“Deadly Games” faces a tough roll of the dice. Like many a primetime sci-fi’er before it, this UPN rookie boasts a snappy premise, likable leads and fun stories. And like most of its forebears, “Games” will have to beat long odds if it’s going to lure in a mass audience that’ll appreciate those strengths.
The biggest problem is the tight fit imposed by “Games’ ” formula. The series launches with scientist Gus Lloyd (James Calvert) accidentally granting life tothe villains of his self-created videogame. Episodes then involve the defeat of individual henchmen working for master evildoer Sebastian Jackal (Christopher Lloyd). Alas, by the second episode (also previewed) the formula already seems to be wearing thin. The writing is inventive and performances earnest, but, as is often the case with heavy-on-the-concept science-fiction series, things start feeling predictable rather quickly.
What might make the difference for “Deadly Games” is the fairly simple, accessible nature of its formula and the light approach. There isn’t likely to be a “Babylon 5” or “Alien Nation” type of intensely loyal cult following here, but “Deadly Games” has an outside shot at a broader “Hercules” or “Baywatch” audience.
Chances will rely mostly on the promising chemistry between Calvert’s Dr. Gus and his ex-wife and action partner, Lauren Ashborne (played appealingly by Cynthia Gibb). Their bickering, flirting and seat-of-their-pants teamwork are a lot of fun, though there isn’t yet the kind of David-and-Maddie strength that could carry the show.
“Deadly Games” does have a great master villain to fall back on. Lloyd’s impeccably refined, heartless and eternally bemused Jackal is exactly the kind of fun, infuriating antagonist on which this kind of light action series thrives.
The series promises additional casting coups, with future episodes slated to showcase Shirley Jones, Anthony Michael Hall, Jerry Stiller, Kathy Ireland and “Star Trek” veterans LeVar Burton and Brent Spiner.
Part of what the series spends on name talent, though, might have gone toward beefed-up effects. Despite the vidgame premise, there are only isolated bells and whistles, which are certainly overshadowed by the strong action and stunt sequences. The effects that do make it onscreen are sometimes impressive (the football bombs of first-episode henchman Tom Rathman), but there may not be enough to satisfy audience expectations.
And those expectations could be high — the concept (created by S.S. Schweitzer, Anthony Spinner and Paul Bernbaum) has some strong twists and plenty of potential. Somewhat rare among sci-fi’ers, the evil here is literally the creation of the hero, not some alien malevolence or government plot. Each villain in “Deadly Games” takes us deeper into the hero’s character, not deeper into the paranoia and misanthropy so often embodied in sci-fi adversaries.
Director Leonard Nimoy gives the proceedings the kind of skillful comedic feel he’s shown in some of his features, including “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and “Three Men and a Baby.”
The trick remains getting enough viewers to sample and get hooked on the adventures of Dr. Gus. As attested to by the number of past science-fiction series that have come to the primetime table and gone home broke, “Deadly Games” is playing against a tough house.