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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Trying to find your way in the world is difficult enough, but it helps when you’ve got good friends around.  And even when it seems like you’ll never leave your hometown existence… well, maybe there are some virtues there.  But no matter when you start, or where you end up, somehow (with a little help) you’ll find your way.  That’s what this week’s show is all about.

Five quotes:

…she may find a way through it… if they don’t trip her up with their well-meaning assistance.

“Remember the good old days, when you could just kill your parents and take their land?”

…she’d slept with all of the eligible males there at least once, and was working her way through the list again!

“Eh, the economy sucks, there’s nothing to do, and everything I own smells like fish.”

…as people who have found their place… exactly where they started.

Some big names here who hadn’t yet become that way, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

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“γνῶθι σεαυτόν” (“Know Thyself”)
–inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, in Ancient Greece

“There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.”
–Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1750

This website celebrates the memory of old and occasionally forgotten shows.  The virtue of many of these old favorites is, they have moments that are memorable enough to remind us of terrific characters, situations, and events.  Of course, we all have our own lives, and we all have those people, places, and things that will create similar moments… they just aren’t on TV every week for us to regularly enjoy.  Hopefully, those terrific and memorable things are happening to us right now, or in the next week, or in the next month.  But in 2008, along came a show that celebrated those moments each of us has lived along the way, and even gave out cold, hard cash… if only you knew yourself well enough, and could remember your own life!

Dennis Miller, Amnesia

Amnesia (spelled with a dollar sign, as in Amne$ia, for promotional purposes) aired Friday nights on NBC.  Hosted by comedian Dennis Miller, each week featured one contestant and the people in their life.  Amnesia wasn’t a brain-burning trivia fest like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, or a pure lucky guess game like Deal or No Deal.  It was a game of honest questions, where no one was more qualified to get the right answers than the contestant… because all of the questions were about them.

“It’s This Is Your Life meets Jeopardy… where every topic heading is YOU.”
–Dennis Miller

Before each show, contestants were interviewed by the producers about their lives, their pasts, and their friends.  An entire game show was created around these memories, skewed just enough to make it difficult for the contestant and yet interesting for the viewer.  For example, one gentleman talked about his high school football exploits… so the producers found an old program from his playing days and asked him a simple enough question:  What was your jersey number the year you led the team to the championship?  The details of certain games, even certain plays, were likely ingrained over and over in his mind and reinforced with the telling of old tales… but what number was he?  Others may have known, but memories may or may not have included looking down at his chest.

By the way, the contestant got that one right… but many in the same situation may not have, and that was the fun of Amnesia.  You never knew what people would remember and what they wouldn’t.  Audiences could easily play along, reminded of youthful memories or various items of their own lives, some remembered and some not.

Get it right, or else!

Sometimes NOT remembering could lead to potential trouble.  For one hapless contestant, Miller trots out some beautiful women, all wearing something familiar… and then asks which of these similarly attired ladies is modeling the wedding dress his wife wore for their nuptials a few years earlier.  Of course, the gown was provided by the dear wife, who’s off to the side cheering on her hubby.  (She’s going to be very disappointed if he gets this one wrong!)

Host Dennis Miller was an unusual pick for this gig, as the only previous game show hosting he’d done was a show called Grand Slam, a pure trivia fest where he was literally the series host, and not the one asking the questions.  On Grand Slam he was called on for a bit more snark and punditry, styles he was known for as a comedian.  On Amnesia, he was a more genteel performer, cheering or agonizing along with the contestants.  His occasional bombast was toned down, primarily because of his emotional connection with many of those playing.

“I’m touched that this is life-changing money for people.  You have to tread cautiously because there’s over $300,000 dollars on each show to be made.  When I watch these shows at home I’m kind of like everybody else, I’m watching… “Go!” or “Stay!”.  When you’re the guy that’s right there, and you look in a person’s eye and see that they’re about to make a chunk of change, or lose it, that could change their life, (…) you become very empathetic.”
–Host Dennis Miller

You in Sixty Seconds

Every week, Miller would introduce each contestant, and a brief interview on camera would follow.  The first round of the game, “You in Sixty Seconds”, asked a series of questions about basic personal life, such as “Which Beatles song was the theme for your prom?” or “”Where were you when you asked your wife to marry you?”.  This established a “memory bank”, a small fund of money that each contestant hoped to increase throughout the game, but might have to risk at the end.

In the next three rounds, Miller would send the player “off to their room”, a soundproof booth in view of the audience where they couldn’t hear what was taking place onstage.  Then he’d introduce someone from that person’s life, often a spouse or other family member, for another brief interview that set up a series of questions.  The contestant was then returned to the stage, ready to win money, but only if they knew the answers to some rather unique queries….

