David Grey/ABC
Jeff Jensen
November 04, 2009 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Visitors arrived last night, bringing hopeful slogans (”We are of peace”) and the promise of a ”Yes We Can!” future. They had telegenic smiles, silver-hued couture, and eyes so friendly and flying saucer large you could fall into them and drift away into oceanic bliss. True, they have that creepy blinking thing going on — like a boa constructor fluttering excitedly at the sight of an abandoned baby in the woods. But that’s an easy quirk to overlook when they’ve got an Audrey Hepburn look-alike for a leader (Morena Baccarin, late of — sob! — Firefly) and miracle cures for the sick and infirm. Plus: Free rides on beagle-shaped anti-gravity shuttles and public tours of ginormous motherships! But for intrepid FBI agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell, late of — double sob! — Lost) and skeptical priest Father Jack (Joel Gretsch, late of The 4400; I’d weep for that, too, but I didn’t watch), the private discovery of two unsettling truths left them convinced that the seemingly angelic nature of these interstellar nomads is actually a devilish ruse. Truth No. 1: The Visitors have actually been here for years, hiding in plain sight, plotting… something. Truth No. 2: Underneath that costume of creamy-sexy flesh, something cold blooded and reptilian oozes and breathes and maybe, just maybe, hungers. Hide your infants and pets, planet earth: it appears we’ve been invaded by some sneaky foodies on an interplanetary culinary crawl.

But let’s stress that ”maybe.” And stress appears, too. Because we could be totally wrong about these so-called ”Visitors.” Indeed, ABC’s V — a spiffy-sleek reinvention of the golly-cheeze-whiz eighties classic, engineered for an era that likes its sci-fi mysteriously shaded and smarty-pants cerebral — clearly wants us to play the guessing game of ”WTH’s really going on here?” Do these don’t-call-them-aliens aliens harbor a sinister takeover agenda? Or do these reptiles-in-disguise really come in peace? Recent sci-fi pop has specialized in dramatizing post-catastrophe cultures. See: Lost, Battlestar Galactica. V wants to be a freaky fable about reconstruction anxiety. Our own real-world jitters about the authenticity and ambition of brazenly bold do-gooding leaders are reflected in the show. Can we really trust the charismatic crusader with the crackerjack plan for the future? What’s the secret pricetag on a Brave New World? How can we be certain this new administration won’t lead us into a new kind of ruin, let alone turn us all into sex slaves servicing the pervy desires of an evil megalomaniac who resembles the hot high class shuttle whore on Firefly? Because ladies and gentlemen, I do worry about that. Every. Single. Minute.

The first nine-minutes of V‘s mostly entertaining, though occasionally infuriating, pilot deftly introduced the main characters as 29 island-sized space cruisers (they evoked snake heads to me, but maybe I’m projecting) descended upon the globe fully attended with the clang and clatter of much Rapture symbolism. The Earth shook, a jet fell from the sky (a cataclysm pop cliché by now, don’t you think?), everyone looked toward the heavens with mouths agape (insert seagull/Cindy Lauper joke here) and got fake-baked by clean white light blasted from the high-def superduperjumbotrons embedded in the underbellies of each spaceship. All that was missing was Handel’s ”Hallelujah!” chorus to drive it home, although there was this none-too-subtle act ending exchange from Mitchell’s Erica and her son:

”My God…”
”Yeah.”

There were a couple groaners like that during this otherwise impressive set-up sequence. I could have done without the portentous, pretentious questions that opened the show. ”Where were you when JFK died? Where were you on 9-11? Where were you this morning?” (My answers: 1. Wasn’t alive in ’63. 2. Driving to work. 3. On the toilet, thinking about Lost.) Why bother with doing the hard work of establishing a sense of urgency with top-notch drama when you can just shamelessly punch real-life psychic wounds? Hey, kids! Remember that time the world went crazy and made you feel like s—? Okay, now: feel the same way about what you’re about to see. Trust us! It’ll be fun!

NEXT: Who’s ripping of who?

And then, there was this bit of self-serving business, filtered through a fleeting aside between two cliché geeks lazily pulled from central casting:

Geek 1: Dude, this IS Independence Day!
Geek 2: Which was a rip-off of any number of alien invasion predecessors!

At first, I giggled at this knowing gag, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me, because it made me wonder if it was aimed squarely at the kind of people V is counting on to be its most ardent supporters — the kind of people, in fact, that like to gather at blogs and chatter about pop culture. Allow me to translate:

Dear Chat Room Nitpickers—er, Newly Hatched V Fans!

