November 3rd, 2009
“Where were you this morning?”
From an overall scheduling standpoint, V’s early November debut is problematic. It forces the show into airing only four short episodes this calendar year, and it won’t return until March with the remainder of its first season. However, in terms of its arrival, it comes perhaps at the perfect time in terms of impressive this particular critic. With disillusionment with FlashForward turning into outright disinterest, there’s room for another serialized piece of mystery/science fiction programming in my life.
And while there are some issues with V’s pilot, mostly stemming from issues symptomatic of pilots more than this particular show, it manages to do what FlashForward did not. By not only providing an adrenaline-filled opening that catches the eye with sharp rhetoric and explosive imagery but then following it up by demonstrating that it has long-term social and personal consequences (that the show intends to deal with), the show maintains an expansive scenario without reducing it to a single perspective. While the arrival of the Visitors affects some individuals more than others, that interpersonal conflict is superseded by a broader cultural impact that is as much a part of the show’s identity as is any one individual’s story.
What results is a pilot that manages to be both action-packed and ideologically-driven, and the building blocks of a show which could logically remain both of these things over its run so long as behind the scenes production issues don’t get in the way.
If there is a single element of the pilot that doesn’t work, it’s the character of Tyler. The character is underwritten something fierce, the stereotypical teen rebel who we first meet bandaging up a wound from a random party circumstance we never see. The show isn’t concerned with who he is as a character but rather who he is as a character type: he is a teenager who resists the established order, has Mommy/Daddy issues, and more importantly is horny enough to desire the overly attractive visitors. And yet, while he really does only have two facial expressions (As SpeedingUpToStop put it, 😐 and :-/), he plays an important role: of the characters we have been introduced to, he is the one who most reflects the common population, and the one who would be most sucked in by the V. His naivete and teenage impetuousness are reductive, but that’s sort of the point: that’s precisely the sort of person that the V would appeal to.
Erica Evans, of course, is the kind of person who is inherently skeptical about the V, although I like how the episode doesn’t really place her in direct opposition of the V. The reveal at the end of the episode, as Erica discovers that her partner is himself a lizard underneath his human skin, is not the culmination of a lengthy search for the truth but rather a sudden discovery when she was busy investigating something else. The scene where she confronts Tyler about the “V Tagging” is riddled with some legitimately terrible dialogue, delivered as well as possible by the always great Elizabeth Mitchell, but at its core is the idea that what bothers he is less that he’s involved with V and more that he’s involved with graffiti. This might seem strange considering that they’re, you know, an alien race. However, the show paints Erica as a woman distracted by her work, and while that point might have been a bit laboured it makes the final reveal so much more effective. The show doesn’t have Erica as some sort of one-woman show crusading against the V, but rather allows her to almost by chance integrate herself into the resistance movement along with us.
The Pilot lives and dies based on its presentation of the V, and at least in the perspective of the pilot they succeed admirably. A lot of this has to do with the fabulous casting of Morena Baccarin as Visitor leader Anna, who is absolutely perfect to play a lizard pretending to be human (which, as has been discussed on Twitter, is kind of a terrible compliment). While the crashed fighter jet was kind of an unnecessary action beat, the images of the various ships across the world were legitimately powerful, and some of the shots were downright breathtaking in a very strong way. At the same time, however, you could see how the awe they would inspire would translate into the adoration and anger of the public. The show goes a bit too far to portray the world population as weak and susceptible to this kind of manipulation, but the Visitors are also legitimately compelling in their healing and health care providing. They claim to be of peace, and even when we learn otherwise we can fully understand why the world would believe them to be of peace (or, at the very least, want to believe it). It makes for a compelling threat because only a small few believe them to be so threatening, and while other science fiction has tread on this ground before (see: Cylons looking just like humans) with perhaps greater ideological consequences the tension it provides is definitely helpful to the show’s sense of momentum.
Elsewhere, it acts like any serialized ensemble piece would in this sort of scenario, bringing some character into the forefront for us to better understand them. What I like is that the episode very clearly, perhaps too clearly, creates a relationship between them and the Visitors: Mark becomes their mouthpiece as they can smell his ambition as soon as they meet him, while Ryan is revealed to be a traitorous Visitor who has abandoned his race in order to protect humanity. The duality between the V and the humans is at the heart of all such relationships, especially when it comes to someone like Father Jack. Joel Gretsch isn’t given a whole lot to do, but what he does accomplish is to show is someone who is receiving the bounty of the V and yet realizes that something is very wrong. Sure, it’s convenient that his skepticism is coupled with the invitation to the meeting (and the photos that came with it), but in a pilot it is important to establish different character types that offer unique engagement with the central subject. The pilot’s a bit shameless with that, but that’s roughly to be expected.
As a piece of standalone television, it covers all of the bases: the reveal of the lizards underneath the skin was as creepy as it should be (the opening of the eye beneath Alan Tudyk’s skull made me jump a little), and the pilot maintained a sense of wonder in this world even as the characters proved perhaps too open to the new arrivals. And as an ongoing storyline, there’s plenty of potential here: yes, some of it is less interesting than others (such as the parental drama that never quite clicked), but all of the characters feel situated somewhere between the intersection of the Visitors and humanity unaware (or all too aware) of the war they’re placing themselves into. Whereas FlashForward placed its characters on the outside of the conflict looking in, flailing around incapable of understanding any of it, V informs both its characters and the audience that something bigger is afoot without turning it into some sort of mystery. It creates a sense of legitimate danger that FlashForward, beyond the initial event, has been sorely lacking.
Now, it’s true that there was some within ABC who were unhappy about the direction for the first four episodes, and just today they announced that Scott Peters (who developed the remake) has been replaced by Scott Rosenbaum (who most recently worked on Chuck, but more relevant in this instance worked on The Shield). Plus, since the last nine episodes won’t be airing until March, which could ruin any momentum that this heavily promoted debut might have (which, of course, remains undetermined). However, what the pilot has decided is that I actually care about all of this drama now: I want this show to succeed because it’s offering a more complex vision than FlashForward and helping to fill the void that BSG has left behind. While I don’t quite know if I’m devoted just yet, let’s just say that I’ve got plenty of hope.
- There were a couple of awkward comic beats in this one that didn’t quite work, like the little throwaway joke about Independence Day, but there is definitely a sense of humour in Elizabeth Mitchell plays Erica’s parenting techniques that helps to keep things a bit light. This isn’t an overly dark pilot (which could actually lead to some tonal inconsistencies for some), and I like this so long as it can be turned off on occasion.
- Tyler’s desire for Lisa lacked spark considering she’s a lizard (although potentially a traitorous one, after all) and because signature fraud does not a bad boy make.
- Alan Tudyk was great as usual in his enjoyable supporting role, although the presence of Tudyk within the guest starring credits guaranteed that he would either prove a victim of the Visitors or a Visitor himself. However, the reveal was well-handled and foreshadowed (watch as he tries to keep her from investigating the Long Island site further), so that’s all that was really important.
- Note the “Attention 4400” on the text message for the meeting – a callback to Peters’ work on that USA Network series.