Fox Drama 'VR.5' Deep-Sixes Three Comedy Premieres

Virtual reality to virtual mediocrity.

That's the range of four network series premiering this week, deep into the second half of the 1994-95 television season.

Coming under the latter category are three hum-drum comedies, "The George Wendt Show" and "The Office" from CBS and "Hope & Gloria" from NBC. Call them the VM.3. More about that shortly, following the good news.

Category No. 1 features the drama "VR.5," a blazing laser shot from Fox that emphatically alters a chunk of TV's visual landscape. Its striking, computer-age glitz makes the rest of prime time look like a laptop.

How curious that the most fascinating, most intriguing, most scintillating, most challenging, most kick-ass new series of the season should arrive so late in the season. But then, nearly everything about this series--executive produced by John Sacret Young ("China Beach") and Thania St. John ("Life Goes On")--is . . . curious.

With "VR.5" supplanting "M.A.N.T.I.S." in the 8 p.m. slot preceding "The X-Files" on Friday, this new pairing gives Fox the best back-to-back hours in prime time, some weird theater to build an evening around.

Although bonded technologically, "VR.5" is otherwise unlike "Wild Palms," the campy 1993 ABC miniseries that earned more giggles than ratings points for its unrelieved gimmickry and obtuseness. Instead, grab your goggles and get ready for cyberspatial fun and ambiguity, featuring Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom, an ordinary telephone line-woman by day, a cyberlinking computer zealot by night. She builds a home brew system, with special eye wear, that taps her into a mysterious, perception-altering universe of virtual reality so advanced that she is able to penetrate the subconscious minds of whomever she contacts via her modem.

These great brain leaps zoom the gawky, passive, unglamorous Sydney to other environments where the atmosphere is surrealistically iridescent, where voices are echo-chambered and where she often arrives gorgeous, gussied up and glowing in vibrant greens and oranges, indulging her own fanciful side while bracing for the unexpected.

"It's like a huge hole has opened up inside me," she says, "and all these feelings I never knew I had keep flooding out."

Flooding out in the premiere are her fears about a colleague whose subconscious she invades, causing her to suspect that he's a serial murderer. So does she date this guy, to whom she is attracted, or what? And if she does, what will happen?

It's this virtual-reality sleuthing, not merely its ravishing looks, that keeps "VR.5" especially interesting, along with its brooding tone, "Twin Peaks"-ian dark moods and constant mind games that find Sydney also slipping into the brain of her catatonic mother (Louise Fletcher), an outward vegetable sitting stiff and vacant-eyed in a mental ward.

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Remaining to be seen is the significance of this familial backtracking, for locked in Sydney's mind is the source of her own torment, relating to the apparent death 17 years earlier of her scientist father (David McCallum) and twin sister.

Layering dream upon dream, "VR.5" never fully clarifies what is real and what isn't. What does it all mean? Perhaps everything, perhaps nothing. Whatever the case, it's all exquisitely seductive. Nothing here is tidy, as inky story lines bleed from one episode to another.

Overlapping many of them is a government-like organization called "The Committee," which seeks to divert Sydney's virtual-reality gifts to its own murky agenda. Related to that is her encounter with an assassin in Episode 2 and, in Episode 3, a meeting with the enigmatic Oliver Sampson (Anthony Stewart Head). Is he friend or foe?

Not all is somber in "VR.5," which expresses its sense of humor mostly through Sydney's only friend, Duncan (Michael Eaton), a free-spirited, MTV kind of guy who, when offered his own shot at virtual reality, initially dials up a pizzeria to inhale the cyberspace of "extra garlic."

That alone is funnier than the three comedies premiering this week. The first of them, tonight's "The George Wendt Show," stars Pat Finn and Wendt, whose bar stool and buttocks were inseparable as Norm on "Cheers." They play goofy brothers who host a radio talk show giving tips on automobiles as a companion to their repair business.

Wendt proved his comedy skill on "Cheers." But, while you can't judge a series entirely on one episode, this one appears about 10 gallons shy of a full tank. The premiere finds George and Dan (Finn) returning to their childhood Catholic church for a charity casino night that Dan cheerfully undermines by winning all the donation money.

The half-hour aims for witty irreverence. Fair enough. Instead of that, though, it becomes an overbearing anti-church assault in which the devout are depicted as easily corrupted by money and the Catholic clergy as cynical and deceitful. Unredeemed by anything comedic, it's not a good start.

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You have to wonder, meanwhile, whether networks start with a catchy title and commission a series to match it or vice versa. Thursday's "Hope & Gloria" stars Cynthia Stevenson and Jessica Lundy as neighbors who meet in the laundry room of their Pittsburgh brownstone and become great friends despite being opposites who have little in common.

Gloria (Lundy) is a brash hairdresser and single mother who has married and divorced the same man twice. But her klutzy ex-husband (Enrico Colantoni) still hangs around. Hope (Stevenson) is a bumbling, mousy local TV talk-show producer whose marriage is breaking up. Alan Thicke plays Hope's extravagantly obnoxious boss.

The premiere finds Gloria filling in as a hairdresser on Hope's show and Hope leaning on Gloria when her philandering husband walks out. Lundy and Stevenson work nicely together. Yet at its very best, "Hope & Gloria" is mildly funny, and at its worst--the second episode about Hope's birthday party romance surely qualifies--it's hopeless.

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Oozing secretary power, the funniest of the three comedies is Saturday's "The Office," an ensemble series that pits workers against management in the premiere when the firm's New York office mandates an end to overtime.

The secretaries revolt, led by Rita (Valerie Harper), the unmarried office matriarch whose 19 years of pampering her boss, Frank (Dakin Matthews), earns her unchallenged authority. Rita's fellow workers are the bombshell Mae (Andrea Abbate), the spacey Deborah (Kristin Datillo-Hayward) and Beth (Debra Jo Rupp), an ever-tardy, constantly beleaguered mommy whose household chaos overlaps her job, assuring her the best punch lines in the series.

"The Office" delivers some universal truths about the workplace. Plus, the cast is very good, the energy level high and the writing funny in spots. But not enough spots.

After a moderately fruitful premiere, two additional episodes provided for review decline dramatically, especially one gooey one that finds Frank reacting like a jealous suitor when Rita falls for a guy she's dating.

It's no way to guarantee affection for this series. Or overtime.

* "The George Wendt Show" premieres at 8 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8). "Hope & Gloria" premieres at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39). "VR.5" premieres at 8 p.m. Friday on Fox (Channels 11 and 6). "The Office" premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday March 9, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 10 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 14 words Type of Material: Correction Actor's name-- The last name of "VR.5" actor Michael Easton was misspelled in a TV review Wednesday.
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