I don’t think this turned out the way they planned.
I mean, look around it. The episodes surrounding this are dour, existential, relentless nightmares, and any forays into something like ‘humor’ are seemingly completely accidental, or at the least just an out-of-place joke in the middle of all the sadness. The exception in recent airing history was “Lipschitz Live,” and I’m still holding firm that I would be hard pressed to find any genuine humor in that. Before that you had, what, “Just Say Yes?” Same deal. Really, “The Alternateville Horror” is maybe the only successful comedic episode of Sliders. It nails it in a way that even “The King is Back” had trouble doing, and that’s only because it came too early in the show’s run.
But this? This is different.
Here’s where I pull the rug out from under you.
I loved this episode.
Like, adored it. I had such a blast watching this. Why, though? This is one of the turkeys, right? Why do I love it so? Probably a mixture of a few things. First, I love the movie Hackers. Like, a lot. Like, if you sat down and watched Hackers with me, you’d be upset because I’d be reciting every single line of the whole movie. “Seattle, 1988.” Etc.
In any case, 1999 was a fun time for the internet. We’d not yet entered the domain of ‘social media,’ which is about as eschatological as you can get when you’re talking about culture. But in 1999, AOL also had a bit of the apocalypse to it. Keyword: APOCALYPSE. Our paranoia, as it always seemed to do in the 90s, got the best of us. Look at William Gibson’s X-Files episode “Kill Switch.” Actually, don’t. Just look at “cyberpunk” in general.
Which isn’t exactly to say that this episode is “Sliders Goes Cyberpunk.” More accurately, it’s “Sliders Does Cyberpunk As Seen Through The Eyes Of Someone Who Had It Described To Them At A Party One Time When They Were Drunk.” It’s your Dad’s Cyberpunk. So, yes. It’s bad. It’s cheesy. Everyone is ridiculously dressed— even the regulars. Maggie’s shirt I can understand— we’ve seen her in much worse. What I can’t forgive is her beret:
It’s just like how the sliders seem to conveniently enter a world with appropriate clothing. In any case, I can forgive that outfit.
What I can’t forgive is Rembrandt’s beret:
Man, that’s bad. But then, at least he’s not forced to wear a lamé jumpsuit, like poor Joanne.
Wait, I don’t want to talk about her yet. Let’s talk about MARK FUCKING SHEPPARD.
Or, rather, Mark “A.” Sheppard. Because he’s not quite “Mark Sheppard” yet, is he? He’s not the golden secret of modern science fiction television. Here, he’s just “that guy in the episode of The X-Files with all the fire.” He’s not yet Badger on Firefly, or Romo Lampkin on BSG, or Canton Delaware on Doctor Who. Seriously, look at this dude’s IMDB page. He’s a fucking institution.
But like I said, he’s not quite there yet. Oh, he’s close. He’s certainly energetic, in his way. He fills the screen with energy, lending menace to scenes that deserve it, but have no right to actually have it. This is Sliders— its villans are cartoons. And so is this one here— he’s a total cartoon. But him and his ridiculous facepaint and his ridiculous “sharpened thimble” finger-armor works, somehow. It doesn’t work as well as Maurice Fish’s straight-razor in “The King is Back,” but it’s enough of a departure from everything around it to lend some alternate emotion.
Remember my post on “Slide Like An Egyptian?” There I posited that the episode was one of deep Camp. There I cast Susan Sontag as a wizard, a psychic who preemptively wrote the Bible for Sliders.
Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.
What else is Sliders in this Fourth Season than an “experience of underinvolvement?” In Quinn’s case, “Detachment” is uncomfortably on the nose. But most episodes are at such a disconnect from reality (1998 or 2013) that they come off as unintentionally hilarious. There’s no doubt that it was unintentional. I don’t really believe that anyone could realistically approach a show (read: a paycheck) so cynically that they’d use it as an extended piece of performance art. Sometimes it seems like that’s really what Sliders is all about. But it can’t be. Not really. Instead we’re forced, at times, to read it as a camp masterpiece.
