Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"V" is for Vacuous

"FlashForward" and "V," ABC's freshman light fantasy/science-fiction shows, have returned from hiatus to lukewarm response. Many commentators are pointing to the shows having suffered from unusually long breaks between new episodes, especially on the part of "V," which is only eight episodes long to begin with and was conceived of as a long miniseries, potentially leading into a full-blown serial. I agree with the point, as it's difficult for an audience to sustain much interest in a show that disappears in the middle of a regular broadcast season for several months. However, as I gave both of these new series a try last year, and regularly tuned in from week-to-week for a full half-season, the most probable reason for the viewer dropoff is a a lot simpler than scheduling woes: "FlashForward" and "V" are both terrible.

I have always loved genre shows, and during my teenage years, I eagerly followed dozens of one-season wonders that wanted to be the next "X-Files" or "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer." And I remember the era before that, when science-fiction, fantasy, and horror shows existed mostly on syndication, and could only aspire to cult status. It's been great to see the evolution of these programs from "Star Trek" clones and kiddie-fodder to mainstream blockbusters like "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" that hold their own against any number of prime time reality shows and "Law & Order" spinoffs. However, as a result of many new genre programs trying to appeal to a much broader audience than they have in the past, we've been getting shows that do a good job of looking and sounding like science-fiction, but don't really understand how science-fiction conventions work.

Let's take "V," for example. I remember watching at least one of the original miniseries as a kid, following each installment night after night with rapt attention as the alien Visitors were revealed as the nasty, thieving, conniving invaders that they were. At its heart, "V" worked the same way that B-movie action-adventure serials worked. You rooted for the good guys, booed and hissed at the bad guys, and most of the enjoyment came from watching the creeping thrills and over-the-top mayhem onscreen. The human characters were fairly shallow, but that was beside the point. The real stars were always the curious alien Visitors, who emanated wonderful menace from the moment they set foot on Earth with their promises of peace and friendship. Add 80s-era special effects, rubber lizard-head masks, and a lot of cheese, and "V" was absolutely irresistible.

The new "V" follows the original's story for the most part, but places far more emphasis on its ensemble of human characters and has a terrible habit of undercutting the dramatic tension before it can build up to anything significant. Instead of the aliens' dastardly plans being uncovered bit by bit, we skip right over the budding skepticism and distrust of the leads to the discovery of a full-blown underground rebellion against the invaders in play, complete with alien sympathizers who have already been on Earth for ages. Yet the pacing has been on a flatline ever since, with significant developments very slow in coming. There's no visceral feeling of impending doom here, and little real excitement. Though we know the alien Visitors are up to no good, the actions of their leader, Anna, seem downright leisurely. At the end of the fourth episode, the Visitors are still focused on winning hearts and minds. So far they come off as sinister, but there are few hints of the vicious monsters that are supposed to be lurking just beneath the surface.

Most of the tension in "V" so far has been in the interpersonal realm, with our female lead and her son keeping secrets from each other, and an alien disguised as a human struggling over whether to reveal his identity to his wife. For a show about a worldwide alien invasion, the drama is kept surprisingly small in scope, limited to only a handful of characters in the same geographic area. And despite setting up conflict between the Visitors and human militants, the action sequences have been appallingly scant. Mostly the characters just stand around and talk, and the writing is so poor, the leads so dull and bland, it gets tedious very quickly. I can't imagine a ten-year-old version of myself being enamored of these endless soap-opera scenes of angst and kvetching. So far there are none of the gleeful shocks or suspenseful horrors of the original. I might as well be watching "Grey's Anatomy." Sure, the effects are better this time, but they're nowhere near as much fun.

The failings of the new "V" are even more starkly obvious when compared to another alien invasion program that arrived in 2009. This was "Children of Earth," a miniseries that was supposed to serve as a truncated third season for the British science-fiction show "Torchwood." In five broadcast hours, it did everything that "V" didn't. It told a terrifying, intense story about bad aliens coming to Earth - slowly building up and revealing the ugly depths of their schemes, and following a small band of humans in the fight to stop them. The action never let up, the focus never wavered from the threat of the aliens, and though there really wasn't much to the characters, it was hard not to love them by the end of the adventure. Moreover, "Children of Earth" didn't have very sophisticated special effects and occasionally indulged in campiness and humor. And this didn't affect its emotional impact at all.

Or its success. "Children of Earth" won "Torchwood" its highest ratings and all but saved the show from cancellation. There's even talk of a US version being produced by the FOX Network. And really, when it comes down to it, the biggest difference between "Children of Earth" and "V" is that "Children of Earth" does the most with its premise. Science-fiction is about big ideas, and it often needs a bigger scope and larger-than-life circumstances. "V" has no shortage of potential to be an excellent program, but so far it hasn't capitalized on a fraction of what the older version did. Why are we spending so much time watching an idiot teenage boy try to hide his relationship with an alien girl from his mother when we should really be checking in to make sure the lizard-faced creeps aren't trying to suck the planet dry like last time? I want "V" to be "V," not a carbon copy, but at least a show with some ambition instead of this safe, pedestrian, gutless thing they're trying to pass off as "V."


Well that took more space than I thought. I'll have to save "FlashForward" for next time.

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