California Reich

"There are some things that are just so... evil, that you can't believe a human being is capable of doing them." — Rembrandt.

Review by Matt Hutaff


Before beginning, I must confess: our reviews don’t exist in a vacuum. While we critique each episode as though we’ve just watched it for the first time, more than a decade has passed since “California Reich” was written and produced. It’s a decade of tremendous global change; at the very least, the United States has gone from dotcom boom to wartime bust, and in serving as advance guard to an era of distrust and paranoia, “Reich” grows more powerful and prescient. I want that noted for the record.

We live in a world very similar to what Scott Smith Miller lays down on paper. The American populace is content with both its ignorance and its racism. We may not magically transform our minorities into mindless automata, but we scowl suspiciously at Middle Easterners and hide behind the cloak of patriotism. “America for Americans” rumbles through many small businesses as migrants of our own lower the standard of living by driving down wages and benefits.

So if you look at “California Reich” as a commentary on the United States circa 2008, it’s smart and scathing. Unfortunately, “Reich” was produced for 1998, and for that, it takes quite a hit. Add in some unnecessary science-fiction tropes, and it’s a major letdown from the past half-dozen episodes.

“California Reich” is a knee-jerk reaction to Proposition 187, the 1994 California initiative passed with the intent to deny illegal immigrants access to basic social services. On this world, however, “immigrant” is anyone who isn’t 100% Caucasian; a black man born in Pasadena has as much to fear from the current administration as the lowliest border-crosser. The problem is only compounded by a presidential candidate running on the platform of racial/national purity and a populace that doesn’t care about its disappearing minority population as long as they’ve got jobs and food in their pantry.

The drama presented is obvious, because last time I checked Rembrandt was a black man. The Sliders have been on this world for only a few minutes when an unmarked van drives up and abducts the Cryin’ Man, leading Quinn, Maggie, and Colin in a frantic race to rescue him.

While they explore the world around them, Rembrandt is tossed into the Condos, a series of work camps for migrants. It’s here he meets Harold (Henry G. Sanders), a California native who’s been imprisoned for the color of his skin. Harold marched as a younger man for equal rights, but confined by politics, he’s resigned himself to fate. That resignation burns Rembrandt more than being arrested, and it launches a series of very potent scenes between the two.

On the outside, Quinn befriends Kirk (Shane West), a neophyte “Stomper” eager to arrest any migrants he can get his hands on until he learns he is one. It’s the One Drop Rule taken to extremes, but in a society where an Asian man can be abducted off the streets in broad daylight, it’s not surprising.

If the episode was relegated to the tried-and-true Sliders formula of capture and escape, it would rank higher. There’s a lot of room in the situation for the characters to get their feelings out in the open, including a nice moment where Colin wonders why people would obsess over skin color. It seems his pre-sliding environment may have been resistant to technological advance, but it had a more enlightened view of race relations.

Unfortunately, the endgame for deported migrants includes being surgically altered into mouthless drones called Eddies. It’s a plot device that strains the credibility of this episode to the breaking point, and it’s certainly not necessary. I get the sci-fi bent the producers are going for — they are plentiful this season — but the Eddies are a ridiculous means to an end. They require no food, sleep, or instruction; they just go about their day doing menial tasks. There’s a bit of social commentary involving them and the circular paradox of an unpaid workforce somehow helping the economy, but it’s so over-the-top you never really relate.

Toss in crazy Governor Schick (who will triumph according to one of the newspaper props!) and his backlot rally, Rembrandt’s crusade to expose the Eddie program, and the ridiculous slide at the end where Kirk and his partially-Eddie-fied mom (Carol Huston) land on a world populated by minorities, and it’s a case of Just Too Much™. I’m not even docking points for the dozens of Nazi comparisons, because it’s just the same Hollywood oversimplification you’ll see in any production.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some fun stuff. Quinn’s “Deutschland über alles” songfest (and accompanying fistfight) in the Chandler Bar was a nice touch of comic relief. And if you don’t laugh out loud at Colin’s “steam powered buggy” line, you don’t know humor. Maybe I just find the wrap-up too simplistic, or perhaps I found the opening scene with the abovementioned Asian guy too ridiculous. After all, if you live in a state where you know being seen will lead to your imprisonment, what the hell are you doing out on a city street? Looking for singing gigs at the local bar?

To be more critical, how does a statewide proposition overrule federal equal rights? How does it even pass? Our Proposition 187 was eventually declared unconstitutional. It never went into effect. I doubt the multicultural citizenry of California would allow its (now) white minority to vote in something so hateful and stupid.

If I sound too downbeat, Cleavant Derricks is quick to come to the defense. “I really got a chance to express myself as an actor on an issue that is close to a lot of us at this time,” he said. “I was so grateful to have that opportunity.”

I’m grateful, too, as “California Reich” only reinforces the acting chops Derricks displayed in Asylum and Slidecage. And the issue of racism is a tough one to tackle. I just wish it had been tackled better.

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