I’m taking a gratuitous detour, today, from the world of video game feelings, and into the world of TV show feelings: specifically, the often-cheesy, sometimes-insightful, cult-classic 90s sci-fi show Sliders. It’s gratuitous because I’ve recently been delving back into my years-long love of this show, and frankly, it’s what I most want to talk about out of anything right now. But at the same time, there’s a message here that I think is applicable to the gaming world right now, particularly in the light of recent schisms over who, exactly, games should be “aiming at”, and how they should do it.
Before I begin: this is not a political argument. I have no intention of seriously cracking open the can of worms that is politics in gaming right now, and as for whether I’m pro- or anti- “SJ”, I think there are reasonable arguments on both sides. Ultimately, I just love games, and fiction in general; and I have a great deal of respect for the people who make that fiction happen.
The story I’m about to tell you now isn’t about politics. It’s about two people: people who were mistreated in the process of making a story that could have been great, and whose mistreatment left no one happy.
The story itself comes from here, a comment on Sliders fansite Earth Prime left by ireactions. For the sake of readability, and hoping ireactions doesn’t mind, I’ll quote the whole thing here:
I’m sure I’ve bored everyone stupid with my whole, “SLIDERS should be optimistic and hopeful!” routlne. So I’ll just talk about Kari Wuhrer [Ed note: the actor who played third-season character Maggie Beckett, and whose casting replaced one fan-favourite of the show and drove another to leave] instead.
My theory is that Kari is a very screwed up and unhappy human being. She started out thinking she’d be a musician, and her producer advised that she get breast implants and obsessed more over her image than her music. The deal never worked out, but her new body got her a lot of offers in direct-to-video erotic thrillers where she’d get naked. Low budget, miserable, boring films that required very little talent or time. Undignified, but the cheques cleared. Basically, Kari sold out very early and accepted that she was wanted for her body and nothing else.
The story goes that Maggie still hadn’t been cast before “The Exodus” was to shoot, and then Alan Barnette charged into the room shrieking, “Check out the tits on this one!” with Kari’s photo in hand. SLIDERS crew members gossiped cheerfully about how producer Alan Barnette couldn’t stop talking about Kari’s breasts. Kari is not talentless; she has a certain charisma and screen presence and fabulous comic timing and the ability to recite gibberish with conviction. (She’s not good with intensely emotional displays, however.) But essentially, Kari’s career was one of slapdash hackwork.
So essentially, Kari was a model hired to replace a Shakespearean actor [Ed note: John Rhys-Davies, aka Gimli from Lord of the Rings]. I imagine she knew full well that she was a hack who’d be standing where a genuine thespian once stood. I imagine she could feel the contempt and indignation and grief coming from the remaining cast members. And she lashed out at Sabrina Lloyd, bullying her mercilessly until Lloyd at one point locked herself in her trailer to cry it out. Sabrina didn’t want to do the show anymore and quit after Season 3 by telling Peckinpah that she wouldn’t work with Kari anymore. And Kari likely felt perfectly secure in brutalizing a coworker since the coworker was part of the old regime and Kari was part of the new regime.
Kari probably appreciated the steady work for Seasons 4 – 5 where she was in more episodes of SLIDERS than John Rhys-Davies. But after SLIDERS, she fell back into direct to video garbage and then some hilariously terrible and ironic things started happening to her. As she was about to shoot a sex scene for a movie, her breast implant encapsulated. The scar tissue under the right implant hardened, causing her right breast to swell with the nipple pointing down while the left side looked normal. This humiliating event made her decide to remove the implants. Which led to getting even less work than she used to. Which led to her ending up on a soap opera. From which she was fired for getting pregnant and no longer looking hot.
She did eventually track down Sabrina and apologize and Sabrina forgave her.
Sabrina Lloyd did a number of interesting projects, the most significant of which was UNIVERSAL SIGNS (a silent movie about a deaf man). She attended Columbia University to study creative writing and and since then moved to Rome and seems rather happy.
This was a story I’d heard in part before, but not in full, and the details of it surprised me. It almost seems too much of a morality tale to be true, but having heard bits and pieces of it from other sources, I’m inclined to believe it.
