One of the things that everyone seems to want to do on Sliders is return the show to its roots.
If you’ve been reading this project here since the beginning, then you’d know that’s impossible. Sliders doesn’t really have roots— there’s no platonic ideal of Sliders that you can return to. Even in Season One you had episodes that made almost no sense airing next to each other. While that’s probably why this show lasted four seasons longer than it should have (and also why we remember it, I guess), it’s also why it’s impossible for someone to return it to the roots. What roots would you choose? Would you choose an episode like “Prince of Wails” or “The King is Back?” Hell, even “Summer of Love” is like almost no other episode ever produced in the show’s run. This show’s always been all over the place. That’s both its genius and its downfall.
All of this is to say that if there was ever an episode that you could say “returned the show to its roots,” it would be this one. I don’t think there’s been an episode all season that you could actually imagine being aired in Season Two. But here we are, and there’s an episode which has a lengthy sequence of Rembrandt describing what happened in “The King is Back,” with the rest of the team saying “yeah, right.” Okay, it’s not lengthy, and it’s in the background, but the fact remains that it’s charming, and it shows an easy chemisty with the cast that’s been missing since, well, Season Two. So yes, this is different. Season Five has already taken a complete nosedive into mediocrity, so why not actually try to reach for the stars a little bit?
So here we are with a “topical” episode, albeit topical for 1999— the Clinton/Lewinsky Scandal. Which is a funny thing to watch in 2014 (maybe not as funny as the “President Clinton” joke in “The Weaker Sex”). But of course, this episode isn’t really about Clinton, it’s just using that as an “of-the-time” framework to talk about the real issue at play in the episode— the media. Or, the media’s obsession with gossip. In this world, the “serious” papers only spout gossip, and the “rags” spout the truth. It’s the National Enquirer as the New York Times. It’s a good idea for an episode, and would have been in any season. Here we have Maggie accidentally embroiled in a “steamy” affair with the President, something that becomes delicious fodder for the papers. It’s a relief— it’s not another one of those “one thing becomes the whole world” episodes I was complaining about last week.
And also, miraculously, it just simply isn’t bad.
Hilarious of course, is the fact that the person who wrote this episode also gave us not only “Net Worth,” an episode I found amusing despite myself, and the golden turd “Paradise Lost,” an episode so ridiculous I couldn’t even write about it. But here we are, and it’s not unfeasible that John Rhys-Davies himself could be expounding upon the evils of this world’s obsession with tacky gossip. Because that’s really the difference here— the concerns are more similar to those in the early seasons. Here the sliders only “get involved” because there’s a threat to one of their own, not because the entire world is “evil” and needs to be “stopped.” The sliders don’t even consider trying to stop the way this world works. They only want to get Maggie out of a jam.
Of course, that leads to one of two considerably blown moments in the episode. Late in the episode, the sliders try to convince Hawks to photoshop some images of Maggie dead to create their own little scandal and draw out Maggie so they can slide with her. It’s a great idea, one I grudgingly applaud the team for. But it also goes against everything that Hawks believes in— even if he’s using a lie to expose a hidden truth, it’s still a lie. Hawks is devoting his entire career to exposing the truth about the “War in Switzerland”— a war that’s cost thousands of American lives, and is about to cost even more Swiss lives.
The Sliders convince him to break his moral code by telling him “never mind the lives in Switzerland, you can save a life here.” Yikes.
So here we have a two-punch combo of awful writing. First, the scope of the Switzerland War in general. I’m fine with it being “a war” that the President is trying to cover up. American lives being lost is awful, and a cost that isn’t really on him (starting a war in secret is, of course, but hang on, it gets worse). “Preventing” more American deaths by illegal gassing the Swiss, however, is completely evil. Throughout this episode we’re asked to lightly sympathize with President Williams— he seems like he’s just a little bit over his head. But murdering innocent Swiss people is too much— the episode threatens to collapse under the weight of that atrocity.
And then, of course, the sliders show absolutely no concern with that— the Swiss aren’t important, Maggie is. Even though revealing the whole Maggie-Affair coverup will also blow the lid on the war, that’s not their concern. The needs of the one, for some reason, outweigh the needs of the many. Which isn’t really out of place on a show with shitty morals like this one. But then their argument actually wins Hawks over— it’s as if he actually believes that one woman he’s never even met is actually more important than countless Swiss lives— which sure, he’s never met them either, but come on.
The things is, too, it’s just a bit of lazy writing. It’s something that an easy once over of the script would have caught and changed. The tension of Hawks compromising his morals is enough, without making it about selfish responsibility.
The other grand mistake the episode makes is the demonization of the First Lady. It’s a far more interesting story to have the First Lady be conflicted about the fake Affair, but grudgingly accept it because she understands that it is for the “greater good” of the Presidency. But, noooo, we have to have the “reveal” of her as a power-hungry “evil” woman who will only sleep with the most powerful men in the room. It’s so lazy, it’s so sexist, it’s so clichéd. And yes, of course Sliders has been cliché-central for years now, but it’s just so unnecessary.
But still— despite how awful they seem, they’re only noticeable on a more extreme look at the episode. The hour as a whole glides by, which is an amazing feat for the show at this stage. It’s confident, it’s (mostly) intelligent, and the show is actually working with a parallel world that isn’t ridiculous. It’s only a little bit removed from our own world’s concerns. And sure, it is dated to do an episode that’s all about the Lewinsky scandal (though the extra dressed in a beret is a phenomenally nice touch). But I can’t really complain— I only do so because that little bit with the team valuing Maggie over the Prevention of Genocide is an accidental blunder— but I’m really willing to believe it’s an accident.
And why is this episode so much different? Let’s go to that sneaky little bastard the Year Five Journal and consult with Keith Damron:
The script came in almost ready to shoot with very little re-writes required. Good for me, I was up to my neck in another project at the time.
So he didn’t really touch it. Huh. The guy in charge of looking at every single script and he doesn’t have time to touch it. And it ends up being one of the best episodes of the season so far. Really makes you have faith in the production team, doesn’t it? Let’s also look at the first paragraph in the journal entry for this episode:
When the idea for “A Current Affair” was pitched to us by Steve Stoliar, (Paradise Lost, Net Worth) everyone in the room was enthused about it except me. It’s not that I didn’t like the idea. It’s just that I never thought it would fly when it filtered up to the network. The country was right smack in the middle of the real sordid business and I thought the story would be considered too controversial by the powers that be. I didn’t think it had a snowball’s chance in hell.
So he’s also spineless. So concerned with ‘keeping his job,’ which is a pointless concern, considering everyone knew it would be the last season, Damron will bend over backwards to please the suits. The suits that don’t even actually care about the show. I guess that’s a conversation for another day. But still, the fact remains that the person in charge of the scripts in Season Five of Sliders does not have any idea what he is doing.
And yet— sometimes we are blessed with his days off, and a story comes out that is good.
This is good, this is watchable, this is fun. It’s dated, sure, but lovably so.
Just like Season One of Sliders.
Next Week: song, dance, pony, …coffee? (The Java Jive)
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