's what I've heard).

G1000 said...

My mistake. They haven't officially picked it up yet, but given the ratings it's unlikely they will. Pity, it looked somewhat imaginative and thought provoking (no wonder it didn't fly).

Abe Fried-Tanzer said...

It's good enough by itself. It sucks that it may not be coming back, but it's still worth watching even as a standalone presentation.

Anonymous said...

It was unbelievably great, but the American audience was not prepared to appreciate its subtle and layered complexity.

G1000 said...

It might be, but I can't really focus on any other sci-fi until I finish "Battlestar Galactica". Season 4.5 isn't coming out on DVD until July 28th. Maybe when I'm done with that I'll check "Virtuality" out. It looks... interesting to say the least.

ji said...
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