Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords

Last night, ABC's much-discussed, much-anticipated reboot of the seminal miniseries V debuted. It was a definite hit with viewers, and received pretty well by critics. What did I think? Well, I'll give you a few quick impressions after this paragraph (WARNING: I'll be discussing SPOILERS).

The original V is one of those things that many of us of a certain age regard with great fondness from our childhood. Back in the day, the miniseries was king. Every one was a ratings grabbing event, filled with a star studded cast, and usually built on a popular piece of literature (think Roots, Holocaust, Winds of War, Shogun, The Thorn Birds and everything else keeping Richard Chamberlain employed throughout the 70s and 80s). Then there was V. I watched, and enjoyed, all the more highbrow miniseries with my parents, but the networks really weren't programming them for me (at the time of V's original airing, I was a few months away from entering the lucrative 18 - 49 demographic). But for a sci-fi obsessed teen, a miniseries about (supposedly) benevolent aliens arriving on earth was right in my wheelhouse. Yes, there were interesting and, for the time, relevant messages about conservation, the energy crisis and a sometimes too on the nose parable about the rise of fascism, but it had hot chicks, space ships, lasers and lizard people who ate live rodents and bred with humans to make hybrid alien babies! Awesome!

In the genre business, the reboots have been coming fast and furious recently, and have met with mixed success. For every Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, there's also a Bionic Woman and Flash Gordon. So while I was anticipating V, I was also withholding judgment, based on the scattershot record of Hollywood "honoring" or "raping" our childhoods. Plus, there were many stories about V being a troubled production, what with production shutdowns, showrunner turnover (they're now on number three) and script problems.

Well, after watching last night's pilot, I'm happy to say that I feel "unviolated," and that V does a great job creating something new and fun, all while hitting some of the beats that made the original story so enjoyable in the first place.

Here's what V got right:

  • The cast. Not only did they assemble folks with a familiar genre background (Firefly, The 4400, Lost), they also cast very capable and very easy on the eyes performers who handle the material with the right mix of earnestness and playfulness. I love Elizabeth Mitchell, and she can do no wrong in my book. She's perfect as the harried mother and FBI agent trying to get to the bottom of the conspiracy. Joel Gretsch is great as a skeptical priest and Scott Wolf seems to be having fun as a slick and career-obsessed TV newsman. Best of all though, is Morena Baccarin as the leader of the Vs, Anna (a fitting successor to the breakout character of the original, Jane's Badler's scenery and rodent chewing Diana). Morena's "otherworldy" beauty has never been put to such a good use, and she just nails the part, with a disarming and off putting "sincerity," slightly too-perfect diction and a reptilian blinking pattern that unnerves as it captivates. The only hesitation I have with the cast thus far is the broody teenage son of Mitchell's agent, and the gorgeous but thus far wooden Laura Vandervoort is a Visitor recruiter.
  • The effects. For a TV show, they were pretty damned good. On a television budget, it's a challenge to make spaceships look and feel "real" in a completely alien world, like on BSG, and integrating them into the current time Earth we know is even harder. But the massive alien motherships were well designed and looked wonderful combined with shots of "our" cities.
  • The pace. Holy shit, did a lot happen. The avalanche of plot turns and developments came fast and furious. They arrive! They're welcomed! People are healed! There are sleeper cells of aliens that have been here much longer! Mitchell's partner is a lizard! There are "good" aliens on Earth! We got more in 42 minutes of V than I have in over a month of Flash Forward. And while the pace has me worried a bit about the future (see below), I understand why they did what they did. Like I reminisced above, I have a fond recollection of the original miniseries. So does much of the audience that might be tuning in. Plus, in the two plus decades since, we've had X-Files, Independence Day, Roswell, District 9 and any number of aliens on earth plots in pop culture. There would be no massive surprise to audiences that the aliens are coming to our planet, and might be reptiles who don't have our best interests at heart. So why string all that out, when we all know it and expect it? Let's lay out the scenario, hit the familiar plot points, and then get on with telling the story that the new show wants to tell.

Here's what V needs to work on:

  • The pace. Yes, I just praised it. At the same time, if the show continues to burn through revelations and developments this quickly, A. they're not going to have much time for character development with this talented cast they've assembled, and B. they're going to blow the transmission on the storytelling engine in no time. Now, I'm not advocating a Lost season 3 (which, hit or miss, was still pretty damned good television based on all the goodwill and character arcs built up) which spins its wheels for while, but there's a difference between sitting down to a nice five course meal and being let loose stoned in a Sizzler.
  • Familiar Ground. The "are they or aren't they" territory is pretty well trod, most recently with the Cylons on BSG. Anyone who didn't know Alan Tudyk was a lizard probably hasn't watched TV since My Favorite Martian, so the producers need to walk carefully here and play with (and subvert) our expectations and conversational knowledge of all the tropes.
  • Cliche and Cheese. Sure, there's a certain amount to be expected in a show like V, and that's fine. But if I wasn't being so entertained, I could have filled out a pretty big "really?" list along the way. Mitchell finding her kid in a crowded city in about 2 minutes? The hammy opening references to JFK and 911? The too obvious and trite dialogue, including references to "universal healthcare" and "hope?" The mopey adolescent, straight out of central casting on the CW? The lame geek references to other sci-fi movies? V needs to watch itself and handle the dialogue more skillfully, like Whedon, Lindelof and others do with wit and a twinkle in the eye.
  • Politics. Already, I've seen both right wing and left wing pundits latch on to the show and its supposed allegories and messaging. "Anna is an evil false prophet just like Obama!" "The government and people are getting duped just like the Bush years!" Oh, please. Remember, we're talking about evil alien lizards in big spaceships who probably have a McHamster franchise on their home planet. History is rife with stories of conquering hordes and valiant resistance fighters, so if the show is smart, it will play with politics on both sides of the aisle and have fun, all while keeping the stakes high for humanity.
So, V got off to a very solid start in my book and I'm looking forward to next week. Who's hungry for rodents? B+


  1. Thank you for the comment: "We got more in 42 minutes of V than we have in four weeks of Flash Forward." Which is exactly the problem I have with it (FF- that is). I have the last three weeks on the DVR and can't bring myself to care enough to watch them. Sadly, I may also have to turn in my Joss Whedon card - the last Dollhouse ep is lingering on the DVR as well.

    The other issue I have with V is that once we get a taste, it's gone until March or April of next year. I would have thought the Network(s) would have figured out that viewers do not enjoy such tactics.

  2. I follow FF, but I'm not as excited about it as they probably want me to be. I find the concept interesting, and Sonya Walger is gorgeous (and they should let her - and probably everyone else on the show - talk in their natural accents) but it's really not a "must see ASAP" for me. At least not on Thursday, with Fringe and Supernatural also on.

    As for Dollhouse, I can't believe how slowly they started the year after the initial Whiskey episode. (which was great). HOWEVER, if the last DH ep on your DVR is "Belonging," then watch it immediately. It's the very best of S2 and one of the best for the whole series. Good stuff.