The remake of “V” that lands amid heavy promotion by ABC on Tuesday gets a lot of things right. It sets up its story quickly, draws at least a few of its characters in more than one dimension and looks very good.
But. Or maybe a small-b “but,” because in part my feelings about the prospects for “V” as a series are colored by having re-watched some of the 1984-85 series (thanks, Syfy!) that grew out of the two “V” miniseries that aired in 1983 and ’84. The weekly series, to put it charitably, was not good — even my 13-year-old, alien-loving self recognized how thinly plotted and spottily executed it was.
So if I have reservations about the new “V,” they come mostly from memories of how the original went off the rails and not from what I’ve seen of the new show. Because Tuesday’s premiere is really quite good.
The setup is the same: Giant alien ships appear over the planet’s major cities, causing awe, panic and wonder in the population. The leader of the Visitors, Anna (“Firefly’s” Morena Baccarin), appears to the world and assures us that they’ve come in peace and are eager to help us. The Visitors inspire intense devotion in much of the populace, although a small band of dissidents discovers the Vs have more sinister purposes.
Elizabeth Mitchell (“Lost”) stars as an FBI counterterrorism agent who’s investigating a possible terrorist group whose chatter goes way up when the Visitors arrive. It’s the only one she’s tracking that does so, and it soon becomes apparent why: The group isn’t planning to attack any human targets, it’s planning to defend against the invasion; its leader (David Richmond-Peck) says that a Visitor sleeper cell has been worming its way into every aspect of our society for years, and with the arrival of the motherships it’s about to go active.
The new series largely jettisons the original’s unsubtle but effective Nazi allegory but keeps intact the Visitors’ seductive promises — access to higher technology and free healing of the sick — and their manipulation of the media (wherever their home planet is must have good PR consultants), as represented by an ambitious TV reporter (Scott Wolf) who trades some his ethics for access in an effort to advance his career.
Wolf’s character, Chad Decker, gets one of the best lines of the premiere when he incredulously asks Anna, “You want to provide universal health care?” It’s a timely line, and I’ve already seen more than one reading of the Visitors, with their heady promises and darker motives, as stand-ins for the cult of personality surrounding Barack Obama. If you’re so inclined, then I’m sure you can read it that way — but you can also read it, as I do, as a larger indictment of our collective desire to get something for nothing.
And as far as I can tell, the new “V” is less concerned with scoring any sort of political or societal points than with telling a pretty old-fashioned tale of humans vs. aliens. The pilot does that very well, setting up multiple conflicts involving Mitchell’s Erica Evans, her V-loving teenage son (Logan Huffman), a priest trying to process the larger meaning of the Visitors’ arrival (Joel Gretsch, “The 4400”) and a man (Morris Chestnut) torn between his former allegiance to the resistance and his love for the woman he wants to marry (Lourdes Benedicto).
The pilot, written by Scott Peters (who created “The 4400”), wisely doesn’t spend much time on exposition; even if you’re unfamiliar with the original “V,” the alien-invasion template is so familiar that it doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation. The visual effects — mostly shots of the massive Visitor motherships hovering over cities — are well-done, and by the episode’s end the battle lines are drawn. (And yes, the aliens are still lizard-people masquerading as humans.)
The big question, then, is whether Peters, fellow executive producer Jeffrey Bell and the rest of the writers can sustain the impressive craft of the pilot for however long the series runs. Peters and Bell have said they have the first two seasons pretty well mapped, and going way back to May’s upfronts ABC chief Steve McPherson hinted that the long-term plan for “V” is a finite, four-year run. All those things are good signs for a serialized show like this — because after the promise of the pilot, I’d hate to see it go the way of the original weekly series.
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