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Virtual reality on prime time network comedy

by Critical Commons Manager

The "Virtual Reality" episode from NBC's prime time television comedy Mad About You (1992-99) crystallizes numerous stereotypes of the cultural imaginary surrounding virtual reality in the 1990s. Series protagonist Paul Reiser is deciding whether to invest in a virtual reality system developed by a preteen computer genius, which allows for an impossible array of VR experiences spanning the usual range of erotic, exotic or adventurous experience. Narrative tensions emerge over whether the system should be regarded as a "video game," a trivializing designation in the mid 90s, which would mark it as an illegitimate investment. After Paul tests the system with a virtual encounter with supermodel Christie Brinkley, he later attempts to assuage the resulting turmoil with his wife (Helen Hunt), by dismissing the experience as being simply "a video game." The VR sequences also repeat an emerging trope of computer generated imagery of the time, with unstable, clumsily rendered layers of imagery and blocky, minimalist graphics. The human characters, however, remain incongruously photorealistic, an effect that set an impossibly high bar for actually existing VR systems of the same era. Although virtual reality may be understood in this context as little more than a narrative conceit that triggers more or less predictable actions among the characters, it is symptomatic of the extent to which VR had penetrated mainstream popular culture less than a year prior to the summer film season of 1995 which featured a record number of films dealing with the topic. Interestingly, a followup episode titled "Virtual Reality II" aired nearly five years later, in which the couple's initial investment (contrary to what was actually happening in the nascent virtual reality "industry") has paid off, sparking Paul and Jamie to consider investing in another technology startup, this time a company claiming to have produced a computer that predicts the future. All of this, of course, narrowly anticipates the beginning of the dotcom era, when real world investments in technology shift dramatically from home entertainment to the internets.

VR anxieties on commercial television

TV characters are threatened by the promise of virtual reality for home entertainment

from Mad About You "Virtual Reality" (1994)
Creator: Paul Reiser and Danny Jacobson
Distributor: NBC
Posted by Critical Commons Manager