What a not-so-long and not-so-strange journey it’s been for ABC’s “V,” which ends the 2009 segment of its season on Tuesday (November 24).
Worry not, alien invasion aficionados, the Visitors will return at some point in 2010 (after the show takes insignificant additional steps like writing and shooting new episodes).
It’s a strange path to attempted success — four episodes of diminishing weekly ratings followed by an hiatus of indeterminate length — but “V” tells you how to approach the fall finale with its very title, “It’s Only the Beginning.” The episode is fast-paced and plot-heavy, but no matter what any over-excited critic tries telling you, it doesn’t end with any sort of cliffhanger. It climaxes with one character uttering the episode’s name before a shot that gives an indication of the scale that the second half of the season will aspire to.
[More on the “V” fall finale, with only minor spoilers, after the break, including my reflection on the show’s politics, which come out of hibernation in this week’s episode.]
Tuesday’s “V” arrived accompanied by a list of several spoilers critics were not to reveal, a couple of which seem like big and important things, but a couple also feel completely irrelevant and unspoilable. However, like The Dude, this critic shall abide.
Suffice to say that the episode is more along the lines of the pilot and the third episode, rather than the dreadfully empty second episode. Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell), Ryan (Morris Chestnut) and Father Jack (Joel Gretsch) continue their developing resistance, building on last week’s revelations about the Fifth Column. Meanwhile, Lisa (Laura Vandervoort) and Anna (Morena Baccarin) continue their war for the heart and mind of Erica’s son Tyler (Logan Huffman). This latter plotline continues to be a problem because it combines the series’ strongest links (the remarkable Baccarin and the enticingly alien Vandervoort) with its weakest link (the blandly petulant Huffman). [Previous “weakest link” candidate Valerie (Lourdes Benedicto) gets elevated a bit in this episode, as the writers finally give her something to do.]
Those hoping that there might be some sort of “How To Serve Man”-style misunderstanding brewing and that the Visitors’ idea of being of peace might somehow align with ours will be sad to see that their nefarious plan becomes more evident with the long hiatus looming. Or maybe it doesn’t. With “V,” you never quite know who the good guys are and who might or might not be villains. [That’s not actually true. One of my biggest frustrations with “V” so far is that nothing has been even vaguely surprising thus far. As proficient as the series has been, it’s hugging its genre conventions close to its chest like a child with a beloved stuffed animal. At one point in the fall finale, Erica tells her fellow freedom fighters, “The more predictable we are, the more vulnerable we are.” If that’s the case, “V” is quite vulnerable indeed.]
My admiration for Baccarin’s performance grows with each passing episode. That she could be beautiful and other-worldly was never in doubt for anybody who watched “Firefly,” but her ability to be kinda terrifying is a new discovery for me. I’m also enjoying Wolf’s performance more each episode, but I’ve had him pegged as an underappreciated actor since “Everwood” and “The Nine.”
On the other side, I keep waiting for Mitchell and Gretsch to get any opportunity to show shading. Yes, they’re both good as jaw-set and determined, but if they’re both going to play this same note for the show’s entire hypothetical duration, I’m going to tire of it. Also, I can only excuse Chestnut’s wooden rigidity for so long. Other Visitors have learned to assimilate human posture and behavior. Why hasn’t he?
There are two other main themes I want to address, with regards to the “V” fall finale. The first is structural, the second is thematic or political.
The time has come for writers (or editors [or studio execs]) to abandon that diseased opening cliffhanger-into-flashback structure. You know the one I’m talking about, where we open on action with our hero in a precarious position, already captured or about to get shot or something. Then, just as that drama is about to come to a head, we go to black and a title card comes up reading “2 Days Earlier.” I’m sure it’s a device that predates “The West Wing,” but that was the show where I first remember noticing it and where it’s use was often appropriate and illuminating. “Alias” then started using it on nearly every episode, dulling its impact with every pointless iteration.
Used sparingly, they’re a way to spice up a show that’s become stale in its storytelling. Unfortunately, the way they’re used now, by nearly every show regardless of necessity, it’s a lame crutch.