One of these things is not like the others....

One contestant raved about his mom’s Shepherd’s Pie… so, after we met his mother, he was blindfolded, and out came three chefs… and his mother, each with a plate of Shepherd’s Pie for him to try.  Could you identify your favorite dish alongside other similar ones?  Of course, the questions weren’t always about childhood memories or days gone by.  Sometimes they were about cars going by….

A local police chief in a small town received what should be a rather simple question:  What was the posted speed limit on the road that went by the front of his own house?  Guess what?  The police chief missed it, saying 35 mph instead of 25 mph.  I wonder how fast people were going by his place after that….

There's a little grey mouse in here somewhere....

Some stunts were more physical.  A man’s stuffed toy, precious to him as a child, was placed inside a toybox with numerous other similarly stuffed animals, and he had only thirty seconds to sort through and find his old friend.  Another time, a man had decided (with friends) to hire an airplane to drag a banner across the sky… but does he remember the exact phrasing used on the banner in question? A large board was brought out, and parts of phrases, all similar, were placed in front of the man, and he had to recreate the banner.

Three questions, possibly $300,000

“It’s more like a celebration of your life with friends, where you have a chance to make a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
–Dennis Miller, host of Amnesia

In each round, the money values escalated, with $75,000 earned at this point if no questions had been missed.  But the big money was yet to come, as was bigger risk.  The final round had three questions, each relating to one of the friends or relatives introduced previously.  The first question was worth $25K, then $50K, and finally $100K, and players could choose which person’s question they wanted first… but they’d also lose that amount of money if they answered incorrectly.

A contestant could continue as long as their “memory bank” still had cash left… but they could lose it all, and go home with nothing but memories.  They could also walk away at any time after the first question, if they so chose, so their previous success (or failure) at the game played a significant part in their confidence moving forward.  Big money was available… and all you had to do was know yourself.

How well could you do with memories like this?  Or knowledge about the world around you that you take for granted every day?  And how well would you do with a possible $300,000 on the line?  This was the challenge of Amnesia, and yet it was a game as different every time as each individual person was.

The contestants and their loved ones really made the show, and there truly was an element of This is Your Life to Amnesia.  While some of the supporters were obvious choices, the joy of being able to see that long-lost college buddy, or catching up with your sophomore homeroom teacher for the first time in forever, added a feel-good element to the show.  Not to mention the prizes at stake, of course.

“I’ve seen two sets of jaw droppings on this show.  One is when they win a bunch of money, and the other one is when they see somebody they haven’t seen in two decades.  So, yes, there’s a mixture of both jaw droppings.  I think a lot of them think their spouse will be there, and a lot of them think a brother or sister, or a mother or father will be there.  Sometimes that third one, the wild card, will be like ‘Really?  REALLY?”‘
–Dennis Miller

Unfortunately, while long-forgotten friends and relatives showed up for the contestants, audiences didn’t.  Anyone tuning in for Miller found a toned-down, more sedate version of the comedian, and while the show was interesting, it was far from provocative.  Miller and company weren’t out to embarrass anyone, they just wanted to celebrate the lives of ordinary people and share them with everyone.  That, they definitely did, and although the show was called Amnesia, it would be difficult for those who saw it to forget how much fun Miller and company had doing it.

DENNIS MILLER has made many memories of his own during an eclectic career.  He was a contestant on Star Search, losing the comedy category to Sinbad, but his comedic efforts landed him a regular gig as host of the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live!  A brief syndicated talk show followed (The Dennis Miller Show), which led to Dennis Miller Live on HBO, running for nine years and winning five Emmy awards.  He then spent two seasons as a color commentator for Monday Night Football, and hosted a series on CNBC.  He currently appears weekly on the “Miller Time” segment of The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, and hosts a nationally syndicated radio show that airs on more than 250 stations.  Known for extremely esoteric references in his comedy, The Simpsons once described an obscure laugh line as qualifying for “The Dennis Miller Ratio”, meaning   “The joke only one person in a million would find funny.”

Although it’s no longer accessible from the main network site, the NBC show site for Amnesia is still available (thankfully, or this article would only have maybe two or three pictures, all of Miller).  Game shows don’t traditionally have a lot of publicity photos available anyway, except perhaps generic shots of the host and the set.  While many have a version of the game available online, Amnesia really can’t, due to the personalized nature of the questions.

