`VR.5′ is lively bit of fun and games

`VR.5′ is lively bit of fun and games

JoAnne Weintraub

FOX’S NEW “VR.5” (Fridays, 7 p.m., Channel 6, premiering this week) is Alice in Cyberspace, Dorothy in Virtual Oz. It’s quick, clever, jittery, brooding, scary, a little hard to follow and rather impressed with its own hipness and it’s a lot more fun than all of that might suggest.

Lori Singer plays Sydney Bloom (love the name sounds like an elderly Jewish furrier), a lonely telephone lineperson and computer hacker. One night she accidentally discovers she can transport herself and others through the looking glass of her terminal and into a parallel universe that echoes and expands on the actual one.

At first, this scares the silicon chips out of her, but she overcomes her fear enough to electronically alter the mood of a hostile neighbor, investigate the intentions of a would-be boyfriend and hold a poignant, virtually real conversation with her comatose mother (Louise Fletcher).

Syd has inherited her ability from her late father, Joseph (David McCallum, looking eerily unchanged since his “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” days 30 years ago), a neurobiologist who was beginning to penetrate the mysteries of virtual reality when he died, along with Sydney’s twin sister, in a car accident. Soon, the shadowy cartel that tried to snatch Joseph’s secrets just call them The Committee begins to haunt his surviving daughter, who doesn’t yet understand the secrets herself. They are not nice people, and they’re very persistent.

Each time Syd puts on her VR goggles, gloves and headset for a trip into the virtual world, another piece of the mystery is explained. Then the ground shifts again under her feet, and she’s bewildered.

The first three episodes jump, jangle and bristle with effects and ideas: flashbacks, premonitions, strangers who may or not be kind, clues that may or may not be helpful, psychedelic mind games, a suicide attempt, a terrifying car crash and an even scarier interrogation. The computer simulations are arty, complicated and, with few exceptions, utterly absorbing.

You name it, “VR.5” will try it and, as often as not, get away with it. The allusion to another famous tale of time- and-space travel Syd’s adviser, Frank Morgan (Will Patton), is named for the actor who played the charlatan “wizard” of Oz and is first seen standing behind a curtain is adroit. A long, elaborate sequence that borrows from “The Avengers” and film noir is amazingly entertaining.

Even Singer’s golden spill of hair and attenuated model’s frame are used in more interesting ways than you’d expect. Sometimes she’s glamorous, sometimes she’s a greyhound running for her life, and sometimes she reminds you of another reluctant, yellow-haired adventure heroine, the one who tumbled down a rabbit hole and into a fantasy world where she wasn’t sure she wanted to be.

As neighbor and best buddy Duncan, Michael Easton plays the slacker to Singer’s hacker; he’s annoyingly lethargic in the first couple of episodes but comes through in the third. The urbane and icily evil Oliver Sampson is played by Anthony Stewart Head, none other than the mild, decaffeinated suitor in all those Taster’s Choice commercials. Watch him here and you’ll never drink instant coffee again.

Fox reportedly wanted to solidify its Friday “X-Files” success at 8 p.m. with a lead-in in the same cool, dark science- fiction vein. That’s the sort of plan that can fail miserably, yet “VR.5” is anything but a knockoff. Even “X”-ers Mulder and Scully might not know what to make of Sydney and The Committee.

The series credits list four creators in addition to executive producer John Sacret Young (“China Beach”) and co-executive producer Thania St. John (“Lois and Clark,” “Life Goes On”). This top- heavy structure, too, could have sunk the whole enterprise before the end of the first hour.

Instead, all those hands just keep “VR.5” spinning like a high-speed, high- tech top. You never know where the writers are going, and sometimes you’re not even sure where they’ve been. But you keep watching just to see what the little devils will think of next.

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