I bring it up because Tuesday’s “V” begins with one of the most superfluous framing devices I can recall seeing. We start with action and just as one character raises a gun at another, we get the “14 Hours Later” title and flashback.
Why is it particularly bad in this instance? You know how I mentioned that “V” is a slave to convention? Years of viewership have taught us that the character raising the gun isn’t actually pointing the gun at the character we’re supposed to think is being threatened. So it isn’t a cliffhanger, since 99 percent of viewers will know exactly who he is and isn’t aiming at. And without that, the “How did we get to this point?” nature of these flashbacks serves no purpose. What’s worse, though, is that the answer to “How did we get to this point?” is so simple and needs so little backstory and explaining that we’ve caught up to the beginning within 15 minutes. So it’s a framing device that lasts up until the first commercial break.
I don’t know whether to blame the writers, producers, studio or network for the lameness, but the lameness remains.
After the pilot, more than a few pundits either celebrated or took umbrage at the notion that “V” was a not-so-veiled allegory of the Obama Administration and the supposedly irrational optimism of Obama supporters. I was skeptical that “V” had even *that* much to say. Subsequent episodes had even less of a political undertone, so I passed the pilot’s hints off as being near-accidents.
That was before seeing Tuesday’s episode.
It was a fleeting reference to the Visitors offering universal health care that caused the initial uproar (minor though that was). The fall finale, though, is practically a Glenn Beck fever dream of paranoia about the dangers of “socialized medicine,” complete with out-of-left-field complaints that under the Visitors’ new system, there are now long waits to see a doctor, as well as a bizarro subplot that seems to justify Right Wing fears about the H1N1 vaccine, corroborating suspicions of what happens when the government offers a cure that seems too-good-to-be-true. [The Visitors’s Health Care System is also prone to batteries of unneeded medical tests and possibly unneeded procedures, a phenomenon that’s far more common in health care industries dominated by private insurance, but I’ve never really been convinced that the show’s writers were all that clever.]
The health care pseudo-critique is so blatant that I was no longer able to close my eyes to the overall distrust of a paternalistic government that thinks it can save the problems of the citizenry.
“The world’s broken. They’re fixing it. All we do is get in their way,” Tyler whines. As “V” is showing us, only the easily duped and distracted believe the government when they threaten to help us.
If a conservative charge against Obama has always been that his flowery words distract supporters from his lack of substance, how can we avoid viewing Anna as a comely proxy when she unleashes Bliss on the Visitors? Bliss comes when Anna talks to all of the Visitors simultaneously, basically hypnotizing them with her words. Using empty platitudes and banal self-help jargon, she reinforces her consensus within the ranks and leaves all of her supporters with silly blank-eyed smiles. Surely nobody would ever have claimed that President Obama used hypnotism techniques in his speeches to the masses, would they? Oh right.
Humanity’s only hope? Ass-Kicking Religion (Father Jack) and Gun-Toting J. Edgar Hoover in a Pretty Blonde Package (Erica).
Some people have tried reductively claiming that “V” is just about the dangers of “blind devotion,” but it’s more specific than that. It’s about blind devotion to newly arrived false messiahs with superficially altruistic motives and totalitarian goals. If the “V” producers think they *aren’t* making a show about Barack Obama, they’re not thinking at all. And if they’d willingly admit that this is a show with a strong Right Wing component? Well, that’s their prerogative.
As I said from the very beginning, science fiction is at its best when it has an allegorical connection to the world we’re living in now. So although the episode’s politics were a bit repulsive to me based on my own ideology, I almost can’t help but approve of the show finding a voice of any kind. I guess I’d prefer that “V” have a subtextual current that I disapprove of than that it have no underlying substance at all. It isn’t like there aren’t plenty of left-leaning shows on network television. Why shouldn’t “V” be entitled to be right-leaning? It certainly should. I’d just encourage viewers to actually pay attention to what they’re watching.
“V” has its fall finale at 8 p.m. on Tuesday (Nov. 24) on ABC.