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Preview: ‘Virtuality’ Probably Best Reality On Television

Michael Hinman takes a spoiler-free look at Fox’s Friday movie

I don’t consider myself claustrophobic. But if I was stuck on an interstellar vessel with a bunch of people I didn’t know that well for the next decade, well I would probably be looking for the next airlock out.

But the crew of the Phaeton in Fox’s telemovie “Virtuality” somehow make it through, and in a fascinating deep way that keeps audiences focused on the individual characters and caught up in the drama that unfolds.

A bunch of people in a spaceship never getting off? That can’t work, right? If show executive producers Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor had pitched this story to me, I might have shrugged it off, just as Fox seems to be doing right now by minimizing the chances for a series pickup. But once you see “Virtuality” on the screen, you realize that seeing is definitely believing.

Moore proved through some of his other work on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Carnivale” and the recent SciFi Channel smash “Battlestar Galactica,” that the best stories are told by ensemble casts, and he continues that trend with “Virtuality.” Starring the likes of Clea Duvall (from the aforementioned “Carnivale” as well as “Heroes”), James D’Arcy (“An American Haunting”) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“New Amsterdam”), there are a lot of people that we have to get to know real quick.

That includes who is married to who (including probably television’s first married gay couple), who is sleeping with who (don’t always need that wedding ring), and what has motivated these people to leave their friends, family and home planet for 10 Super Bowls to explore space.

The key to maintaining their sanity are virtual reality modules that every crew member has. They are like mini-holodecks, of course, and not too different from the holo-bands seen in another Moore project, the “Battlestar Galactica” prequel “Caprica.” Of course, one of the early plot points that was released about “Virtuality” is that there is a glitch in the virtual reality modules, and the first thing that comes to mind are the hundreds of Star Trek episodes that seemed to use a holodeck breakdown as a catalyst for a story.

But this is nothing like Star Trek. In fact, it’s hard to compare “Virtuality” to anything. And that’s good. I don’t know about you, but I am so tired of having to hear how shows are a cross between one classic show and another. Even Syfy’s new series “Warehouse 13” can’t get out of the spotlight of “The X-Files,” despite the fact that it is absolutely nothing like the long-time Fox series.

Is the plot complex? You bet. But is it tedious? No. So that means you simply have to be paying attention. Put the TV Guide down, put the kids to bed and build a wall around you that will keep you isolated long enough to pay attention.

I mean, this does allow you to kind of separate yourself from the non-thinking crowd, who likely will head to the theaters to see “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Instead, you can give “Virtuality” a shot, and help boost its ratings, because heaven’s knows, if there is any chance Fox will let this see the light of day as a series, it will take everyone reading these words, and the entire city around them to be watching to make this actually continue for more episodes after this.

And it deserves it. “Virtuality” is great television that’ll force you to scratch your chin, but demand more.

What Worked

While I am not sure how well it will sustain itself, I have to say that creating a reality television element to the story worked great in a pilot episode like this because it removed clumsy exposition to introduce characters, and instead present these different personalities in a way we’re all used to by now: the confessional.

In fact, while I am writing this, I think it’s actually ingenious. How many times have we watched the pilot of a show, and we have to hear one character say to another, “Sure, I’ll help you with that engine, because my name is George Smith and I have worked on cars all my life (in case you didn’t know).” Instead, we still got exposition, but it seems to be far sleeker because we expect exposition in the confession chair.

I also like these characters. They are not glamorized in appearance, and you actually feel that the Phaeton is a working ship already out in space.

At the same time, we make a lot of jumps between what is reality and what is virtuality. But thanks to the hard work of visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel and his crew (read our exclusive interview with Hutzel by clicking here), some visual cue changes is all we need to differentiate between both worlds. It feels artificial, yet real enough to where we fall in.

Finally, I don’t remember hearing much of a score in the version of the pilot I saw, but the music used when the crew has to work together during a key time of the flight fit perfectly with what we were watching, and not only helped create energy for the Phaeton, but for the audience as well.

What Didn’t Work

Yes, ensembles were great, but we didn’t seem to stay with characters long enough to really get to know them. Yes, it’s just a two-hour production, and we have the same problem during the first couple weeks of “Survivor.” But there were times I was trying to remember who was who, and if there was anything confusing about “Virtuality,” that would be it for me.

I have been reading that some had trouble following the plot. I’m not sure what “Virtuality” they watched, but I picked it up quite well, and felt director Peter Berg found a way to bring all the individual stories together and make it one cohesive unit. And that’s something you don’t see much in network television these days.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

“Virtuality” stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sienna Guillory, Clea Duvall, Joy Bryant, Jimmi Simpson, James D’Arcy, Ritchie Coster, Jose Pablo Cantillo and Omar Metwally.

The pilot was written by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor and directed by Peter Berg.

“Virtuality” premieres Friday, June 26 at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

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