Wednesday, November 04, 2009

CULT TV REVIEW: V: "Pilot" (2009)

Turnabout is fair play, I suppose.

During the Bush years (2000-2008), a right-wing science fiction TV series from the late-1970s, Battlestar Galactica, was re-imagined as a liberal enterprise that commented on the bungling of the Iraq War and critiqued our government following the 9/11 attacks.

Individual episodes of the new Galactica series involved illegal torture, a West/Middle East-type religious-type schism and other trademarks of the 21st century's turbulent first decade.

Last night, a leftist science fiction TV series from the late 1980s -- and one that took dead aim at the Reagan Era -- was re-imagined as a paranoid, right-wing, anti-Obama production.

Yep, the evil aliens of the re-imagined V arrive on Earth offering three things: "hope," "change" and "universal health care." These reptilian invaders apparently don't appreciate "fair and balanced" news broadcasts, either.

Heightening the parallel to our President, these conquering aliens "spread the word" of their good deeds by "tagging" locations across the globe with one valedictory alphabet letter. No, not the ubiquitous "O" of 2008's Obamamania, but rather the "V" of the Visitors. The pilot episode culminates with a warning against seeking "saviors" anywhere but in a Christian Heaven; another thinly-veiled barb at our Muslim, Socialist Commander-in-Chief.

So basically, Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here has been transformed into The Glenn Beck Show.

If you read my blog with any regularity you know I'm unabashedly, proudly liberal, but you also know, I hope, that I don't always tow the party line. I was not the world's biggest fan of the new Battlestar Galactica, for instance, because I felt that even though it matched my ideological and political bent, it was lacking in imagination, crushingly obvious, and it became the tiresome equivalent of Clue in Outer Space. (The fifth and final Cylon was Colonel Mustard on the Galactica...). I think my opinion was ultimately vindicated by the dopey, disappointing way the series ended (basically an insulting wave of a magic wand that said "God Moves in Mysterious Ways.")

Thus far, I feel the same way about the re-imagined V as I did about BSG starting out, but only in this case I get the added bonus of disliking the show's politics too. Not because I believe Obama is above criticism (and I've already criticized him here on the blog for not pursuing a torture investigation...) but because it has only been eleven months since he took office and he hasn't actually done anything yet to merit the high level of hatred and wacky rhetoric we see coming from Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck and the Tea Baggers.

I mean, have we found the FEMA Camps yet
? Are our children being forced into re-education camps and someone forgot to tell me? Hell, our taxes haven't even gone up...

At least when the new BSG took on the Bush Years, Bush had been in office for awhile and had actually done something egregiously stupid like, I don't know...invading the wrong country. Obama hasn't had that kind of Senior Moment yet, so the new V feels like a wacky pre-emptive strike from Sarah Palin. It's not responding to anything substantive in the culture...just hysteria and fear; the very fear and hysteria that NY-23 rejected last night.

Leaving aside the politics, the new V doesn't work for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it fails to engage the emotions; the heart. There's no build-up to the arrival of the alien ships, and therefore no suspense in the delivering of Anna's (Morena Baccarin's) message.

Worse, a resistance group (already formed, apparently to save the show's dull-as-dishwater characters the trouble of starting from scratch...), already knows that the Visitors are reptilian, which means we don't even get a good jolt moment out of the revelation here. True, fans of the original series know that the Visitors are reptilian aliens, so the surprise is ruined anyway. But that doesn't mean the new show shouldn't attempt to mine a little drama over the fact that LIZARD NAZIS ARE TAKING OVER OUR PLANET!!!! Why remake V if you aren't going to make it a little bit scary?

And -- come on! -- no gerbils were even harmed during the pilot episode of the new V. I'll never forget watching the original mini-series back in 1983, and mid-way through the show Diana's jawbone unexpectedly elongated and she swallowed that poor rodent whole. My heart practically beat through my throat for the rest of the show. The next day at school, it was all anybody was talking about. Did you see that?!

Again, you can't pull the same surprise twice, but it would have been nice if V had attempted to thrill in us in some little way; if it had turned expectations upside down, or staged a really wicked, macabre moment about the alien nature. Here, even the revelation of the green lizard skin is almost a throw-away; with no real impact.