“Well, I think it will put (the viewers) in touch with the fact that we all have a scrapbook of our lives, and there are pages that we have completely not memorized.  There are other things that are burnt inexorably into our frontal lobes, you couldn’t forget it if you want.  But surprisingly enough, there are things that are pretty near and dear to you that, if pinned on the five W’s of it like a newspaper column, the What, When, Where, Who, and Why, people all forget.”
–Dennis Miller

Even though it’s only about three years ago, many people don’t remember Amnesia.  In fact, the only reason Amnesia made it to the airwaves in the first place was because the show was an inexpensive “unscripted” series, ordered as a back-up plan due to the 2007 Writer’s Guild Strike.  Most networks were stockpiling “alternative” series (read: not needing scripts), and a great many of these aired within the next year or so, before television got back to using traditional production methods.  Once the strike was over, NBC could easily forget about their emergency plans (and the shows that went with them, like Amnesia). NBC could “turn the page” in their scrapbook of shows, never having to remember (or even think about) Amnesia again…

…which is a shame, as Amnesia is actually a show worth remembering here, about extraordinary moments in ordinary people’s lives.  Not dramatic moments, but the individual memories that stay lodged in the mind and heart forever.

Vital Stats

8 aired episodes — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  February 22, 2008
Final aired episode:  April 11, 2008
Aired Friday @ 8/7 Central?  Mostly.  The premiere was actually 9/8 Central, but the seven other episodes did air in the Friday 8/7 Central timeslot.  No wonder people forgot to watch.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

…now I don’t want to go off on a rant, but this particular show is often forgotten by many, even though it aired only three years ago.  It starred a person who’s best known for other shows, many with his name in the title.  But really, he’s wasn’t so much the star, as were the various ordinary people he introduced each week, and the lives they led… if only they knew them well.

Five quotes:

“It’s more like a celebration of your life with friends, where you have a chance to make a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

What was your jersey number the year you led the team to the championship?

I wonder how fast people were going by his place after that….

“Sometimes that third one, the wild card, will be like ‘Really?  REALLY?'”

“…if pinned on the five W’s of it like a newspaper column, the What, When, Where, Who, and Why, people all forget.”

Benjamin Franklin had it right in Poor Richard’s Almanac.  So did the ancient Greeks.  See what I mean, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

There’s an old saw used in many places about items passing “The Duck Test”.  It basically says that if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck… well, then it’s a duck, and I don’t care what name you put on it, it’s still a duck.  You can try to pass something off as new and different, but a duck is still a duck.

In 1984, NBC tried their best to pass off The Duck Factory as something new and different.  It was a workplace comedy set in the rather unknown location of an independent (read:  broke) animation outfit called Buddy Winkler Studios.  The denizens of the studio (known colloquially as The Duck Factory) were the creators of that famous cartoon icon, Dippy Duck, and they had a bit of a crisis:  the boss, Buddy Winkler, had just died.  Not that he was well-liked or anything; in fact, the workers all hated him, and the only one who was even slightly heartbroken was the recent Mrs. Winkler (Teresa Ganzel)  She’d married Buddy just three weeks earlier when they met in Vegas (during her performance in a “topless” ice show).  She knew nothing about Buddy, and less about animation, and although she was, in many ways a “dumb-blonde,” just because she lacked knowledge didn’t mean she lacked heart.

That heart is on display when a new animator comes to town, Skip Tarkenton (Jim Carrey, in his first television role).  Skip is the typical wide-eyed innocent, who’s come to LA with a semi-encouraging letter in hand from the late Buddy, and the hope of landing a job.  His unfortunate timing means he arrives, suitcase in hand, just as the funeral procession is leaving the studio.  With no place to go, he ends up tagging along, and the aforementioned innocence allows him to give a eulogy that impresses the widow Winkler into giving him a job… especially when the other help sees the quality of his work.

“I grew up with the message that Mr. Winkler, through Dippy Duck, of course, sent to the youth of America.  That, no matter how many times Dippy was flattened by Irving the Terrible, or kicked in the teeth by Rotten Renaldo, that somehow his good old-fashioned American gumption would always prevail.  So even as I stand here on this sad occasion, that philosophy fills me with hope, knowing that you will pick yourselves up after being kicked in the teeth by his death… dust yourselves off… and face whatever the future brings.”
–Skip, speaking of Buddy at his funeral

Clockwise, from top: Carrey, Dippy, Tarses, Payne, Ganzel, Gilford, Messick, Gilyard, and Lane. The crazies of The Duck Factory

So, Skip lands in the middle of The Duck Factory, and the barely controlled chaos therein.  His fellow workers include veteran animator and director Brooks Charmichael (Jack Gilford); comedy writer and occasional jerk Marty Finneman (Jay Tarses); storyboard artist Roland Culp (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.); level-headed film editor Andrea Lewin (Nancy Lane); absent-minded voice-over artist Wally Wooster (Don Messick); and officious and scheming financial officer Aggie Aylesworth (Julie Payne).  Skip discovers very quickly that this amazing menagerie of people need to be more than slightly crazy in order to create the silliness of Dippy Duck’s cartoons, and that their animated creations can sometimes be much more normal than their creators.

