Long before NBC came up with Must See TV, the network knew how to hype. In the spring of 1983, to promote its four-hour sci-fi miniseries V, NBC blanketed bus stops and billboards with World War II-style propaganda posters featuring red-jumpsuited humans (or so we thought) and happy slogans like ”We’re here to be your friends.”
The tease worked. When V aired on May 1, 1983, more than 40 million people tuned in to find out just who the Visitors — hence V — were. Over the course of two nights, viewers watched, first out of curiosity, then with horrified fascination as the tale of alien invaders (led by Jane Badler as the lizard queen Diana) and heroic human rebels (including Marc Singer as renegade journalist Mike Donovan) unfolded. To an audience steeped in such showy Reagan-era melodramas as Dallas and Dynasty, the idea of a shadowy alien conspiracy working secretly to undermine our society was creepily enthralling: By the time Badler scared the pants off the country by swallowing a guinea pig whole, V had become the watercooler show of the year.
Surprisingly, the miniseries didn’t originate as a sci-fi project. After reading Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary fable It Can’t Happen Here, creator-executive producer Kenneth Johnson set out to write a film about fascists taking over the U.S. NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff loved the idea, but had one reservation: Americans might not ”get” fascism. With a little network prodding, Johnson transformed his work into a more commercially viable science-fiction allegory. ”The Nazis showed us one face for a while and then they took it off and showed us their real faces — metaphorically speaking,” says Johnson, recounting the origin of the lizards’ faux-human skin subterfuge. ”So we decided to re-create that physically.”
V also boasted groundbreaking special effects. The ominous image of huge alien spacecraft hovering above our cities was so primal, filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin lifted it wholesale for their 1996 blockbuster, Independence Day. Johnson, who ran into the pair last year, remembers this exchange: ”They said, ‘Oh, God, we love your work. We’ve been ripping you off for years.’ I said, ‘No kidding. Where are my royalty checks for all those big spaceships?”’
V’s legacy would be evident in other quarters as well. Its success prompted NBC to bring the concept back a year later with the six-hour sequel, V: The Final Battle (which was viewed by more than 47 million people), and a short-lived weekly series in the fall of 1984. Also, echoes of V’s themes can be seen nearly weekly in The X-Files. And one other thing’s for certain: No one’s ever been able to look at a guinea pig the same way again.
Time Capsule: May 1, 1983
At the movies: Flashdance (with Jennifer Beals) gyrates its way to the top of the box office, loosing the torn-sweatshirt craze on the world.
On the radio: Michael Jackson’s ”Beat It” begins its three-week run at No. 1, just one week after ”Billie Jean” ended its seven-week reign.
In bookstores: The Little Drummer Girl, John le Carre’s potboiler, heads the fiction best-seller list.
And in the news: the music world mourns the loss of blues legend Muddy Waters, who died of a heart attack in his sleep at his home near Chicago. He was 68.