The teleplay was pretty weak. On at least two occasions, protests against the Visitors are mentioned. What are people protesting? Why are they protesting? The episode never tells us. Is it because they are illegal immigrants, spreading leprosy? In the original mini-series, the scientists protested the Visitors because scientific evidence proved that the aliens were hiding things about their technology, about their biology. The Visitors then scapegoated the scientists, equating them with terrorists.

But in the new show...there's just "protests." Like almost everything else in the show, this feels like a throwaway plot device that we're supposed to forget about in five minutes anyway. Another example of inconsistent writing: the aliens arrive and pulp a U.S. military plane (we see the pilot land on the street, dead...), but moments later the people of the Big Apple (who just witnessed his death) are cheering because the Visitors "say" they come in peace. Huh?

If all this isn't bad enough, we get a little Twilight-lite in a subplot involving a horny teen kid and a hot Visitor "peace ambassador." Again, the original V involved a complex (and worthwhile plot) about a teenage girl who befriended and ultimately slept with a Visitor soldier. But there, the relationship functioned as a component of an Anne Frank allegory about a scientist's family seeking a place to hide; about collaboration and resistance. Here the teen angle plays like just a ratings grab with CW pin-ups.

So the new V is bad politics and bad drama. If I have to I'll live with the bad politics, but I'd like to see the show get smarter and scarier. The world has been invaded by evil aliens...and I wish the new V made me care just a little bit about that fact.


  1. Anonymous9:07 AM

    I find I have to agree with you on this one. I watched the original mini-series on release and I was frankly disappointed to see that we went straight to an hour-long format right out of the gate; it seemed in hindsight to set up a formula that I hope we'll deviate from in coming weeks, that of 3/4 drama, 1/8 action scene at the end, followed by the final 1/8 of 'twist' conversation.

    Having the setup in the longer mini-series format, by contrast, allowed that long build of 'creepy-not-quite-sure-head-scratching' that made the original so much fun for me. The reptilian reveal meant something, there'd been some build-up and so forth, such as the hamster you described.

    (Also - the whole 'we've been living here for years among you and wow look, here's some ready-built traitor characters for you to install into your ready-made resistance' - I cannot for the life of me recall that in the original. Is my memory off on this?)

    Ultimately, the fast-forwarded V was a disappointment. I'll probably watch the next few to see what happens, but I do share your wish for a smarter, scarier show.

  2. Good review. The pace of the pilot was definitely a problem for me -- seemed much too rushed. And I think they missed a lot of great opprotunities from the original.

  3. I missed the initial showing of this pilot. Perhaps I'll catch it if it's on a repeat on the web somewhere. The original was on NBC, correct? Now, it's ABC. Wasn't it ABC that did the docu-drama of the run-up to 9/11 (that generated criticism) which purported to place the blame of the attack on the Clinton administration (and seemed to minimize the Bush admin's failures in it)? Hmm... Are they at it again with this?

    Very good review, John. Thanks for this.

  4. LeOpard13:

    Excellent --- thanks for bringing up that important historical footnote! You are absolutely right, ABC was the station behind that whitewashed (or Bush-washed...) 9/11 TV movie. I had forgotten that; but looks like the network is at it again.

    And Woodchuckgod and Nick: I think we see things in very much the same way regarding V. The whole thing had a rushed, no-time-for-drama-or-characterization feel to. It felt...peeled off.


  5. Anonymous1:54 PM

    My reaction to V was similar to that of the new Star Trek film. It's slicker, with much more sophisticated special effects, editing, and camera work, but something seems to be missing. The mothership seemed to be a very weak ripoff of the motheships in 'Independence Day' (making one characters's complaints of 'Independence Day' being a ripoff seem rather hypocritical). The effects scenes are too short to be much fun. The 1983 V effects were much more involving and their design was more memorable. Those little white shuttlecraft were fun, whereas the new charcoal ones are just gloomy.

    Some truly dumb moments. too. If I heard someone tell me that I might have to 'prove' my humanity by letting someone cut open my scalp with an exacto-knife...I'd be outta there in a second.