The environment at The Duck Factory was supposedly similar to the famed “Termite Terrace” of Warner Brothers cartoon heyday, the incubator that led to the glory days of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road-Runner, and so many more of the classic Looney Tunes comedy shorts.  But while film fans and animation buffs speak reverently about those times and the people involved (like Chuck Jones and Friz Freling), the general public at large knows little about them.  So, while the setting was indeed unique, it was also much more unfamiliar than, say, the bar of Cheers (which preceded the show on Thursday nights).  Crazy doesn’t really seem crazy when you don’t know what normal is supposed to be like….

Skip and Marty

The cast was actually, for the most part, rather well-chosen.  Tarses, as writer Marty, was a well-respected comedy writer in real life, having been the mind behind The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, in addition to being a co-creator of The Duck Factory.  Tarses has been nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, winning one.  He brought a truth and insecurity to a character that could easily have been a cliché.  Teresa Ganzel, as Mrs. Winkler, must also be highlighted; as another possible stereotypical character, she was seen to be much more than a simple-minded gold-digger.  And Nancy Lane’s Andrea was really the glue that held many of these crazies together, particularly in the apparent love triangle that sprouted from her relationship with Skip and the supposed romance with Skip and Ganzel’s widow Winkler.

Brooks and Skip

Jack Gilford is practically a legend, and his comedic timing and skills come from a lifetime in front of a camera.  As the older, more experienced Brooks, he brought a world-weary knowingness to his character.  The now-deceased Buddy had  browbeaten Brooks into believing he was a shell of the director he’d been, but his faith was slowly restored by Skip’s belief in his work.  Clarence Gilyard Jr.’s Roland was given some thankless storylines, but the actor proved himself an audience mainstay later with two lengthy runs in Matlock and Walker, Texas Ranger.  Perhaps pure comedy wasn’t his strong point, but he was still very competent and showed potential at this stage of his career.

Woody and Skip

Others didn’t fare so well, although to be honest, when you’re surrounded by great people, ordinary sticks out more than usual.  Don Messick as Wally, the voice actor who’s been doing other voices so long he’s forgotten his own, isn’t really an on-screen actor anyway.  Messick was hired particularly for his previous voice work, having done numerous characters for many years.  He originated the voice of Scooby-Doo, Boo-Boo on Yogi Bear, and other iconic animation favorites.  While the voices were excellent, the screen presence was lacking.  And Julie Payne as Aggie was also primarily a voice actress, doing duty as the antagonistic foil for the rest of the cast and being about as two-dimensional as some of the cartoons she’d voiced.  But that was also the role she’d been given.

“I agree whole-heartedly that his talent and star power was wasted on that show. It seems like he was miscast in that straight role.”
The Duck Factory crew member Larry Verne

The biggest crime of The Duck Factory was in making Jim Carrey essentially the straight man to all these comical characters, portraying the wide-eyed newcomer from the mid-west who marvels at the weird world of LA and showbiz.  While later episodes of the series started to allow Carrey’s elastic-faced comic genius to be on display, initially his Skip character was almost overly earnest.  Critics saw promise in the series, but viewers saw a few too many early caricatures and not the fleshed out people who populated other successful comedies of the time.

“Running out of gas was the highlight!  Let’s see… we found out we lost the cable series to another company, and Aggie punched out Mr. Kemper; Roland’s date turned out to be a hooker; Wally lost twice; Marty accepted an award he didn’t even win… the only person who won anything was Buddy!  Brooks got bombed… and Mrs. Winkler fired him, hired him back, and then went home.  All in all it was pretty much a disaster.”
–Jim Carrey as Skip

Mrs. Winkler, why are you and Skip hiding?

The disaster above is a description of the events in one particular episode, but the true disaster was that audiences never appreciated the show.  Following an act like Cheers was hard enough, but the best known “name” at the time was Gilford.  Ganzel was a relative newcomer.  Tarses, Messick and Payne came from other fields.  Gilyard and especially Carrey had their best roles and years ahead of them, and The Duck Factory, while not a disaster, simply wasn’t really complete yet.

