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October 30, 2009

Review: ABC's 'V' has 'fast-paced action'

By Barry Garron

After about 25 years, those sneaky, lizardlike aliens are back. Once again, they want to take over Earth and, maybe, destroy or consume the populace. But so what? In exchange for their malevolence, they promise to provide a world of fast-paced, eye-catching action and provocative drama.

"V" was a popular miniseries when NBC aired it in the pre-Fox and early cable year of 1983. It worked so well that creator Kenneth Johnson had a sequel the following year, "V: The Final Battle." That proved so popular that NBC, disregarding the "Final" part of the title, reintroduced "V" as a weekly series that fall. That's when it stopped working.

And that's too bad because the idea behind "V" -- a modern retelling of how the Nazis rose to power in Germany -- is a powerhouse concept that combines conflict, suspense and imagination with some heavy-duty philosophical issues. Johnson, in fact, said his original inspiration was the Sinclair Lewis novel, "It Can't Happen Here," and he came up with something that is less science fiction than political science fiction.

This latest update, with a teleplay by Scott Peters, preserves the original framework but shifts the atmosphere to accommodate contemporary concerns. Based on the pilot, the militaristic notes will be more subdued. Instead, there will be more of a post-Sept. 11 emphasis on questions of trust and terror.

"V" is short for Visitors, which is what the aliens call themselves. They announce their presence while simultaneously hovering in huge unassailable spaceships above 29 of Earth's major cities, including New York, where the series is set.

Alien leader Anna (Morena Baccarin), the very picture of sweetness and innocence, promises to share advanced technology and live in peace. Many Earthlings are eager to believe her, including young adults who sign up for the Peace Ambassador program (analogous to Hitler Youth).

But there are skeptics. These include FBI agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell), whose son joins the Ambassador program, and Father Jack (Joel Gretsch). Complicating things is the wave of Visitors who came to Earth years earlier and are working incognito. At the same time, though, other secret Visitors have become disillusioned and join the resistance.

Somewhere in between is news anchor Chad Decker (Scott Wolf). In exchange for exclusive interviews with Anna, he makes an uncomfortable bargain to ask only softball questions.

It could be complicated, but Peters' tightly written teleplay makes it easy to follow. In addition, the pilot raises provocative issues without getting didactic. That, combined with mythology less dense than, say, ABC's "Lost," should make this an attractive viewing option.

COMMENT: I enjoyed "V" too, though not as much as Barry. I felt the writers -- having to selling a series off a pilot -- felt like they had to rush to get to the big reveal by the end of the first hour.  As a result, the TV series version of "V" feels more hurried than than the 1980s miniseries version. So by the end of the first hour, the Visitors have landed and ingratiated themselves into society, and the resistance has begun. That should have taken several episodes, not 44 minutes. Also, "V" made me really miss the 'ol president-in-the-situation-room storyline for alien invasion tales. I wanted somebody in charge reacting to all this global change. They want to put a Visitor center in every city? OK, what do we think of that? There's so much drama there. The presidential character is a huge cliche, but "V" made me realize why it's a huge cliche -- because it feels like a big part of the story is missing without it.


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