First things first: “Welcome to the War” is, all told, a pretty good episode of “V.” It doesn’t fix all of the show’s problems, but it gives a clearer indication that the show knows where it’s headed than the first four episodes of the season did. New showrunner Scott Rosenbaum wrote it, and it meets his stated goal of including three or four moments that make the viewer go “Holy crap!” as they watch. And while the show is improved on that score and on the score of feeling like it’s going somewhere, I don’t know that it’s improved on the show’s fairly consistent problem of making each episode a distinct unit. Increasingly, the show feels like a collection of scenes, not a TV show. But let’s back out to some TV theory for a second.
[Full recap of Tuesday’s (March 30) “V” after the break…]
Every TV show – even the serialized ones – breaks down into episodes. This means that even if you’re telling a world-spanning story about people trying to escape a mysterious Island or a city-spanning story about cops trying futilely to stem the tide of drugs into the city’s streets, every episode has to work as a unit to some degree or another. “Lost” and “The Wire” (if you couldn’t guess my examples) are probably the most heavily-serialized shows of the last ten years, but both break down into units, for the most part. Most episodes of “Lost” have some sort of flashback (or forward or sideways) story that stands alone, and most also have an on-Island story that makes up a small stepping stone in the bigger picture. Similarly, the characters on “The Wire” will usually have a small goal they need to accomplish to continue putting together their case against the drug dealers they’re hoping to prosecute, a goal that can be accomplished in that episode.
Now, it’s rare that you’ll find people who will recall with perfect recall individual episodes of “Lost” or “The Wire” as opposed to episode arcs or whole seasons. But the craftsmanship of those shows stems from the fact that they also break down into individual units, in addition to big, sweeping stories. One of the big faults of most of the “Lost”-alikes that popped up around the middle of the last decade was that they didn’t really make sense as individual episodes. The story “The Nine,” say, was telling might have been interesting, but you never got a sense that anything was happening on an episode level, which would have given a sense of momentum. (A very similar problem has befallen “FlashForward” this season.)
It’s incredibly hard to get this balance right. For every “24” that manages to find a new goal for Jack Bauer to accomplish every week, there’s a “Vanished,” where every episode may as well be the first act of a movie that we just wish would be over. Making a big, novel-like story feel like what we understand intuitively to be a TV show is probably the most difficult problem serialized storytellers face, but it’s one critics almost never talk about, probably because every show handles the question of what to do differently. But I’d say it’s safe to say that “V” has yet to really nail down the answer to its own particular problems in this regard.
Back before the lengthy hiatus the show went on, the series attempted to handle this by making every episode a police procedural with an alien conspiracy arc clumsily grafted on. The two pieces didn’t really go together as well as they might have. Since Elizabeth Mitchell’s Erica was an above-board FBI agent (as opposed to how Mulder was the rogue forgotten boy on “The X-Files”), she couldn’t really pursue her vendetta via the agency, so the show kept coming up with ridiculous ways to insert her into the middle of the action. Somewhere in the third episode, it felt like the show was figuring out a way to course correct by making the fledgling resistance started by Erica, Joel Gretsch’s Father Jack and Morris Chestnut’s Ryan more important to things and building up a pseudo-military “mission of the week” show. Unfortunately, the series kept resisting this impulse and heading off for more bland FBI adventures. (Not to keep comparing the two shows, but “FlashForward” has, again, had a similar problem. Actually, take every problem in the new TV show book and “FlashForward” has it.)
To me, the biggest problem with “Welcome to the War” is that I don’t know I could tell you what it’s about. It feels like a lengthy attempt to just keep every possible ball the show has suspended in mid-air. I suspect that it’s supposed to be about Erica trying to get her son back from the Vs or the resistance tracking down mercenary Kyle Hobbs, but neither plot gets the kind of attention it would need to fully succeed. Erica behaves oddly passively in both. Sure, she goes to get her son back from the V mothership, but once she realizes he’s deep inside of there, she seems to completely forget about it (beyond a few cursory mentions). This would be fine if the Hobbs plot had any interest to it, but Erica seems to mostly have leads fall into her lap here, too. By trying to keep all of its options open, “V” creates what feels like a curiously passive heroine for someone who opens the episode by engaging in a knock-down, drag-out fight with an alien dude.
Or maybe this is supposed to be the episode where Morena Baccarin’s Anna manipulates Scott Wolf’s Chad into doing that story she wants him to do on the Vs medical centers. Or the one where she raises an army of her own by mating with one of her soldiers and then devouring him (in one of the episode’s nicest “Holy crap!” moments). Again, however, these two episodes got so caught up in the amount of stuff just going on that they didn’t really have the resonance they needed to sink in. Similar things happened to the plot where Ryan’s fiancee, Valerie (Lourdes Benedicto), was dealing with how voracious her new pregnancy makes her (and wouldn’t she have noticed the hunger before the pregnancy?). Again, there was a terrifically fun moment here – where Val regarded a mouse in a mousetrap and seemed to really want to eat it – a moment that called back to the original series, no less, but it felt like it was stranded in a sea of other stuff that was just sorta going on.
I will say that I’m liking Rosenbaum’s commitment to those “Holy crap!” moments. I loved when Jack seemed to turn into a lizard, even though I knew it had to be a dream. When Ryan showed Kyle his alien eye, it was a lot of fun, too. The original episodes of this show could feel weighty and ponderous, and while this episode has a bad case of that in a few scenes – like all of the times Anna and her daughter talk about destiny – for the most part, the episode is trying to deliver us goofy fun. Goofy fun is what I hope the show aims for, so I’m generally encouraging of this direction. But I don’t know that the show has yet found an episode-to-episode format that will support that goofy fun. I’m encouraged that the show is trying and heading in the right direction, but I’m not sure how long viewers will give it a chance to cohere before abandoning it. Put another way, the time slot after “Lost” is not the best place to undertake a rebuilding project.
Some other thoughts:
***Is it just me or was this episode nearly politics free? I don’t mind if the show wants to get heavy on the social commentary or abandon it entirely. I’d just rather it not give me whiplash with how quickly it does so (or doesn’t do so).
***It’s worth saying that that fight scene at the start of the episode WAS pretty cool. I’m a big fan of fights where people use everyday objects as weapons, and this was a great example of that. Any time you have a giant brawl in a kitchen, I find it tends to go well.
***I like that V mating apparently involves a lot of sniffing. I mean, of COURSE it does.
***Look, I know that no one on TV wants to talk about abortion, but if you’re a lizard alien and your heart-condition-bearing human girlfriend who probably couldn’t carry a normal pregnancy to term (much less survive it) is pregnant with your scaly spawn and she’s thinking about eating a mouse, wouldn’t you at least entertain the option? Regardless of your own personal feelings on the issue, it’s gotta at least cross your mind, right?
***Not sure the ensemble needs more characters, so Kyle Hobbs better have some nifty reason to be here. Otherwise, I’ll just be sad that he seems to take time away from crazy George.
And here’s your discussion question for the week: Just what the hell do the Vs see in Tyler? Does anyone even care?