Sliders was a successful property, enjoyed by sci-fi fans for its emotive and thoughtful (if somewhat plot-hole-laden) looks into parallel universes, and for the chemistry between its four original main actors (Jerry O’ Connell as boy genius, Sabrina Lloyd as kind-hearted optimist, Cleavant Derricks as failing singer, and John Rhys-Davies as physics professor), thrust into a series of alternate Earths with no clear way back home. After being snapped up by Fox, however, most of the core talent was pushed out one by one by execs who wanted to craft their own image of the show – and that image was ‘splosions and breasts. It quickly jumped the shark – several sharks, to be honest, and possibly a Boss Bass or two as well – and was cancelled after its fifth season.
The image they were selling was a dead end.
Meanwhile, Kari Wuhrer, a hopeful musician and decent actor, was pushed into low-budget boobs-‘n’-guns work by an industry that believed it would sell better than her music. Passed around between jobs like a piece of meat, she eventually realised that she’d been cheated out of something better, lashed out at her coworkers, and found that even the hack-work she’d been promised could be pulled out from under her as soon as her looks were compromised.
Given the chance, could she have been a success in music? Maybe; maybe not. But it would have been a kinder life, I think, than the one she fell into.
The image they were selling was a dead end.
This is sad for all concerned, there’s no doubt about it. Kari Wuhrer was discarded by a short-sighted, uncaring industry. Sabrina Lloyd was driven from a show that, from interviews and her performance in early episodes, she clearly loved – and as a personal fan of hers and the work she was doing, that makes me terribly sad. Sliders fans got to see their show collapse, while mourning for what could have been. And everyone, including the execs, made less money than they otherwise would have.
What gets me about it is this. There are people – and they’re mostly media moguls, but some of them are my peers, my fellow lovers of fiction – who will swear up and down that what we want more of in our media is boobs ‘n’ guns. That fiction won’t sell without boobs ‘n’ guns. That the numbers tuning in weekly for a TV show, as dedicated as those fans might be, would only rise – never fall – if they just added more boobs ‘n’ guns. And that if you oppose that viewpoint, you want to destroy gaming; that the rich, 44-year history of our hobby, our passion, means nothing to you.
And yet, time and again, it’s been shown that that’s not what people want. It’s not what endures. And it’s not what the stories we love are built on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying no one likes boobs ‘n’ guns. They do. They very clearly do. And there’s nothing wrong with liking them. But no industry, no story that hopes for any chance at longevity or complexity or awe, can survive on that alone. No person can survive on that alone; and when we argue for a media landscape, whether in TV or in gaming or anything else, that clings viciously and solely to a manufactured image of an 18-35 male demographic that only cares about boobs ‘n’ guns, we screw people over.
We screw over the creators who had an interesting vision in mind, a vision you might have loved, but are browbeaten by execs into making their work fit the “demographic”.
We screw over the actors, the painters and storyboarders, the musicians, the programmers, the team workers of all kinds, who have things to bring to the table but are eaten up by an industry that doesn’t respect them as people.
We screw over the “demographic”, because men in the 18-35 age bracket deserve to be seen as something more than mindless consumers, uninterested in story or complexity and willing to tune in for anything that offers soft porn and explosions.
We screw over ourselves. Because many of the things we already love were made, or shaped, or influenced by people that a narrow focus on the “demographic” would exclude, and we don’t even realise it. Just to take women as an example, and just to take gaming: the King’s Quest series, the Unity engine, Ultima Online, GameInformer magazine, and the decision to release Final Fantasy IV outside of Japan all had women in crucial roles, to name a few. Would we want those things to have been threatened by an abusive workplace, a lack of pregnancy leave, or a bitter enmity between coworkers driven by years of mistreatment in the industry?
It’s not about politics. It’s about people. It’s about respecting the people who make the things we love: who act the shows we love, compose the soundtracks we love, program the games we love.
Surely, if we can agree on nothing else, we can agree that those people are worth respect.
Next post: gaming. Honest.