ABC’s reboot of “V” has probably the best pilot of any new network drama this fall.
I’ve seen the “V” pilot four times now and I’ve enjoyed it each time. It has tremendous pacing, likable actors and some solid special effects, at least for the small screen. It’s an hour of pure entertainment going onto a night (Tuesdays) that’s short on fun, if you aren’t a fan of CBS’ unstoppable “NCIS” block.
I wanted to get that out of the way.
I wanted to make sure that y’all know that I like the “V” pilot, before I start a review which may spend a lot of time dwelling on why I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about the show’s prospects going forward. They’re two different and conflicted reactions and it’s necessary that both of them get acknowledged.
[Full review of “V” after the break…]
Although it’s been redeveloped by Scott Peters (“The 4400”), ABC’s new “V” uses Kenneth Johnson’s seminal 1984 miniseries as its template.
Without warning, the inhabitants of Earth are shocked to see mammoth alien spacecrafts looking over each of the world’s major cities. There’s no time for anything other than amazement, because the V’s leader, fetchingly gamine Anna (Morena Baccarin) allays all concerns by announcing that the visitors come in (and of) peace. Whew. That’s a relief, right?
But there are some people who aren’t quite so enamored of the Visitors, even though their intentions seem altruistic and they’re very pretty to look at. FBI Agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell) worries that her teenage son (Logan Huffman) might be too intrigued by the aliens, particularly sexy visitor Lisa (Laura Vandervoort), especially when an FBI investigation into a terror cell gives her new insights. Also wary is Father Jack (Joel Gretsch), a priest who takes issue with the visitors being treated as saviors, on an almost spiritual level. And TV reporter Chad Decker (Scott Wolf) isn’t so pleased when his exclusive interview with Anna comes with a major caveat.
Look, I’m just going to spoil this one for your right off: The Visitors aren’t as kind and gentle as they initially appear to be. They have an agenda and it may not be pretty.
Directed by Yves Simoneau (“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”), “V” has a tremendously plot-driven pilot. In contrast to the season’s TV trend, “V” is bright, open and visually flat, rather than dark, claustrophobic and gritty. The characters are introduced in speedy, easily definable fashion, with only the slightest bursts of exposition. Similarly, there’s no time to linger on the arrival of the Visitors or their initial reactions. If Johnson’s original miniseries spent nearly an hour on characters staring slack-jawed at spacecrafts or debating the alien motivations, the new “V” has to dispense with amazement and initial reactions in seconds.
With so much to do and so many characters in the ensemble, the actors have seemingly been cast to add to that shorthand. Are you going to buy Mitchell as a touch-and-concerned professional woman? How about Alan Tudyk as her slightly quirky, wise-cracking partner? Of course you will. How about Wolf as a slightly smarmy and insincere newsman? Vandervoort as an enticing alien temptress? It’s a breeze. At this point, Joel Gretsch has faced or been a part of enough alien invasions that he can probably improvise his way through this scenario in his sleep.
The breakout performer has to be Baccarin, who has mostly done brief guest spots since her run on “Firefly.” This is a different role for her and she’s immediately disarming and unsettling, an unusual combination. It’s as good a portrait of inscrutability as one could hope for.
If Baccarin is the performer most likely to open eyes in a positive way, Huffman is the one most likely to generate annoyance, though I think the problem with his one-note pouty, rebel teen is at least as much a result of the writing as the acting.
Peters and the rest of the creative team are so eager to rush into the plot of the series that the final 10 minutes of the pilot contain at least three or four accelerated revelations and twists that a more deliberate storyteller might have parsed out over half a season. You’ll see what I mean when you watch, but several things that on the page must have been scripted as surprises are deflected with such matter-of-fact execution that I could tell you about them right now and they wouldn’t be any more anti-climactic. The usual approach to series television writing is that because you’re hoping to air for 100 episodes, rather than just two hours, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The “V” team is in sprint mode from the beginning and maintaining this pace really isn’t going to be possible, a suspicion that makes it easy to appreciate the “V” pilot, while not having the same enthusiasm for a series.
One of the things that gets lost in the mix is the subtext, the sense of what the Visitors are meant to represent and how this “V” is made relevant for 2009.
I rewatched Johnson’s miniseries a few months ago (and many more people watched it in a marathon this past weekend). The effects don’t hold up very well. The acting is embarrassing. But what the miniseries still does marvelously is make its ideological point, with clarity and directness. The Nazi parallels, with intellectuals standing in for Jews, are clear and pointed, with a different undercurrent for some viewers in the middle of the Reagan administration. Stilted qualities aside, the original “V” holds up very well intellectually, even if it’s not especially subtle.
The new “V,” in contrast, touches on so many fleeting ideas about “otherness” and “difference” and so many different post-9/11 fears that it really doesn’t end up being about anything. Peters and company have no clear targets and no determined allegorical eye. If the original “V” hadn’t been so clear in its message, I wouldn’t feel that the new “V” had any responsibility to follow suit. But a “V” without subtext is just an alien drama parasitically feeding off the “V” brand name.
It isn’t like it’s hard to use an alien invasion as a metaphor in the 21st Century. “Cloverfield,” for example, already did a much more effective job of mining the same post-9/11 fears. And “District 9” used a variety of political undercurrents — immigration fears, apartheid guilt, African political unrest — to go beyond being just a special effects showcase. But “V” either can’t or won’t decide what its story is about.
Between Comic-Con and the Television Critics Association press tour, I’ve been at two different events where the “V” creators were asked about the underlying meaning of their show. At Comic-Con, they utterly botched an answer about whether or not “V” was a commentary on race relations in America. And at TCAs, with an extra week to prepare answers for reporters who they had to know would ask about these things, they still couldn’t come up with anything intelligent to say. Those two panels took what was a nagging worry for me and made it into an actual point of contention. When rumors began coming out that “V” was taking a hiatus to allow the writers to refine the creative direction of the show, I wasn’t surprised and, more importantly, I actually took it as a good sign, having seen evidence that the showrunners required that additional time.
“Sustainability” is a buzzword that restaurant critics like to use, but TV critics probably also need to work it into the vocabulary. Reviewing a movie, it’s a one-off and you don’t need the concern of what the future will hold for the characters and the storytelling. With a series, “sustainability” is essential. The problems that have plagued “FlashForward” since the pilot were all hinted at in the lackluster second half of the pilot, but some critics passed those off as if they were irrelevant. “V” is actually a more satisfying pilot than “FlashForward,” but if it passes a basic taste test, it performs less well in terms of sustainability. It doesn’t set nearly enough plotlines in motion and, as I’ve already discussed, it also left me wanting on an intellectual level.
I tried to get access to a second episode of “V” before writing up my review, but I was told that the episode just wouldn’t be ready in time. Hopefully I’ll have that episode before next week and I may do a second review then. If “V” finds its direction, I’ll happily endorse the show going forward, but if it doesn’t, I may exit this one in a rush, rather than watching it disintegrate, like ABC’s increasingly disappointing “FlashForward,” or even stumble along never quite reaching the potential of that pilot, like ABC’s “The Nine.”
“V” premieres on Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. on ABC. It will air over the next four weeks. Then it’ll vanish. But it’ll be back. Really.