It circles back to Sontag. The last few weeks have been the apogee of “hyperinvolvement.” Tragedy at its most ridiculous. But here, we are back to the things that made parts of the tail end of Season Three, despite their tenuous status as “episodes of Sliders,” nonetheless enjoyable. “Stoker” is a steaming pile of horseshit, but fuck if it isn’t hilarious. In that episode, Duff McKagan shoots Rembrandt with a Lightning Bolt out of his guitar. Here, a cyber-goon shoots the Chandler with a BAZOOKA.
Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much.”
Again, show me a quote that’s more applicable.
You can’t, so I’m going to double back to an earlier point I dropped.
Remember that this is 1999. I mentioned eschatology before, but this is something new. We’re now nearing the millenium— something wildly important to culture, both ‘pop’ and ‘serious.’ COMING SOON: The end of the world. And the internet is growing faster than we thought. Changing us in ways we’d never dreamed. It’s a time for wonder, no doubt about it. But it’s also a time for fear, for worry. How will this change us? What will our future hold?
And, truth be told, a future where “Net Worth” proves prescient isn’t that unbelievable. Really, what “Net Worth” does is paper our future with glam spectacle. It’s a glittered fortune. There aren’t many episodes of Sliders where you can say “oh man, that’s so close to us.” The very nature of the show usually denies us this. That may actually be the greatest failing of the show— that it shows us things perhaps too removed from our own familiarity.
When was the last time we could say that Sliders guessed right? “California Reich,” I guess. But then, of course, it tempered its futurism with sci-fi schlock. What, then? “The Weaker Sex?” Probably, in its own bizarrely sexist way. I understand that the point of the show is to show what could be, but there’s no point in showing that if you don’t relate it to now. Right?
Which brings us, of course, to “World Killer.” The episode that shows us a barmy science fiction tragedy but plays it for the emotion. But the secret triumph of “World Killer” is that the science fiction tragedy is completely recognizable to us. Overpopulation has been a threat to our world for as long as any of us can remember. “World Killer” shows us what it would be like.
Which is to say, horrible.
Surely that’s the way to approach this show.
The show disagrees with me, of course.. But still, I’m dithering.
The point is that “Net Worth” is, by complete accident— 1999 (and 1998, when this was written) was not the ‘end of the world at the hands of the internet.’ Sure, 20/20/Dateline/60 Minutes/Etc. would run the occasional ‘special report’ about Hacking, and Cyberpunk as a credible source of science fiction had come and gone. But eschatology is as integral to the public’s feelings about “the internet” as abject fear is. Look, this is a show that’s taken on Magic (on numerous occasions— say what you want, but “The Dream Masters” and “Stoker” are just as magical as “Dragonslide.”) Here, the internet is just as magical. But it’s a faded magic. The spark’s gone out.
What I mean to say is, “Net Worth” is an episode the show had no choice but to tackle at this point. It’s in the air. The show is breathing. On one hand, this is unfortunate— the show is grasping for straws, and grabbing them from the headlines. But on the other, it marks an actual interaction with the public psyche— something doing a rehash of “Anaconda” surely wasn’t.
But, of course, “Net Worth” is rubbish. It’s not a good episode of television. It’s barely a good episode of Sliders. But compared to what’s around it, it’s ‘worth’ is paramount. The last month of the show has been a gut wrenching slog through increasingly nihilistic thunderings. The show is almost unwatchable in this form. Pathos is always acceptable. Unrelenting exercises of depression are not. Remember when this show was funny? Me neither.
Which is why I love “Net Worth.” It’s a breath of fresh air. Sorely needed. It’s not the ‘way forward.’ It’s not the ‘way it should be.’ It’s not even ‘good.’ But it’s fun.
