Spring Premiere: V – “Welcome to the War”

“Welcome to the War”

March 30th, 2010

I was tweeting earlier this week, in response to some questions from Chris Becker about why we start or stop watching shows, as it relates to what I’d call “Replacement Theory.” For ABC, they are desperately searching for a show to replace their hit Lost, which is still pulling top notch demo numbers that any network would kill for. And so next year, when Lost will be over and ABC won’t have that viewership, they’re looking for a replacement show, something that will pick up those viewers and keep the momentum going.

However, with FlashForward having bottomed out on Thursday nights, V is the last great hope and ABC knows it: they’re airing it after Lost, they heavily promoted its return (including during nearly every second of tonight’s episode of Lost), and they’re doing everything in their power to sell this show as the future of science fiction at ABC. But, for every advantage there is a disadvantage: no show has ever done well after Lost, that heavy promotion pissed off many Lost viewers angry that it was obscuring the screen, and the network has failed to launch a single science fiction series other than Lost successfully, proving that perhaps science fiction doesn’t actually have a place at the network.

Or perhaps the problem is just that “Replacement Theory” requires a certain degree of separation: V might pale in comparison to Lost now, but perhaps judged on its own merits the show could prove a refuge to fans in the post-Lost era. “Welcome to the War” is unable to live down the problems which plagued the series in its opening four episodes, but Scott Rosenbaum does an admirable job of reminding us that this premise is actually compelling and that there is the potential for its characters to become more interesting as time goes on.

We’re just not quite there yet.

There are some things that a new showrunner can change, and there’s other that they’re not really able to deal with. Generally, Rosenbaum does a good job of raising the stakes: things seem like they carry more weight, the characters seem more focused in terms of reaching several goals, and the things we’re supposed to view as threats or potential dangers are brought to light in ways that seem more ominous than mysterious. Something like the half-human, half-V baby was left as some sort of “Oooh, that could be dangerous” sort of thing before, but having the mother-to-be nearly eat a rat amidst a craving was the sort of thing that sort of makes your skin crawl a little. While it’s no more “complex,” per se, it’s a whole lot more effective, and that’s what the show needs: I’m fine if it’s going to stick to broad genre shorthand, but it needs to do it in a way that makes me wonder what they’re going to do next, rather than worry about how they’re going to accomplish it.

Todd VanDerWerff made an interesting point earlier tonight when he tweeted that Lost, as explained by Tom Bergeron at the end of Dancing with the Stars, sounds awful. That’s the fun of genre television, really: out of the context of its execution, it sounds ridiculous, so its challenge is to make things seem cohesive. This week, I thought the portrayal of the V themselves managed to walk that line pretty effectively in that there are some pretty weird things going on but it’s stylish enough that we go along with it. The Memory Chamber thing was a neat visual trick, and while it may sound ridiculous on the surface the scene with Anna having sex with some random V in order to impregnate herself with an army, and then viciously attacking the V in question in order to feed them, had the sort of swagger that the show has been lacking.

If I had to label one criticism of those scenes, though, they seem far too clean: the show’s visual aesthetic is something that Rosenbaum inherited, and also something that works very well in some sequences (and likely keeps costs down, as there’s no need for expensive sets). The problem comes when it all feels a little bit too sterile, and the sort of dramatic punch (and dynamic lighting) that could make those sequences even more stunning is not present. One thing about FlashForward is that it is a visually stunning series, and V looks comparatively low rent even if it’s decidedly more high tech. That’s just something they’re going to have to contend with, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that particular concern.

It’s true that there’s a sense of momentum here: the resistance gets a member which helps them towards legitimacy, Ryan uses his V connections for something useful, and Father Jack has become a living experiment for the genome-adapting drug they planned to inject into humanity. The problem is that none of that momentum fixes the show’s single biggest problem: Erica Evans’ crusade against the V remains short term rather than long term. By placing Tyler in direct danger, the show turns Erica’s crusade to stop the V into a crusade to protect her son, and when that son is annoying and worthless that just doesn’t work. Erica as a badass FBI agent working to stop the V because of the information she knows, and because of what happened to her partner, totally makes sense (and isn’t that far from Olivia Dunham on Fringe, which I’m currently catching up on). By comparison, her quest to stop the V largely because they have in some way taken her son never connected, the threat to Tyler never feeling particularly real and Erica’s anger never quite seeming emotional enough to come across as the show wanted it to. Elizabeth Mitchell remains a fine actress, but her relationship with her son is quite literally her own defining quality, and while I understand you can’t change that overnight it remained the show’s achilles heel here.

One of the problem with this show is that it sort of forced itself into a corner in the first four episodes. On the one hand, it wanted to be this sort of contemplative investigation of the show’s premise, letting Morena Baccarin creep us out and looking at the allegorical potential of the V’s arrival. However, it also felt like it was always creating false tension to try to pretend the show was a suspense series, especially once they knew they were working towards a “cliffhanger.” But the fact that I remembered almost nothing about that cliffhanger, but most everything about the premise, indicates that the suspense might not be its forte, or at least not in the form we got before.

But if what I’m looking for is balance, it’s too early for that: Rosenbaum is still finding his sea legs, the new stories (and new twists on stories) are just playing out, and there’s still time to figure this out. Any show with this sort of race against time or against an impending threat will always have this sort of driving force behind them, but I think the show is at its best when it can sort of probe the responses and agency which surround those kinds of stories, and while the show was too contemplative in the early going I hope it doesn’t entirely lose those qualities now that things seem to be moving faster.

If I was a betting man, I’d say V has a good chance of sticking around next year: the green screen use means that that costs stay lower than location-heavy dramas, the show will get decent numbers behind Lost (especially debuting against only Parenthood as competition with The Good Wife still in repeats), and I don’t think ABC is willing to admit that both of their Lost replacements were to some degree failures. I don’t know if the show has a long life, being as genre-based as it is on a network that outside of Lost has largely looked past that particular part of the television world, but there’s enough signs of improvement here to say that I am intrigued to see how the show progresses over the next few months.

Cultural Observations

  • Noticed that someone dropped in a “Don’t tell me what I can’t do” there – Rosenbaum with a little nod to Lost fans?
  • The pace of this one moved way too quickly around that point, when Erica showed up at the V embassy and that Tyler hologram just happened to be set up in the next room. There’s a level of contrivance there that doesn’t do the show any favours, even if you chalk it up to the V’s hyper-intelligence/technological ability.
  • Not sure about the Scott Wolf story: Chad getting the treatment, and Anna coercing him into it, is all fine and good, but there’s a bigger media story to be told that’s kind of hard to achieve when we’re only getting the V side of the story.
  • Considering all this talk about Tyler’s V girlfriend and her destiny, are we to presume that she was intended to be the mother of the first human/V hybrid? It would make Ryan’s pending child that much more important to the main story, wouldn’t it? Just a hunch.
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