What many didn’t realize was that, as an example, the noted and popular Cheers had a similar experience early on, but had received a year’s worth of seasoning by NBC before it became a top-rated success.  The Duck Factory wasn’t allowed that time to grow, and so the series became nothing but wasted potential.  Here was a series with some definite highlights that, allowed to become fulfilled, would have been just as strong as any on television at the time.  With a little more work, The Duck Factory had all the markings of a potential hit, but a canceled show is still considered a failure… and a duck is still a duck.

JIM CARREY (Skip Tarkenton) had one other spectacular success on television, as a regular on the sketch comedy series In Living Color.  He’s been one of the biggest movie stars of comedy, after coming to prominence in the Ace Ventura:  Pet Detective films.  Other features followed, including The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and Bruce Almighty, plus more dramatic turns in Man in the Moon, The Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Coming back to animation, he’s done voices (and computerized animation acting) in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Horton Hears a Who, and A Christmas Carol.

TERESA GANZEL (Sheree Winkler) played the ditzy blonde stereotype character on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in sketches over an 11-year run, and was also a featured regular in The Dave Thomas Comedy Show.  In recent years, she’s become a voice-over actress, heard in Monsters, Inc., WALL-EUp, and reuniting with Jim Carrey in Horton Hears a Who.

JACK GILFORD (Brooks Charmichael) had a career dating back to the 1930’s, but was a victim of the House Un-American Activities blacklisting on the 1950’s.  He reemerged on the New York stage, originating the roles of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Fourm, and King Sextimus in Once Upon a Mattress.  He was in both Cocoon movies, and won an Emmy award for a guest appearance on the children’s series Big Blue Marble.  He passed away in 1990, at the age of 81, due to stomach cancer.

JAY TARSES (Marty Finneman) is better known behind the scenes, producing and creating other series (he also co-created The Duck Factory).  He was the driving force behind The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Public Morals, The Slap Maxwell Story, and Buffalo Bill.  His most famous acting role was in the comedy movie Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox, as his high school coach.  He wrote or co-wrote episodes of The Carol Burnett Show and The Bob Newhart Show, and the movies The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Great Muppet Caper.  His other, most significant creations are his children, TV producer Matt Tarses (of Scrubs and Sports Night) and TV executive Jamie Tarses (former head of ABC).

NANCY LANE (Andrea Lewin) was a member of the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line, bringing audiences to tears each night as a member of the trio singing “At the Ballet”.  She appeared on Rhoda, Angie, Who’s the Boss?, and My Sister Sam, in addition to receiving a writing credit for an episode of Taxi.

CLARENCE GILYARD, JR. (Roland Culp) was a regular on over a decade of television, first on Matlock as assistant Conrad McMasters, and then as Texas Ranger Jimmy Trivette on Walker, Texas Ranger.  Prior to The Duck Factory, Gilyard had been a regular in the final season of CHiPs.  Movie appearances included Top Gun and Die Hard.

DON MESSICK (Wally Wooster) has a lengthy list of voice characterizations, but some of them include Boo-Boo and Ranger Smith (The Yogi Bear Show), Dr. Quest and Bandit (Jonny Quest), Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo in various incarnations of Scooby-Doo, Papa Smurf and Azrael (The Smurfs), and Hamton J. Pig (Tiny Toons Adventures).  The Duck Factory was one of his extremely few live-action performances.  He and his talented voice left us all in 1997, the victim of a stroke.

JULIE PAYNE (Aggie Aylesworth) had been a member of the early improvisational troupe The Committee, but many of her jobs in Hollywood were as a voice-over actress.  She gave voice to characters in Garfield and Friends and The Tracey Ullman Show.  More recently, audiences might recognize her as Cheryl Hines’ mom in appearances on the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The Duck Factory saw a limited release on VHS, but no DVDs are available commercially.  There are a few websites which describe the series online, but even those have limited information.  Most of the actors and actresses are really known for other work, and The Duck Factory is almost a footnote in their credits, when it appears at all.  It’s not that they’re embarrassed by the show, it seems that they’ve just gone on to bigger and better things.  That was certainly true of Carrey and Gilyard, and most of the rest have other, more prominent work.  Carrey’s online site has the most information available.

Surprisingly, almost all the acting talent in The Duck Factory went on to do other animation voice-work at one point or another.  Some came from there, obviously, but the rest either sought out that type of job, or were sought out by others for it, due to their association here.  At the very least, there was an appreciation for all kinds of performing, drawn and otherwise, by the cast and crew.  The Duck Factory may not have been a success, but it turned out a number of hit performers.

Was it a great comedy?  Perhaps, if it had been given some room to grow.  Although a show doesn’t necessarily have to be a popular hit to be considered “great”, with this particular cast I’d like to think that The Duck Factory would ultimately be known as such.  A little time and a little more craziness, and everyone would agree that the series would have been known for its quality.  And quality is still quality… just like a duck is still a duck.

