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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled V: "Pilot"
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Alone among this year’s new sci-fi (or “genre,” or whatever you want to call them) shows, V’s chief strength is its rock-solid premise. Aliens arrive in big ships, they seem nice…but ARE they? (Hint: no.) The alien arrival trope is so well-worn, one talking head on TV even mentions how the whole thing seems like a rip-off of Independence Day, or “any number of alien invasion predecessors.”

So I guess it’s not surprising that almost everything here feels a little rote and by-the-numbers. V has the additional burden of being a remake of a show that’s still somewhat of a pop-culture touchstone, almost thirty years on. I’m sure a lot of people aren’t going to be remotely shocked this time around when we find out the true nature of the Visitors. And, like many a sci-fi pilot, there’s a lot of information that needs to be dumped, which takes precedence over anything but the most basic character moments.

V starts well enough when the mothership arrives over New York: “Where were you on 9/11?” text on the screen asks us, which is setting the bar pretty darn high. A fighter jet blows up, with better visual effects than the copter crash in Flash Forward. In a city church tended by the impossibly square-faced Joel Gretsch (who was the star of The 4400, also created by writer Scott Peters, and was excellent on Taken), a Jesus statue falls to the ground and shatters, and it’s very dramatic and (heavy underline) symbolic. 

But, to take the Flash Forward comparison a little further, I didn’t feel a sense of urgency during the middle-section of the pilot. Yeah, people are excited and scared that the aliens have come, promising “we are of peace, always.” But every crowd scene looks like there’s just about 30 extras packed into the frame. The mothership is well-rendered, and a glance at the city inside is impressive, but I wanted more grandeur, more scale. I wanted to feel how shocking an event this would be, across the world. 

Because the central cast of humans didn’t have enough to involve me during the pilot’s quieter portions. There’s two almost identical scenes where Ryan Nichols (Morris Chestnut) mysteriously dodges questions about ignoring his ringing cellphone from his girlfriend Valerie (Lourdes Benedicto). We get it, he’s got a secret! Similarly, Mr. Gretsch, playing the most handsomest priest in the whole wide world, repeats the same conversation with another man of the cloth a few times: he’s fearful of the religious implications of the Visitors’ arrival. Embrace it, the older priest advises – over and over again. This is very basic stuff, and there isn’t much effort to flesh the characters out further.

With that given, there’s a lot riding Elizabeth Mitchell as skeptical FBI agent Erica Evans. She does fine, but so far, it’s an equally flat character. As Juliet on Lost, one of Mitchell’s greatest strengths was her bone-dry sense of humor – there’s not much of that here. Instead, she banters clunkingly with Fed partner Dale (Alan Tudyk), provoking a loud groan from me when she quipped at him, “solved the case yet, Sherlock?” And she has a twerp of a son (newcomer Logan Huffman) whose issues stem from an absent father. On a regular domestic drama, this would be slow going – and V is a show where goddamn alien motherships are floating over every major city!

Much more interesting are the visitors themselves. Morena Baccarin (needless to say, she was Inara on Firefly) is perfectly cast as leader Anna. She has a face that’s both soft and warm-feeling, but an angular bone structure (and a pixie haircut) that makes her just a little creepy, if you look at her the right way. It was overplayed in the promos, but the scene where she soothingly reminds hack TV anchor Chad Decker (Scott Wolf, the eternal puppy-dog) that he can’t ask her any compromising questions about the Visitors is wonderful in how it’s underplayed. There’s never any sense of a immediate threat, but her words hang in the air chillingly. For a newcomer to the show, and to the V concept, it’s a great first hint at what’s really going on.

Things definitely pick up in the final ten minutes, maybe even a little too quickly. Suddenly, almost all of the central cast is assembled in one of those conveniently abandoned warehouses that litter New York, and some guy walks in a circle for five minutes, explaining everything in unnecessary detail, as well as jarringly spoiling the real nature of the Visitors. More excitingly, some nasty Visitors show up and start slicing and dicing. It’s not as large-scale as the first five minutes, but it’s a well-needed rush of action to get the blood pumping again. After that, it’s almost disappointing how much we know – the lines are drawn for every character, the underground war has begun, and I won’t give too much away, but I’d be surprised how many viewers come away feeling surprised about any of the big twists. 

For V to function well as a series, rather than an action-packed TV event, it’s going to need to get to work on its characters and dialogue. The premise, like I said, is rock-solid. And every actor in the ensemble is perfectly capable, with the right material, of being charismatic. But it won’t rise above the level of sci-fi curio unless things get a little deeper, or at least more rousing. One of the final exchanges in the episode, between Father Jack (Gretsch) and Erica illustrates the problem. “We have to be careful.” “Oh, we’ll be careful, but we have to fight.” “Oh, we’ll fight.” C’mon, guys. This is a show about lizard aliens. Let’s crank it up a notch.

Stray observations:

ABC is airing this show in a weird miniseries-esque format, with four episodes this fall, and the other nine to follow next year. I'm going to cover the first four here and, depending on the amount of interest, we might continue on with it next year.

The introduction of Scott Wolf’s character, taking a shower as footage of him blares on a TV, made him seem hilariously narcissistic. Was that intentional?

I thought Erica’s kid was annoying, but even worse was his goofy friend, who had a dumbass grin plastered on his face throughout the episode, even when confronted with AMAZING ALIEN TECHNOLOGY. Better was Laura Vandervoort (Supergirl on Smallville) as another alluring Visitor.

This is going up before the episode airs, so I won’t spoil just in case, but was anyone shocked by the twist involving Tudyk’s character? I mean, come on. Anyone who watched Dollhouse last year figured it out. Plus, his huge incompetence as an FBI agent was difficult to believe.

“You’re talking about…universal healthcare,” Decker gasps during his interview with Anna. Take note, V writers: winks to the camera using topical buzzwords do not count as incisive commentary.

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