And for once, most everyone is in on it. Sure, Charlie O’Connell’s not. But he never would be anyways. Jerry tries more than he has in weeks. But it’s really Joanne who takes the day. Because despite her lamé jumper and stupid headgear, Hayley DuMond takes literally nothing and spins it into gold.
Because there’s “plucky,” and then there’s plucky. It’s not intended as a swipe. It’s a specific (sort of specific to the late 90s) kind of acting choice. It’s familiar to Sliders fans. It’s “Wade in the Pilot” all over again. I mean, don’t forget that Wade worked in a computer store. For that matter, so did Quinn. This episode is coded with things we understand. Quinn’s more at home when he’s trying to hack the planet than he’s been in years. And bounding around him is Joanne, more of a Happy Wanderer (at least in her own world) than any of the regulars we’ve ostensibly been tuning in to see. (Apparently DuMond was cast as a recurring character in the pilot of Alias, but the network cut her part out. Now her career looks just like any other guest star on Sliders. Which is to say, tragically devoid of work.)
DuMond has almost nothing to work with here. Or rather, she’s got tons of shit to work with. But she throws herself wholeheartedly into it. And, for what it’s worth, if we’re actually going to treat this episode with a respect it doesn’t really deserve, I’d say she’s completely believable as an “Onliner” who’s never really experienced the ‘real world’ and like, making out, and like, talking to people about their problems. It might seem like a dull lull in the middle of the episode, but the scene where Rick and Joanne (I’m surprised they didn’t go for the easy “Jack & Diane” gag) meet for the first time and can’t actually get along is actually pretty surprising for the show to include. It’s actually pretty realistic, as much as any episode with this much facepaint can be realistic. Because why would these two people actually get along? They wouldn’t, not really. Rick is an idiot. Joanne just acts like one. Or rather, it’s not fair to judge her on the basis of the ‘real world,’ since she’s never interacted with it before.
The Chandler (and as ridiculous as it is, my long-standing loathing of the Chandler makes the whole ‘bazooka’ situation oddly thrilling) scene, with Joanne & Rick temporarily breaking up, makes it unclear that they’ll actually stay together. Which is exactly as it should be. What is more, the main cast plays up that instability with an appropriate detachment. It’s an adventure that isn’t (bazookas aside) actually that life threatening— they can finally lean back, and take it easy. It’s annoying that these two cyber-teenagers are bugging them and that they got blown up by a bazooka and everyone is talking nonsense and Colin runs funny and running and blah blah.
The characters, in this episode, are aware that the episode is rubbish. They go through the motions, just as we do, because they’re aware of the camp inherent to the hours that they’re here. If they seem like they’re on autopilot, well, I’d probably phone it in too if I had to stop worrying about all my friends being dead just because a couple of brats just had to fall in love.
Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.
So, in the end, because of the return to high Camp, I can’t hate “Net Worth.” I can truly love it. Of course it isn’t a “desert island” episode of Sliders. It’s not supposed to be. An episode decrying “the internet” was bound to happen, and so it did. And it just happened to be a lark— as well it should have been! “Net Worth,” with all its camp and crap CG glory, predicts Tumblr Art eerily well. If you can’t just sit back and enjoy a lark, then you might be doing it wrong.
Of course, that requires pulling Sliders out of its original context. It’s reading the show as it exists today— as something to be discovered by accident on Netflix. In 1999, its another step in a bewildering direction. The early shock of the promise this season offerred is almost completely faded now. It’s unclear where the show is headed. But it isn’t promising. We’ve seen this kind of quality-death before. And then, it molded with actual death. Is Sliders dead already? The question remains unanswered.
But still, amongst the ruins of taste, there remains at least a simple charm.
I refer, of course, to the scene where Mark Sheppard, dressed as a cyberdandy, is assaulted in the face by a giant metal dildo.
Because, in the end, there is only one thing to take away from this:
If you can touch it, you can catch it.
Whatever that means.
Next Week: they pull a “Darren” on Steven Jensen (Slide by Wire).
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