Vital Stats

13 aired episodes — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  April 12, 1984
Final aired episode:  July 11, 1984
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  Thursday nights at 8:30/7:30 Central, immediately following Cheers and just before Hill Street Blues.  Wackiness should have worked here, but it just wasn’t up to par with its surroundings during its short run.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Time for a little comedy craziness this week, heading back to the ’80’s for a show that had a great cast… if you look at what they’ve done since.  They all got to create some wonderful characters, and if we only knew then what we know now… they’d all charge a lot more to do a television series.  They weren’t bad… they were just drawn that way <grin>.

Five Quotes:

…if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck… well, then it’s a duck…

…the voice actor who’s been doing other voices so long he’s forgotten his own…

“”I agree whole-heartedly that his talent and star power was wasted on that show.”

“All in all it was pretty much a disaster.”

At the very least, there was an appreciation for all kinds of performing, drawn and otherwise, by the cast and crew.

Note:  despite the way the quotes read, this was NOT an animated series.  Although, as it says above, if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck… well, then it’s going to be featured this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

“Stylistically, it was a real fun show to work on. I got to try many new things, it was a very young crew that was willing to try different things.  It was very brave of the producers to hire many breakthrough people to do a very sophisticated show, and what you get is a great look, something that you’ve not seen on network television before.”
–Director Rob Bowman

Despite its reputation as a medium of change, television has operated, from a content perspective, on the idea of doing “something different… but the same”.  Networks are woefully afraid of being the first person to jump into the pool, so to speak, but love to be the second.  Once someone has proved that the water is fine and there’s apparently an audience waiting for a new style of show, a new method of storytelling, or a new way of doing things, networks are quick to try to mimic that success, usually with an inferior copy.  But those shows that are first?  It’s a wonder they ever make it on the air at all, let alone last for any amount of time.

I like those adventurous shows that take some chances, even if they fail.  Experimenting with format or with methods of storytelling often create moments, or even entire series, that wouldn’t have the same impact any other way.  It’s like discovering a whole new way of looking at things, opening my mind to a new reality.  In the year 1995, with the impact of the computer on our everyday lives, that meant looking at virtual reality… and the levels that came with it.

The cast of VR.5

In 1995, VR.5 splashed upon our television screens.  It starred Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom, a rather ordinary girl with a humdrum job as a telephone engineer and an obsession with computers.  She lives her rather solitary life, interacting with strangers on her computer and dreaming about their lives as she hears them on the telephone lines and interacts with them with the rudimentary “virtual” world online.  But that basic interaction is about to change drastically….

“This, of course, is completely fantastic where you can actually go into your computer and explore your subconscious, along with someone else’s, and change persona and get a whole mind expanding view of the world.”
–Lori Singer

Sydney, with her homemade computer, discovers an entirely different and advanced virtual reality that allows her to “hack” into the subconscious minds of anyone she can reach with her modem.  She can interact with others in this previously unattainable virtual reality “level 5” (hence the title of the series), and they are left with no memory of their experiences with her.  She can discover their thoughts, their lies, and their motives as easily as making a phone call to them… as long as she can find her way out again.  The only disconnect from the other person’s mind (and escape for Sydney back into the “real” world) is through touching an item in VR which connects back to “normal” reality.

Sydney in Virtual Reality

Her virtual adventures are visualized in the episodes using vivid, almost surrealistic scenes, with saturated color and items appearing and disappearing as if in a dream.  Even Sydney herself changes from a somewhat geekish introvert into the stunning beauty her subconscious mind might allow her to be.  The shared mental world often changes violently, with characters seen in black and white on still vivid landscapes, or only certain items remaining in color in a monochrome scene.  While there are clues given to the truth or falsehood of these “memories”, viewers are left to discern much of the meaning.  Obviously this wasn’t any reality these characters lived in; it was a reality of the mind.

“What he did, basically, is link the human brain in the very beautiful face and body of Lori Singer with the capability to use the telephone lines with some genetic quirk of her own.  Really, it is mind surfing — going into other people’s minds and checking them out.  You have no limitations, there are no edges to this canvas.”
–David McCallum, commenting on his role as Sydney’s father, Dr. Jonathan Bloom

McCallum as Sydney's father, Dr. Bloom

Of course, Sydney’s actions are noticed by others.  A group, called “The Committee”, sends Dr. Frank Morgan (Will Patton) to take control of Sydney’s machinery for their own unknown purposes… until it’s discovered that it’s not just the home-brew computer Sydney’s created that allows the trips into the virtual world.  Apparently there’s something intrinsic to her that allows these voyages, at least as far as the depth of her interaction with others.  (And isn’t it interesting that Sydney’s parents were Dr. Jonathan Bloom (David McCallum), an early pioneer in computers and virtual reality, and Dr. Nora Bloom (Louise Fletcher), whose specialty was neurochemistry?)

