November 24th, 2009
“Is this the real life / is this just fantasy … open your eyes / look up to the skies and see”
In addressing the fall finale of ABC’s science fiction series V, I quote Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for two reasons. The first is an excuse to link to the gleeful and wondrous Muppets version of the song released to YouTube today (if you need a better justification, let’s go with corporate synergy). The second is that the opening lines of this classic song feel like they capture the basic condition of most of V’s characters when these spaceships descended upon them. The very nature of science fiction that is roughly set in our own world is the question of whether the supernatural elements are “for real” in the sense that they should be trusted, which is perhaps what V has been missing since it debuted a mere three weeks ago. For a show about a race of aliens descending on humanity, the show has jettisoned the period of reflection in favour of drawing a line in the sand between skeptics who form a resistance against them and believers who freely choose to walk among them.
The logic behind the relative speed at which this has been accomplished is found within “It’s Only the Beginning,” which lives up to its cheeky title by confirming that, yes, this four-episode premiere event of sorts hasn’t actually managed to accomplish much of anything. In the show’s haste to define the characters quickly in order to bring in enough plot to tide people over until March (when the show is most likely to return), they forgot to show these characters struggling to come to terms with the Vs and the promises they offer to the world, and as such this finale has nothing to fall back on. The plot twists we see are intriguing (as the premise has not been the show’s biggest problem) if we care about the characters, but by separating the interesting individuals from the interesting stories (outside of Morena Baccarin’s Anna) the show has never tapped into the binary between these two cultures and the potential that lies within this premise.
Accordingly, it’s a good thing for the show’s creative future that it is only the beginning, although whether the series’ ratings future will be able to survive a rocky start is yet to be determined.
The purpose of the “X Hours Earlier” Chyron is to create suspense, wondering both how the episode gets to the moment in question and wondering how the moment is resolved. It’s meant to make an episode feel more exciting by providing an immediate sense of suspense, or showing a character acting in a way that makes you really curious just what we’re about to see. So, when V is trying to take what would normally be just a simple episode and turn it into a fall finale that will need to sustain the show for months, it makes sense for them to use a device like this (likely instituted in post-production) in order to manufacture some additional interest.
However, this particular example is over in only eighteen minutes, and it ends up more a sort of narrative shortcut than anything else. The episode partly resolved around a lack of trust between the members of the resistance, in particular Erica and Ryan, so the brief glimpse of Ryan apparently shooting down Erica previews this theme. However, this early in the show’s run, we don’t care enough about these characters to find this overly concerning, and we certainly weren’t overly concerned about whether Georgie was going to die. This device is potentially effective, sure, but it requires that we care enough about the characters and that we see enough plot to make it worthwhile. And this example failed on both of these fronts, as there wasn’t enough surprising about Ryan and Erica’s situation (they barely know each other) to make it really stand out, and the rush to get to that moment made it even more worthless.
That’s how I felt about a lot of what V offered in these first four episodes, sequences that would be far more compelling if we cared about the people taking part. I think the idea of an impressionable teenager being sucked in by the aura of the Vs would be compelling had they cast an actor with range and given them realistic scenes to play with the characters around them, as opposed to simply falling in lust with a P.Y.V. I think the idea that there are traitors within the V, forced to turn against each other to maintain their secrecy, would have been far more effective if we hadn’t just met those characters last week and this week respectively. And the idea of a LIZARD BABY would be intriguing if it wasn’t the only interesting thing to come from a character who I refer to as “Ryan’s wife” because even remembering his name is a relative challenge.
In an interview I read earlier this week, new producer Scott Rosenbaum indicated that he intends to maintain the general trajectory of the series when it returns in the new year, but that how it is executed will be significantly darker. And I think this is the right trajectory, as the problem with the show is more in how these stories are being executed than in the basic premise. The idea of the Vs using our paranoia over vaccines to their advantage is an intriguing idea, but it was so poorly executed that it had almost no impact. The storyline made no sense: as I understood it initially, the idea was that the Vs were infiltrating the flu vaccine supply in an effort to stir paranoia that would drive people to get their own vitamin shot instead (which laid some sort of groundwork for future research or something). However, instead, the show argued that the vitamin shot was a placebo, a smokescreen to keep health officials distracted while the R6-tainted vaccine went out into the public and created chaos. The former is a bit overly complex, but it at least feels like a necessary means towards an end. The latter is a small scale attack when we know a large scale attack (see: the collection of Flying Vs in the conclusion) is possible, which makes it convoluted to the point of frustration.
There are scenes here that are quite effective, but almost all of them surround Morena Baccarin’s Anna and the V’s technology that the show isn’t interested in really investigating that carefully. While we’re watching Scott Wolf get checked out, it’s obvious that he’s going to have some sort of medical condition, but when they eventually announced that they have added the fourth dimension to the medical process (time) it made me imagine more enjoyable applications of that technology within this world. It’s not a good sign for a show when I’m wishing that we could have a Minority Report-style medical procedural, but I kind of wish we had more time there and less with the FBI-style investigations. The elements of the show that have the most potential interest are to this point out of the reach of every human character but Tyler, and considering he is the least interesting character that does the show very little good.
Any show that deals with a duality as clear as human/V is going to need to investigate the differences between them, and the problem right now is that the middle ground (the point of conflict or convergence) is a long-term goal for Erica and a convoluted grand scheme being kept a secret for Anna. And while it might eventually be really engaging, the show is currently not situated to actually show us that conflict, spending too little time amongst the V society (where Baccarin is the show’s strongest link) and not working enough to connect the humans together in a compelling fashion. Learning that Tyler is Ryan’s wife’s patient is the sort of thing that the show tried to play as a reveal, but was just a contrived way to pretending as if the show really had its ducks in a row, a point which I would most likely contend.
This is not a terrible show, nor is it one without redeeming qualities. “It’s Only the Beginning” features some legitimately compelling scenes, like the great sound design in the skinning sequence, but it never feels like it stops on them long enough to really make a difference. In all fairness to the show, the four episode opening meant that it would likely have never had enough time to really get me involved with the show and its characters, but those four hours were not particularly well-executed even within that context. If this was a four-hour long presentation pilot, designed to convince a network that there is potential here with some production changes, then I’d call it a success. As it is, though, it’s a show that never quite understood its appeal, and has no clear sense of identity to fall back on.
As such, when we leave on a cliffhanger of a series regular bleeding out, the suspense isn’t in whether he’ll live or die but rather whether the show will sink or swim.
- There was a lot of talk about how the show is becoming more overtly political, with health care being used as a weapon much as critics of Obama’s health care stance argue it will be should the bill before Congress goes through, but I thought that the V strategy is so convoluted that even their dabblings into human society seem hokey and supernatural to me.
- The sequence of Anna offering “Bliss” to the Vs around the world (and some humans as well, it seems) was sort of just “there,” which makes me think that it, like LIZARD BABY (must always be written in all caps), was a callback to the original series.
- Personally, at this point, I would have made Tyler’s role in the larger V plan apparent so that a) we can figure out what it is that they see in him that we as an audience don’t and b) so that the character can have something interesting associated with him, as opposed to just some vague strategy.
- The idea that the V ships fly in Flying Vs immediately made me think of another more interesting story about V/Human integration: The Mighty Vs. Make it happen, people.