Television is a strange beast. A different world in a tiny box. A thousand different worlds in a tiny cube. An infinite number of tiny impossible worlds, all trapped in a box. Television, then, is Sliding. It’s just up to us to choose to believe in what we’re seeing, to believe in the space around the screen. In truth, it’s the job of the Television Program to convince us, however briefly, that what we’re seeing is true. Those brief successes are what define the medium. Those moments when we turn away from the screen, eyes full of tears— sublime escapism. And I don’t mean escapism in the pejorative sense. We’re merely becoming our doubles on another Earth, where the people we watch on screen are our friends and enemies. We suffer as they suffer. We delight in their joy. This is, or should be, the point of all works of art. And while it may seem blasphemous for a BFA Recipient to say, when an episode of Television works as it’s supposed to, it’s nothing short of a work of art.
Somewhere along the line, television started to realize its power. It became sentient. And as a result of this sentience, it decided to get cheeky. It started to wink at us. And this winking, this knowing smile, a darted glance out the corner of the eye, became another kind of world for us to visit. Where we were let in on the joke, or got a peek behind the curtain. Or, postmodernism found its way into our homes. “Meta” was the new black. I’m not going to spend the thousand words necessary explaining the ideas behind things being “meta” and Television’s use of “postmodernism” over the decades. What I’m here to do is talk about “Dead Man Sliding,” a Television Episode of the Programme entitled “Sliders.”
This episode is one of the tried and semi-true plot forms of “someone gets confused for a double, and hijinks ensue.” Here, it’s Quinn who is confused for his double, who is caught on camera murdering an innocent man out of greed. Quinn is put on trial, which would be one thing, were it not for the fact that a ‘trial’ on this Earth consists of a primetime television show entitled “The Judgement Game,” in which ‘contestants’ stand trial in front of a live studio audience, who in turn becomes Judge, Jury, and Executioner via Touchpad. It’s loud, it’s gaudy, it’s a little irritating, it’s oddly thrilling, but somehow familiar, as if it was out of a movie.
Our-Quinn, as we know, is innocent. But in an interesting turn of events by way of a double case of mistaken identity, it turns out Alt-Quinn is innocent as well— his face was posted onto another man’s. Quinn is on trial for an invented crime.
Now, for anyone who watched the first two seasons of Sliders, we’ve been putting the show on trial. It’s become loud and abrasive, full of “crowd-pleasing” gaudiness. Every episode is familiar to us, since we’ve seen the Hollywood blockbuster it was based on not two months before airtime. The show has started to strive for “thrilling,” but the only thrills we receive are the ones we get watching something that had so much potential fall so totally down the tubes.
But then, this isn’t really our show, is it? Our show was sensitive and aware of the world around it. This show, this new, different, other show is mean and apathetic. It has no care for the real world. We aren’t watching Sliders, we’re watching an evil twin. A double.
So do you see what’s going on here? “Dead Man Sliding” is the culmination of this first third of a season that so far has gone completely off the rails. Last week was a first taste of how the ‘new regime’ could tell a story right. Now this week’s episode is the conclusion, brought to screen. We aren’t watching the Trial of Quinn Mallory made false by mistaken identity. We’re watching the the Trial of Our Sliders where it should be the Evil Sliders we’ve been putting up with.
And it isn’t an easy trial, either. The episode begins by setting up the cult of celebrity as it stands on Judgement World. Here, even the no-name D-Listers on our world have a Star on the Walk of Fame here (aggravatingly transplanted to Universal City Walk GEE I WONDER WHY). What else are we doing while watching this show than elevating a bunch of has/could have/never-been Actors onto a pedestal of amusement? John Rhys-Davies’ line in “The Guardian” about Indiana Jones wasn’t just cringe-worthy because it was an unnecessary poke at the fourth wall— it was a little sad. At that point in time, if anyone watching the show even remembered John Rhys-Davies, it was because of that. Same goes for the stupid handshake between Jerry O’Connell and Corey Feldman in “Electric Twister Acid Test.” Jerry O’Connell’s entire career has been spent running from the colossal shadow of “being the fat kid in ‘Stand By Me’.” Bringing it up is irritating and desperate. But we’re watching a show because we enjoy these actors on the screen, and if we want them to keep working, we have to keep watching. The teaser of “Dead Man Sliding” is using us as Exhibit A in the Trial of a Slider.
Then we have the Professor’s appointing as Quinn’s attorney. The Judgment Game’s Host makes Arturo swear he’s never so much as glanced at a book of Law, making sure that he’s entirely out of his league when it comes to legal defense. Arturo is saddled with a role that has nothing to do with his character. Just like Wade suddenly becoming an adept computer hacker. Just like Quinn knowing how to sword fight. Just like Rembrandt’s sudden Naval Past.
And of course, there’s Quinn— or more precisely, there’s Quinn’s double. We’re presented with a smarmy man of action: a leather jacket wearing, uncaring individual who beds whoever he sees and punches anytime it would make less sense to run away. Or— he’s just the Quinn Mallory as we’ve come to know him over the last few episodes. But the show isn’t putting either Quinn on trial for a crime he committed himself— the crimes he’s accused of are all at the hands of the TV executives that control his very existence.
“Dead Man Sliding” is a mirror to a show we once loved showing it for the ugly beast it has become. The end of the episode has the team jumping off a cliff and into the Vortex. Is this a warning to the show to reverse course before it jumps off its own proverbial cliff and jumps too far over the shark between its legs? Or is this show escaping the clutches of what’s come before, in order to land at its roots?
I’ll tell you: it’s neither. Because while this episode aired after “The Prince of Slides,” it was supposed to air third. Who knows why FOX decided to delay it so. Was it too good for them? That unknowable kind of ‘better than you think’ kind of good? Or did it not have enough explosions for them to be able to promote? Probably a mix of both, leaning on the latter. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this episode is about more than it pretends to be, precognitive knowledge of “Paradise Lost” or no. Unlike “The Trial of a Time Lord,” the season of Doctor Who that also strove to put itself on trial, it’s a coherent tale that brings up enough points intelligently enough to invite the audience to make their own judgement. Does this show deserve to be on the air as it is? In the case of Doctor Who, the answer was no, and the show quickly realigned itself. In the case of Sliders, it’s “yes,” but only if the show turns out episodes like this one. “Dead Man Sliding” is just too good to be an episode that’s only about making fun of Judge Judy or the Pre-Millennial fear of Photoshop. It’s an indictment not only of Sliders Season Three, but of the very Being of Television, using the medium against itself.
Next Week: A Dismaying Tale of A Man Who Sure Did Love His Acronyms (State of the A.R.T.).