ABC’s new version of “V” wants to be a lot of things. It would like to become your latest “Lost”-like obsession. It would like to have the hard-hitting social commentary of the “Battlestar Galactica” remake. It would even be fine with the heavy-handed allegory of the original “V.” But in the pilot, the show is given to big twists that land so breathlessly that they don’t have room to really establish themselves and generic cop drama with an alien veneer. There are quite a few entertaining moments in the “V” pilot. There are also quite a few that fall absolutely flat. Overall, I’m positive on the show’s pilot but a lot less so than many of the critics singing its praises. Something about it rubs me the wrong way, and it’s taken me this long to figure out what it is: It’s trying too hard.
Now, granted, a lot of that could just be a case of pilot-itis, wherein a show tries so hard to create something salable to a network as well as appealing to audiences that it crams in too much stuff to really be a good episode in and of itself. And that’s OK. It happens. Good-to-great series have resulted from slightly overstuffed pilots (see: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” for another genre-friendly one), and trying to get everything from what a normal episode might look like to making sure the audience understands the exact nature of the otherworldly menace of your series into a genre series pilot is a common pitfall. It’s just blatantly obvious in the pilot for “V,” which opens and closes well but has a very messy middle.
Let’s start with that nice opening, though. The series quickly establishes all of the main characters we’ll be hanging out with in the weeks to come, then almost immediately drops aliens into the midst of them. “V” knows why you’re here. You want that sweet, sweet alien action, and it is only too happy to oblige. While the image of alien motherships hovering above major metropolises is not exactly the most original idea in the world, it’s an image that still carries a potent kick to it. It still has that great feeling of offering up a reality just similar enough (and plausible enough) when compared to our own that it’s disorienting to see that one thing different that makes it science fiction and not “Brothers & Sisters” or something.
The arrival of the aliens is a pretty great moment throughout, but it’s really sealed by Morena Baccarin’s Anna suddenly appearing on the giant screen that makes up the underside of the ship and addressing Earth in a variety of languages. The V’s? They’re only here to help. They don’t want to cause problems. They just want to bring peace, cure all disease, be our best friends and take up permanent residence in our sexual fantasies. Isn’t that nice of them? Baccarin is nicely unreadable as Anna, and her performance seems destined to bring her the level of attention she’s never quite achieved. She’s easily the best part of the show.
Another nice thing about these opening moments — as noted by this site’s own Daniel Fienberg — is how… open they seem. The show’s color palette is by no means “Ugly Betty” style Day-Glo oppressive, but it’s also not buried in the sorts of dank gloom that undermine way too many genre shows. Occasionally, it seems like every show saw “Blade Runner” and the “Galactica” remake, pursed its lips together, then said, “Do that,” but the genre shows that tend to catch on (with the exception of the stylistically all-over-the-place “X-Files”) are ones that have more open and vibrant visuals, like “Star Trek” in all its incarnations and “Lost” back in the first two seasons. It’s just nice to look at the swooping, faux-futuristic interiors of the V mothership or the pleasantly lived-in houses that all of the characters live in and not have to sort through several layers of gloom.
Sadly, though, after that, the series settles into cop show mode. There’s rarely a sense that aliens have just arrived and made everyone on Earth question their priorities beyond some obligatory shots of full churches. While it’s admirable to show that people’s lives go on in the face of the entire human sense of cosmology being upended, the series badly feels like it’s trying to conflate a lot of events, and it just feels silly that a woman would pick a fight with her long-term boyfriend about why he’s being so suspicious when an alien spaceship is hovering overhead. Put another way, my family found out my grandfather had brain cancer on Sept. 11 (yes, that one), but we still pretty much kept all eyes on the news. It might be interesting if the show played up the idea that the woman was questioning everything she knew BECAUSE the aliens had arrived, but the series doesn’t really bother feinting in this direction either. Even worse is a scene where Elizabeth Mitchell’s Erica tries to talk to her son about how his pro-V tagging is not a good idea. It plays poorly, like an over-obvious attempt to capitalize on the way “Battlestar” incorporated major news and political events into its storylines. “What if aliens could use social networking sites and other youth culture signifiers?” the show asks, then turns the question into a banal attempt to humanize two characters through the least interesting methods possible.
But while most of the middle section of the episode is given over to Erica slowly figuring out how to tail a terrorist cell that saw a spike in activity when the V’s first arrived and Joel Gretsch’s Father Jack beginning to realize the V’s are as bad as he expected with occasional shots of Erica’s son and his friend becoming enmeshed in a program designed to celebrate the V’s, the end pulls everything back together. The way the end of the episode plays is almost too breathless, as though the show wants to get everything in place for episode two by not only revealing that the V’s are evil but also that there are traitor V’s AND that Erica and Jack are going to form a resistance AND that Erica’s son (Logan Huffman) is now among the V’s. But it’s a good kind of breathless for the most part, with at least one good jolt (when the eye of the lizard underneath Alan Tudyk looks up at Erica).
I’m not sure that “V” has anything to say about our current life and times on planet Earth. I also suspect that it will – almost entirely unintentionally – become the favorite show of the entire right wing media establishment almost entirely because of a few lines taken out of context. It’d be one thing if “V” were consistently anti-Obama (as some have alleged), but the show is mostly going out of its way to avoid ANY discussion of politics or race or anything that might be too unpleasant, in favor of big, exciting alien action. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, since a show where attractive people kill lizard aliens could be a lot of fun, but every time the show tries to split the difference, it ends up feeling like an uneasy amalgam of other, better series.
Some other thoughts:
One bit of social commentary that DOES sort of play is the storyline featuring Scott Wolf’s compromised reporter trying to figure out the right way to approach the fact that he’s essentially now in Anna’s pocket. Reporters who are too close to their subjects are a dime a dozen in fiction, but Wolf’s capturing the in-over-my-head vapidity of a lot of cable news anchors almost perfectly.
I keep wondering if this show would have been better if it had started at roughly where the second season will begin (I assume), with the V’s having turned humans into their happy slaves and Erica and Jack running their resistance from the woods, “Red Dawn” style. I get that the series wants to do callbacks to the original show and the best way to do that is to start with the aliens arriving, but TV storytelling has evolved since the ’80s, and it might have been way more exciting to start with the resistance already in place and struggling.
Your question for discussion: When will Morena Baccarin devour a small mammal? It’s only a matter of time, after all.