Unfortunately, it turns out that Mom Nora is now not much more than a mental vegetable, alone and closed off from the world after she lost her husband and Sydney’s twin sister Samantha in a car accident 17 years ago… an accident that Sydney blames herself for.  Sydney then discovers she can use her newfound VR.5 ability to enter into her mother’s subconscious and interact with her once again… but what she discovers there are more mysteries than truths, more questions than answers. Fortunately, Sydney is not alone in her search for those answers.

Sydney does have someone to turn to in all of this turmoil, childhood friend Duncan (Michael Easton), who knew the family back before the accident.  He’ll stand by Sydney through thick and thin, and slowly demonstrates some affinity for the virtual reality world as well, although not nearly to the level of Sydney.

“The more you peel the onion, the more it stings your eyes.”
–Anthony Head as Oliver Sampson from The Committee

Sydney, about to discover VR.5 secrets

The Committee becomes frustrated with Morgan’s apparent ineffectiveness (apparent only because Sydney has influenced him subconsciously), so Morgan is “eliminated” and a replacement is sent.  The new watchdog, Oliver Sampson (Anthony Head), is much more contentious than Morgan and much better connected with The Committee.  Sampson ultimately becomes an ally, thanks to Sydney’s discovery of betrayal inside The Committee, and there are now two major plots going on in the mythology of the show:  the ultimate aims of The Committee, and the mystery behind what really happened the night of the accident 17 years ago.  With the help of both Duncan and Oliver, the answers to both may just be found in Virtual Reality Level 5… and beyond.

Translating a world of the subconscious into the visual medium of television was not an easy task.  To create the surreal environment of VR.5 meant that scenes taking place during these “mind trips” involved taking the color film footage, transferring it to black and white, then individually coloring in those parts which needed to stand out with vivid hues out of the ordinary.  Back in 1995, the entire process took literally weeks per episode, not to mention the attendant costs involved.  While this meant a visually stunning look unique to VR.5, it also meant the show was a very expensive venture, one in which even the actors weren’t aware of the finished product until they saw it onscreen with the rest of the viewing public.

An example of the color process in VR sequences

The rather deep continuing storyline involving Sydney’s past was confusing enough for viewers, let alone for actors.  The on-screen performers were working on scripts week by week with no knowledge of where their characters were headed, where they’d been, or even what was going on in the now.  As part of the storytelling, deliberate continuity and factual errors were made in the virtual reality worlds, showing how perceptions changed over time and how some people remember events differently than others.  When information given as truth is later denied, who’s to say whether the scenes shown represent any reality, virtual or otherwise?

Mother and daughter in VR.5

“It’s a show you have to watch if you’re an actor and you want to know what’s happening.  The lighting is very interesting and the camera is always placed at very odd angles.  The crew gets physically excited, because they get to do so many things they don’t normally get to do on a regular show.  The more weird the script says a scene has to look, the better the crew likes it.  It’s fun for the actors, too, because it’s so visually stimulating and it keeps you on your toes.”
–Louise Fletcher

Fox aired 10 of the 13 produced episodes and, although they aired in the correct order in America (unlike Britain, which was more confused than we were), the three episodes skipped would have landed in spots 3, 9, and 12, meaning there are some definite plotlines missing vital information.  Episode 3, in particular, was an examination of Sydney’s youthful relationship with her now dead sister, and some of the fallout from the accident.  VR.5 definitely suffered from some problems, and heaping missing information onto deliberately misleading information didn’t help viewers at home who were still trying to decipher the new world of the show, let alone the unexpected and innovative ways in which the story was being told.

Audiences apparently weren’t ready for this virtual “new wave” of television, and so VR.5 soon was gone from the airwaves.  Certainly there may have been a clearer way to tell the story, and concept behind the show wasn’t easy to grasp immediately, but that’s usually the case with an innovative way to present new ideas on television.  Being the first to explore the worlds of virtual reality in televised story telling was experimental by nature, and in the case of VR.5, although the experiment wasn’t embraced by many, it still had a unique and mysterious tale to tell in an engaging new way.  Executive producer John Sacret Young even had to come up with a new way to describe it all:

“It’s cyber noir.  It’s a mind bender.  It’s about consciousness and subconsciousness.  It’s like a dream.  You wake up from some scenes and wonder, ‘What the heck was that?'”

“That” was VR.5… and there’s been no other television series, virtual or real, like it since.

