Monday, April 12, 2010

'Hope' from Above? - 'V' Reviewed

From the current issue of The Catholic Key:

116110_0770 ‘V’
Tuesdays at 9 pm Central on ABC

By Santiago Ramos

There are two kinds of television writing: that which sounds like television writing, and that which sounds better than television writing. Critical discernment between the two is largely intuitive. This sounds like a cop-out, sure. Sometimes, however, something strikes us, and we notice that it strikes us, before we can reflect on it in depth. We know the “better than” writing when we hear it, and a sign of it is that we become interested in learning the names of the show’s executive producers. Caprica and Mad Men are “better than”; we know the names Ronald D. Moore and Matthew Weiner because they write well.

The writing on V, the new science fiction show on ABC, is, sadly, simply television writing. There was a shuffle at the position of executive producer early on in the show’s history, and what IMDB lists at this point is a triumvirate—Scott Rosenbaum, Scott Peters, and Jace Hall. This perhaps makes crafting a unified vision for the show (in the style of Moore or Weiner) more difficult, and this is unfortunate, because the premise of the show (lifted from a television series also titled “V” from the early 1980s) could be a fruitful one. But the premise is frustrated by stock phrasing in dialogue and melodramatic blocking, and it is enervated by the fact that the writers chose to make the V evil in a boring way, instead of in an alternate, more interesting way which was within their grasp.

The interesting premise has to do with aliens. Twenty-nine ships arrive one day from a distant planet and plant themselves, hovering, above all the major cities in the world. The aliens are called the V (for Visitors), and their leader is a slender and tall female of the species named Anna (Morena Baccarin). Anna declares that they come in peace (“We are of peace” is her mantra), and that they are in need of resources for their species which only the Earth can supply. In exchange, the V will serve humanity with their advanced technology, first by creating medical centers which can cure many human illnesses—for free. The television journalist Chad Decker (Scott Wolf)—who from the first episode has been coerced by the V into favorable reporting of their activities—actually utters the phrase, “Universal health care.”

That’s not the only reason why the show was interpreted by some to be an anti-Obama allegory. The V are constantly talking about bringing “hope” to humanity; they create for themselves a Messianic role in the world. A resistance cell forms against the V, led by an FBI agent, Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell), and a priest, Fr. Jack Landry (Joel Gretsch). Both of these characters find their initial skepticism about the V’s noble intentions quickly corroborated: they “need us for something,” and that they will eventually wipe us out. For Fr. Landry, the V pose a more complex dilemma. The older priest in his parish has—following a decree from the Vatican—placed his trust in the V, and he constantly talks about the “hope” that they bring to humanity. Landry, however, finds it difficult to reconcile hope in God with hope in the V. This is where the writers lost their chance to make the V interesting villains.

The writers make the question of whether we should place our hope in the aliens too easy. We learn from the pilot episode that the V are manipulative, unfeeling, and evil; we know from the beginning that the show will play the Star Wars tune of a small band of rebels against a big black spaceship. When a member of the resistance cell tells Fr. Landry, in a melodramatic, TV-writing way, “Pretty soon you’re gonna need to decide what you are: a priest or a soldier,” I knew the show was lost.

Precisely because Landry is a priest, he is positioned to think interestingly about what human beings should stake their hope in. When the V make a lame man walk right in front of him (in the most poignant scene of the series thus far), we see a direct challenge to Landry’s faith in the most concrete sense possible. Instead of taking pot-shots against the president, and then descending into the underdogs v. evil empire cliché, this show could have been a dramatic question on the nature of hope, on what we hope for, on its ultimate horizon.

This is a show that wants to be great. It apes the formula of the late, great Battlestar Galactica: adopt a tacky 1980s sci-fi melodrama, echo some contemporary social concerns, and make the aliens look as human as possible. (Even the show’s soundtrack sounds a lot like Battlestar’s.) What’s missing is subtle ambiguity and complexity—a risk against ratings.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College.