"I did not have homicidal relations with that woman, Maggie Beckett." — President Williams.
Review by Ibrahim Ng
There are times when I wonder why I’m watching the fifth season of a show that’s been disowned by both its creators and 75 per cent of its original cast. Then I come across something like “A Current Affair” — which holds a mirror up to our society’s obsession with celebrity culture, gossip, and politics — and remember why fans fought so hard to see more episodes of Sliders.
In fact, it’s comforting to see a script ripped straight from the first season playbook (and “Wag the Dog,” appropriately): when Maggie has a chance encounter with President Jefferson Williams (Eric Pierpoint), his staff seizes on the opportunity to create an affair between them as misdirection from an unpopular war in Europe. When Maggie refuses to participate in the farce, she’s kidnapped and forced to take part in the cover-up, leaving the rest of the Sliders try to rescue her.
Despite action that’s largely confined to studio sets, there’s a strong sense of world-building in Steve Stoliar’s script: the geopolitical, economical, and cultural landscape of this world is communicated effectively with props, dialogue, and snippets of news reports. As a viewer, you feel like this is a world where sensationalistic tabloid fare rules the media and where a massive, illegal war between the United States and Switzerland is considered irrelevant. (And that’s exactly how the administration likes it.)
As a result, this Earth feels lived-in, realistic. You’d think that would be the norm on a show about people traveling to parallel earths, but recent episodes like “Please Press One,” “The Great Work,” and “The Unstuck Man” beg to differ. So it’s encouraging when the Sliders production team looks back on its roots, takes them to heart, and manages to have some fun. I’m even impressed with the added teases of a media culture eager to rewrite and exploit the public narrative for their own amusement. It’s a reality shift that doesn’t need a timer, and I commend it.
The social satire and the humor throughout this episode really bolster the first season vibe. Everyone’s relaxed and enjoying themselves and that comes across on screen. The news reports are well produced (far better than the ones we saw in season three, at least) and the on-the-scene expose between the GNN reporter and Maggie’s pregnant hillbilly double is outstanding. Even the lighting, costuming, and direction work in “A Current Affair’s” favor – it shows that the Sci-Fi Channel budget doesn’t mean the staff can’t craft network-level television.
Despite these efforts, however, the episode still misses out when it comes to doing something deeper and more meaningful with the core cast. While Mallory (who is still inexplicably introducing himself to others with his last name) shows he possesses a cunning mind and is more than up to the challenge of using news media to help Maggie, Diana and Rembrandt fade into the background once their amusement of Maggie’s predicament wears off. As a result, this is a primarily Maggie-driven outing; we watch her engage with the tabloid culture of this Earth, grudgingly tolerate her captivity, and proactively escape from Secret Service lockdown while Diana argues overs pixel resolution with our guest stars.
And the downside of following the first season playbook? You’re also captive to its tropes. This time around, the Sliders stumble into Bobby Hawks (Michael Manasseri playing Matt Drudge), the one person in this universe who’s not only qualified to help but who also has the flexible moral compass that lets him balk at violating his ethics while faking crime scene photos for complete strangers. There’s a strange dichotomy at play since Hawks comes across as fully-defined – you believe his character and his motivations – but he’s still ultimately a tool of the plot. All the guest-characters, from the President’s unscrupulous Chief of Staff (John Vargas) to the manipulative First Lady (Robin Riker), feel like real individuals. They have concerns, values, and intentions beyond the immediate requirements of the drama. But they never act on them in a believable fashion.
And because the other three characters don’t engage much with this media-soaked parallel culture, the story seems more myopic and narrow than it should. It could have been much more interesting, but I got the sense the writers saw their story mirrored President Bill Clinton’s scandal, patted themselves on the back for being topical, and settled for having Rembrandt, Diana, and Mallory walk back and forth between sets until the final scene arrived.
But what a final scene! Instead of a tidy wrap-up where all the villains receive their just desserts, “A Current Affair” chooses a more layered conclusion. Hawks gets his moment to expose the government corruption and war crimes ignored by the media, only to get overshadowed by the Sliders’ requisite exit strategy.
It’s just right for Sliders, as is the overall plot and situation. This is a good episode, but with more detail, stronger characterization and more satirical humor, it would have been great.
Maybe even first season great.
|Previously: Review: Please Press One||Next: Review: The Java Jive|