LORI SINGER (Sydney Bloom) followed in the acting footsteps of her brother Marc Singer (V), and landed a featured role on the TV series Fame.  She also got to display her cello ability on the series, as she is a world-class instrumentalist who has performed at Carnegie Hall.  Best known for her role opposite Kevin Bacon in the classic movie Footloose, she’s recently returned to acting in an episode of Law & Order: SVU after spending many years doing charitable work fighting Pediatric AIDS.

MICHAEL EASTON (Duncan) started in soap operas on Days of Our Lives, then moved to recurring roles in Ally McBeal and The Practice before starring in a dual role in the series Two.  An accomplished author and poet, he’s been a regular on the soap One Life to Live since joining the show in 2003.

DAVID McCALLUM (Dr. Jonathan Bloom) was Russian heart-throb Illya Kuryakin on the late ’60’s spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and later starred in the British series Sapphire and Steel and the 1975 American take on The Invisible Man.  Since 2003 he’s been a regular on NCIS, learning so much information for his role as a Forensic Scientist that he’s been the featured speaker at legitimate forensic conferences.

LOUISE FLETCHER (Dr. Nora Bloom) won an Oscar for her role as Nurse Ratched in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Best known on television for her recurring portrayal of Kai Winn on Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, she’s also received two Emmy nominations for her roles in Joan of Arcadia and Picket Fences.  Most recently, her TV appearances include Private Practice and Shameless.

WILL PATTON (Dr. Frank Morgan) was a regular on the 2001 CIA series The Agency.  He was also seen as the coach in the movie Remember the Titans.  He is probably more heard that viewed, however, as he has been the reader of a lengthy list of audiobooks, including many of author James Lee Burke’s thriller series.

ANTHONY HEAD (Oliver Sampson) is more recognized with the name he used later in his career, Anthony Stewart Head, and for his role as Giles in the series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  He is currently playing royalty, portraying King Uther Pendragon in the British-produced series Merlin, which aired for one season on NBC and has continued on the SyFy Channel.

VR.5 hasn’t been released on DVD, so if you want to own copies, you’ll have to go the bootleg route.  Some kind soul has put all the episodes on YouTube if you wish to see for yourself Sydney’s adventures in both real and virtual terms (and yes, there’s some level of irony in watching televised virtual reality on a computer).  Rhino did release the individual episodes on VHS back in the day, however.  Websites include the excellent dismal light, which contains many links and much information about the series.

Oliver, Sydney, and Duncan

While objective reality is fairly easy to describe and visualize, especially for the visual medium of television, the medium of the mind is something far different.  VR.5 wasn’t really a representation of a virtual reality, but it used the idea of a “virtual” world to tell a rather involved story in a really different, engaging way.  Upending the previous conventions of the medium and experimenting with time, space, and color in surprising ways, helped the series connect with some, and unfortunately turn off the interest of others.  But for anyone with the willingness to experiment, and the desire to allow their minds to be open to new ways of (televised) communication, then VR.5 allowed its cast, crew, and creators to navigate a journey TV had never been able to portray before.

The human mind is constantly expanding, growing, and changing… and television has to do the same, or it will simply become mindless claptrap that many have warned it was far before this.  But willingness on the part of viewers to want more, and willingness on the creators to find a way to provide it, means television doesn’t have to be boring, bland, or ordinary.  Like VR.5, it can challenge the senses, the world, and the mind.  If only we open our own minds to it.

Vital Stats

10 aired episode — 3 unaired (later aired on Sci-Fi channel)
FOX Network
First aired episode:  March 10, 1995
Final aired episode:  May 12, 1995
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Yes.  Fox was still searching for a companion series for The X-Files at the time, and this was one of the (unfortunately failed) attempts.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

As I’ve noted repeatedly, television can be a place of great imagination.  But the medium itself can be hard-pressed to visualize imagination as a concept.  Mental images and thought processes aren’t things that you can point a camera at and shoot.  This week’s featured series tried to peek into people’s minds, using a heroine, a then-newfangled device, and a definite disregard for ordinary storytelling.  Unsurprisingly, it didn’t last, but it lives in memory for those who saw it.

Five quotes:

“…and what you get is a great look, something that you’ve not seen on network television before.”

The shared mental world often changes violently, with characters seen in black and white on still vivid landscapes…

“You have no limitations, there are no edges to this canvas.”

“The more you peel the onion, the more it stings your eyes.”

“It’s a show you have to watch if you’re an actor and you want to know what’s happening.”

Enter a world that doesn’t exist anywhere else but in the mind, and on TV.  But there will be an article about it on your computer, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

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