You would imagine that I would bristle at the fact that all of the action in this episode takes place in the Chandler Hotel. Which, at first blush, would seem like it’s the laziest bit of anything ever. But really, though, this episode (and certainly the next) are just examples of the show getting awesomely creative at penny-pinching.
It’s not the lazy kind of budgeting, it’s the kind that underlies an actual care going in to the show. “Okay, how do we make the best show we can?” The same thing went into “In Dino Veritas,” too— that was a bottle show to both save money and give a reason for Jerry O’Connell to be missing from the action. In both that episode and this, humble beginnings begat noble conclusions.
Plus, it’s a meta-wink on the ever-present Chandler Hotel. It’s the kind of wink that Season 3’s god-damned Cave Set really needed— an episode that uses the Cave as a Character, instead of a constant presence that made less and less sense the more we saw it. Here, the Chandler is a Character, and it’s one you’d actually want to spend some time with. That’s kind of amazing, when you think about it. If anything, it makes me wish this episode came earlier (though I understand that’s an impossibility, as Colin is central to this episode [even more central to it than he was in his own introduction]). After this, having spent this much time with the Chandler, we’ll be more willing to accept it. That’s impressive.
So there’s a pretty obvious antecedent to this episode. That would be, of course, “The Dream Masters,” Season 3’s foray into horror. Sure, you could make the argument that “The Breeder,” “Stoker,” “Sole Survivors,” and “Slither” are also forays into horror, but you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because while they each have one or two elements of horror in them— be it Vampires, Snakes, Dick Monsters, Etc.— they aren’t really dedicated to ‘horror’ as a genre. They were indebted more to Monster Movie Tradition than Horror Movie Tradition, and while there’s certainly some overlap there, it’s plainly not the same.
“The Dream Masters” threw itself whole-hog into the tropes of Horror. At the time of viewing, I slagged it pretty harshly. Considering “Desert Storm” was the next episode, I spoke too soon. But I also spoke too soon in the greater scheme of Sliders. “The Dream Masters” isn’t the worst episode by a far margin, and it’s more just a case of a show stretching it’s boundaries and going a little bit too far than it is a case of “DANGER! DANGER! COURSE CORRECT IMMEDIATELY!” That episode was marred by budget constraints/restraints and the larger issue of the titular Dream Masters being completely ridiculous and devoid of tension.
But here, we have a return to “Horror.” But, we also have the show being smart enough to realize that horror doesn’t have anything to do with “sliding.” The episode makes the incredibly wise choice to play the horror elements, the tropes and clichés as funny. It’s not asking us to be scared (though the “Rembrandt is Shaving” scene is a little on the creepy side), it’s asking us to laugh. It’s asking us to chuckle and wonder what’s really going on. Because after the first act gets rolling, it seems less and less like there are actually ghosts running around. So it becomes a mystery— to the characters, who need to de-haunt a hotel and get their Timer out of the “Astral Plane” (where’s Gillian when you need her!), and for us the audience, to figure out who’s at the center of this genre-mashup.
But before we get there, we blessedly spend time filling in the spaces of this world. But it’s done in a totally non-invasive way. I mean, I understand that the idea of “Acid Rain World” is slightly on the goofy side, but we’re not really asked to spend much time thinking about it— the episode deflects us from thinking too much about it, other than the Concierge off-handedly mentioning Off-Shore Drilling and Oil Pipelines (and flaming bodies of water). Which is the perfect way to world-build. People don’t just march up to you in the day-to-day and say “hello, you don’t look like you’re from around here— our first President was named George Washington. There’s an apocryphal story about a Cherry Tree, and also about wooden teeth. Got it? Great, let me explain the entire history of our Government, starting with the Articles of Confederation.” They’ll just mention something that ‘everyone’ remembers, like Santa Monica Bay lighting on fire.
Or, mentioning that your husband died of cancer, and insinuating that it was the fault of his job. You could call this a flaw, saying that “well why didn’t you sue for …y’know, that?” Me, though, I think it’s just a telling bit of the way this world works. That’s what happens. You die in Acid Rain. You die because Oil will kill you. You die.
But on the other hand, that doesn’t matter. This episode’s really about Holly, the Lonely Concierge, who lost everything to open this fucking stupid hotel. Her husband is dead. Her son is a ghost, one of many. She’s got no choice but to stay in the hotel, and wearily catch the bottles of booze that occasionally fly around. So the episode isn’t only about “what are these ghosts, really?” It’s about “what are these ghosts, and how can we help Holly pick up the pieces of her life?” Which is the way you have to do this kind of comedy episode without it turning into fluff.
And so for the episode to pull the rug out and say “actually it’s ghost-sliding” is amazing. It’s the only decision this episode could have made that wouldn’t have fallen absolutely flat. Because it then ties Holly’s conflict sufficiently with the Sliders. It connects everyone in a way that before was only tangentially earned. Plus, it’s an example of “opening up the world of sliding” that I’ve always been a fan of. It’s also something that the show hasn’t really done, Slidewaves notwithstanding since, well “Gillian of the Spirits,” which is also a clear antecedent to this episode. Also helping (just like in “Gillian”) is the fact that the guest stars this week are really good. Holly steals every scene she’s in. John Smith might be 90s-dated in appearance, but he serves his duty well as an adequate, if rote, adversary to the main action. Even the little kid— he comes off as precocious, but I’d argue that he’s supposed to. After all, when he gets Colin into his Ghost-Vortex, he’s super stoked that someone will ‘play with him’ now. He’s a kid. That’s what kids do.
And of course, there’s the fact that they go whole-hog for ‘comedy,’ and nail it. All of you certainly remember my endless complaining about Sliders never managing to do genre-mashup before due to everyone having a different opinion on what the tone they were going for was. But here, everyone’s on the same page. It works. The humor works. The cheesy ghost-effects work. Maggie’s head in an icebox works. Quinn “Howlin’ Man” Mallory works. Hell, even Colin works! His “Frankenstein” clue is genius, and funny, and leads to a really great “Igor” joke.
So we do what we’re supposed to. But it’s a little deeper than that. This week, the chemistry that so long was lacking from the team is back. “Just Say Yes” tried ‘bickering’ as a replacement for ‘chemistry,’ but ‘bickering’ is what brought the whole tent down in Season 3. Here we have warmth. And even if there is bickering, which there certainly is, it’s done with care and humor. Rembrandt’s repeated “put some clothes on.” Colin’s face to Quinn when the others say they too have been haunted. Little moments— they’re back. And really, that’s what you have to hang this show on.
Sliders was a story about four tenuously connected people thrown out of the world. It was a story about those four people becoming a family. But that family’s gone now. And for a long while, the show’s been suffering because of that. But here, in a bottle episode about a haunted hotel— of all things!— a new sense of family’s starting to poke it’s head through. And that’s amazing, and it speaks wonders to the cast, to production, to the show itself. You need to welcome me in, Sliders.
Don’t shut me out.
Next Week: Despite all their rage, they’re still just rats in a trans-dimensional cage (Slidecage).
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