Reality TV meets virtuality in dense multiple-plot pilot

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Back in the 1980s, networks often used summer as a dumping ground for failed pilots -- shows that don't make the cut for the fall schedule, the TV equivalent of concept cars that never go into production. That practice has gone by the wayside, and now networks rarely trot out their failed pilots. But Fox has decided to give America a glimpse of "Virtuality" (8 tonight, WPGH) most likely because there's a built-in audience -- fans of the show's executive producers, Ron Moore and Michael Taylor, of the critically acclaimed "Battlestar Galactica."

"Virtuality" is a fascinating, over-stuffed pilot episode, and as intriguing as its concept is, you can see by the end of tonight's two-hour premiere why Fox passed on making it a weekly series. Dense and layered, this is the kind of show that would attract a loyal but small following more suited to a niche cable network than a broadcaster like Fox, a place subtlety goes to die.

Set sometime after 2109, when environmental damage threatens to make Earth uninhabitable, 12 humans set out on a 10-year, round-trip mission for the solar system Epsilon Eridani, where they hope to find an Earth-like planet to colonize.

Aboard a ship called Phaeton, the crew has access to virtual reality eyewear that allows them to escape the confines of their metal tube, hurtling through space by experiencing other environments (it's a little bit "VR.5" meets "Earth 2"). But the VR program develops a bug that results in a young, mysterious guy -- the Green-Eye Man -- sneaking into the dreamscapes of assorted crew members and causing mayhem, including murder and rape. This otherworldly intruder threatens to undermine the mission.

Commander Frank Pike (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) must soon decide whether to return home or to continue the journey, which is being watched back on Earth as a Fox reality TV show called "Edge of Never," complete with product placement in the form of the uniforms worn by the crew. Billie (Kerry Bishe), a member of the crew, serves as show host, and Dr. Roger Fallon (James D'Arcy), a psychologist, produces the reality program, encouraging certain story lines, much to the crew's dismay.

"I didn't sign up to be an interstellar punch line," says Manny (Jose Pablo Cantillo), one-half of a gay couple on the Phaeton.

So we've got a sci-fi show with a VR murder mystery, social commentary on reality TV and a possible conspiracy thrown in for good measure -- Earth's environmental diagnosis reached Phaeton after the mission began and some on board question whether the planet is truly sick or it's just a scheme to up the stakes (and ratings) for "Edge of Never."

No wonder Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly fretted in January about the show being "dense." "Virtuality" juggles many stories, and, to its credit, the show carries it off pretty well for much of the pilot.

But there's a breaking point late in the premiere where a bleakness straight out of "Battlestar" creeps in and may go one step too far for Fox executives -- and some viewers. This plot twist sapped my enthusiasm for "Virtuality," too. Then the pilot re-piqued my curiosity a few minutes later with a head-scratcher ending that left me uncertain whether I wanted to see more or call it a day. Given the creators involved, I eventually came out on the side of wanting to see "Virtuality" continue, but the program offers quite a mental workout.

In a recent phone interview with reporters, Moore acknowledged "Virtuality" may have flummoxed Fox executives with its ambitious scope.

"It's a very challenging, very complicated piece of work and there are a lot of moving parts," he said. "Right now it doesn't look like it's going to series, but I think if enough people watched and enough people got excited about it, anything is possible."

Read more about "Virtuality" in Tuned In Journal at post-gazette.com/tv.

July 4 telecast

WPXI will broadcast coverage of fireworks from Downtown at 9 p.m. on July 4. A rebroadcast will air on PCNC at 11:30 the same night.

Channel surfing

Disney Channel has ordered a second season of "Special Agent Oso," created by former Pittsburgher Ford Riley. ... TV Land will remember the late Farrah Fawcett by airing two episodes from her 2005 series "Chasing Farrah" at 9 p.m. Saturday; NBC re-airs "Farrah's Story" tonight at 9. ... Verizon's FiOS TV has added six new HD channels: Spike TV (Channel 554), Comedy Central (690), MTV (710), VH1 (717), CMT (721) and Nickelodeon (752).

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A responds to questions about "Kings," Headline News and an extra digital channel. Read it at post-gazette.com/tv.

A new Tuned In podcast contains conversation about "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and "True Blood." Listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.


Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112.


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