    Some in the media have made a real fuss about the new V being a satirical jab at the Obama administration. Some of it in V was probably unintensional ( the recent criticism of Fox News was too recent to be anything other than a coincidence to Anna's shunning of negative interviews). I don't know if the writers have any political motives, but I'd hate to think they were pro-Bush.

  6. Anonymous8:03 PM

    tdraicer here (I use anonymous because I have trouble with google):

    I'm an unabashed liberal as well-but one who considers Obama an utterly unprincipled fraud (who to the degree he has any beliefs other than in himself, leans to the Right) and his liberal admirers utterly deluded. So I find the premise of the new V right on target: I increasingly suspect it would really take Obama eating people before too many of my fellow liberals wake up to the fact that they've been had.

    Clearly YMMV.

  7. Hey tdraicer:

    Thanks for the comment.

    For me, it's still too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions about Obama.

    It is funny that some liberals think he's too far to the right; and conservatives think he's too far to the left.

    Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place...

    If Obama did start eating people (or small animals), at least we'd all agree on the fact that he's lost it...


  8. A spot on review.

    What a tremendous disappointment. Totally uninspired and mediocre. In fact, it was completely devoid of any redeeming value...just as disappointing as Dollhouse.

    Once again, your insights on this matter are impeccable.

  9. Anonymous11:47 PM

    I agree that the pilot was very disappointing. Now that I have viewed the second episode, my opinion has not changed. I have always liked the original, and I found this new series to be a weak re-make. The new effects may look nice, but the design is weak. I definitely like the look of the original shuttles way better.

    Also, there was no build-up, no mystery, and no tension in this new series. I found the characters to be quite dull and uninteresting. And as others have mentioned, the fact that the resistance is already formed is a poor example of the writing. The whole show is a disappointment for me, but I wasn't expecting much anyhow. I'll probably watch a few more episodes, to give it a chance, but so far, I'm not at all impressed.

    Great review, by the way.

  10. Yeah, after watching the second episode, I'm still a bit disappointed too. The pacing was slightly better than the Pilot but it still felt flat with absolutely no surprises. You'd think they'd try to add something new but so far it's pretty dull. I'm still going to stick with it because I hear they stopped production and tried to take the show in a new direction -- I'm curious to see what they do. I hope it gets better because I love the original so much, it's a shame if they last thing people remember about V is this bland interpretation based on these first few episodes.

  11. The show doesn't seem to be getting better. I hope the re-tooling works, because I want to like V...


  12. Just because the critics says it's bad, it doesn't necessarily mean so. the thing about critics, they don't know how to ENJOY a movie. they have to find every single flaw in a show or a movie. but then again, that is their job. the problem is, ask yourself, were your comments influenced by what the critics say? in every good there's bound to be bad. there's no movie every single person on earth will love.

    i did not watch the original mini-series (that was donkey years ago) and i watched the pilot only because many people were seeding the torrent. and i was honestly hooked. it's not the most fantastic show in the world. but yea, it is enjoyable and thrilling. disappointment? i didn't know what i was in for. so overall, i'm pretty happy.

    and by the way, the protesters want the Vs to leave earth. and there is no Twilight-lite, i absolutely detest Twilight and am a sole supporter of MLIA. it's just a teenage boy, attracted to this girl(mind you, he does not know there's a lizard behind that pretty face). if he really was horny, he'd be attracted to all the other female Vs on board.

  13. Hi Em,

    Thank you for leaving a comment and expressing your opinion.

    I appreciate reading it and I'm glad you took the time to eloquently express your point of view. Your views are welcome here even if in this one case, I don't agree!

    Now, to the specifics of your comment: it's a bit stereotypical to color all critics with the comment" "the thing about critics, they don't know how to enjoy a movie."

    That's really not true. That's like saying all Italians are in the mafia. Or all Muslims are terrorists. Or all African-Americans are lazy.

    I'll let you in on a secret. The opposite is actually true: most film and TV critics are in the business because they enjoy the art form so much, and want to see it at its best.

    A good critic will bring forward reasons in support of assessment -- with an eye towards history, context, production value, film grammar, entertainment value and the like.

    I speak for myself here, but why on Earth would I get into a field that I don't enjoy? I love movies. I love television. I love sci-fi. I enjoy 'em all, every darn day.

    To say critics don't how to enjoy something is an inaccurate deflection.

    It's just that critics do have a job (as you accurately note in your comment), and that they are tasked with the challenge of assessing WHY they did/did not enjoy a production.

    The other thing is the implication that this review of V was somehow influenced by what other critics say.

    I can categorically disavow that perception. Absolutely not.

    I take no one's lead while writing a review: it is my interpretation and analysis, and my interpretation and analysis alone.

    If you read my other reviews (of derided films like The Black Hole, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Zombie's Halloween 2,) you'll see I don't follow the herd. EVER. Not in my nature. Conventional wisdom is unimportant to me; I'm interested in the thing itself; the production, the artisty of the production and its value.

    Regarding the original mini-series, this series is called "V" and it is a re-make of that mini-series.

    It's fine that you haven't seen the original, but since the remake adopts the "brand" name, central situation and character-types of the original, a comparison between the two is certainly not out of line.

    I mean, it is a do two aspects of it compare? Since they share a name, knowing the history of the "V" franchise is of great value.

    And Twi-Lite -- well, a teenage kid and a prospective "lover" outside humanity (vampire, alien, whathave you)? Coming out the year or so after the first Twilight movie? Don't see any connection there?

    That's okay -- to each his or her own -- but I still say it's a valid assessment.

    Anyway, I really do appreciate you writing to support a series you enjoy. Thank you for providing an alternate point of view and for stating it well.

    best wishes,

  14. Iain, (UK)4:05 AM

    Just wanted to add a comment from the eastern side of the Atlantic. I was astonished that you thought the show contained negative allusions to Obama. I wonder whether you are seeing them because of the polarised nature of your politics.

    I found the first series to be a reasonably intelligent treatment of the theme of alien invasion. Why go to the trouble of using brute force and weaponry, as in the disappointing Independence Day when you can achieve better results including internal divisions among the humans by seduction and manipulation? In that respect, V is quite a realistic depiction of the way the 20th century tyrannies worked. Consider the efforts Nazi propagandists went to to depict the concentration camps in a benevolent light or how Western intellectuals were taken on carefully managed tours of Stalin's Soviet Union and returned describing a worker's paradise. Notice how Cuba sends newly qualified health workers to Africa as a way of gaining political influence.

    I generally enjoyed the first series. It was nice to see fallible characters suffering from internal conflicts rather than the ciphers we often get in Sci-Fi movies.

    I think the weakest idea in the series is that human emotions and empathy might be infectious in some way. That appears to me to be a lazy and sentimental plot device. I think it would have been better to have left the aliens... alien as it were.

    My biggest worry is that the series doesn't seem to have a pre-determined end-point with a proper plot trajectory. I fear the writers will string it out until the audience lose interest ending with a whimper rather than a bang. There were worrying signs of that in the under-whelming series finale.

  15. Hi Iain,

    Thank you for an alternative view from across the pond, as it were. Great comment.

    I am always open to seeing other perspectives, and I am well aware that V has changed show-runners at least twice since the premiere episodes. It is very possible it is no longer a negative comment on Obama.

    However, in the first two episodes, we have aliens arriving promising "hope," "change" and "universal healthcare." They are branded with one letter -- The "V's" -- just like Obama and "O." And in the second episode, an alien is discovered as an extra-terrestrial because he has a faked birth certificate..from the state of Hawaii (the state, of course, of Obama's birth).

    Hope or change might not do it. Universal healthcare might be a coincidence. But an on-screen birth certificate from the state of Hawaii? That's gilding the lily.

    At least starting out, V is pretty blatantly an anti-Obama effort. I watched the first eight or so episodes and then gave up watching because I found the writing to be poor.

    I believe you that the show may no longer be such (Obama Criticism)...but clearly it was initated as such. You don't have to have "polarized" politics to read the context.

    Thanks for a great comment.