Hi. The new V here. It’s really nice to meet you. I hope this is the start of a beautiful relationship between us — me entertaining you; you, watching, loyally, even when I am not all that entertaining. I’m really looking forward to trolling the Internet every Wednesday morning to read your exuberantly irrational exultations and hypercritical lacerations to my weekly labor. But if I may, I’d like to preemptively rebut a bit of geekery that will inevitably come up in your blatherings below: I am not ripping off Independence Day. I repeat: I. AM. NOT. RIPPING. OFF. INDEPENDENCE. DAY. Don’t even go there. And if you’re tempted to, well, just shut your air-breathing mouth, okay? Because if you remember, Independence Day was technically ripping off the original V, which beat Independence Day to the whole ‘Spaceships Squatting Over World Cities’ thing by 10 years. So I’m not ripping off Independence Day. Or District 9. Or anything else, with the very, very slight exception of the original V, which I admit I had nothing to do with, even though I am already vastly superior to it in every single conceivable possible way anyone anywhere could possibly in a trillion billion years ever think of. Even you. But that’s the ONLY thing I’m just ripping off. The original V. Okay? Okay.

Hugs,
Me, the new V

NEXT: Take me to your leader…oh, she’s hot

Your characters:

ANNA (Baccarin) Leader of the ”Vs” (that’s the shorthand; read: Veez), and gorgeous to the point of distraction, which is clearly the point. I likened her to Audrey Hepburn above — but I’ll also accept Tatou, too, if you’d rather. And in the early scenes, with those close-ups on her face that accentuated that cropped haircut, she radiated an androgynous beauty that reminded me of post-Purple Rain poodle-coiffed Prince. In fact, as she was broadcasting her we-mean-you-no-harm spiel to the world via her closed-circuit network of floating tanning beds, I was hearing Prince’s robotic voice-of-god intro to ”1999,” which goes: ”Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you. I only want you to have some fun.” (Again: This might be just a me thing.) What the Vs want, according to Anna, is some water and an unspecified mineral unique to Earth. In exchange: cutting edge technology, neighborhood healing centers offering remedies to 65 different ailments, and afterschool outreach programs designed to whip our delinquent Wii-whacking youth into activist community organizers. She claimed to be ”overjoyed” that her people had discovered sentient life forms just like them in the universe, and apologized for the profound disruption caused by their arrival. Sorry to just drop in and obliterate your philosophical, spiritual, and scientific worldviews like this — but could you spare a cup of sugar? And she further insisted that after replenishing themselves with our liquids and unmentionables, ”we will leave you, hopefully better than we found you” — as if their visit is nothing more than a gas station pitstop. But I totally bought what the exotic brown-eyed girl was selling — though I thought the moment where her address was greeted with a rousing ovation from the New Yorkers below was totally cornball.

ERICA EVANS (Mitchell) I loved how we were introduced to her with a push-in on her awakening eye — just like how Lost intro’d her Juliet back in season 3. She’s an FBI agent, assigned to anti-terrorism and partnered with DALE (the great Alan Tudyk, also late of Firefly), about whom I will have more to say later. (A preview: I. AM. PISSED.) She’s divorced and has a son, TYLER (Logan Huffman), an angry young man lurching waywardly through teenage rebellion and hellbent on punishing his workaholic mommy for driving away his no-great-shakes-either daddy. (On the day of the Visitors’ arrival, he made sure Tyler was okay by… leaving a voicemail.) V‘s premiere worked hard to create a world bereft of credible, inspiring authority figures and clearly vulnerable to anyone selling snakeoil spiked with Meaning, Purpose, and Direction. Tyler stands in for all kids rocked, emptied, and just generally screwed by broken homes, absent or distracted parents, or lame adult role models. What the kid needs is a spot on a basketball team, or a World of Warcraft account, or membership in one of those old fashioned switchblade-flicking, heroin-slinging street gangs that have provided brotherhood and belonging to so many of our nation’s disenfranchised young men over the years. Instead, Tyler — dazzled the Vs’ counter-culture/rock star vibe; wowed by their Holy Steven Spielberg! awesomeness; and smitten by a blonde beauty V named LISA (Laura Vandervoort, aka Kara from Smallville) — becomes a born again V-ophile. I thought the Erica-Tyler showdown over the boy’s V obsession and neighborhood ”V” tagging (it’s not graffiti — it’s ”spreading hope”) was one of the episode’s best scenes; I loved how Erica’s high-hat righteousness, administered with blistering sarcasm, bounced off against Tyler’s newfound steel — and how her mad scramble to salvage the moment brought her face to face with her son’s justifiable rage and her own failure. By episode’s end, Tyler enlists in the Visitors’ ”Peace Ambassadors” program, whose perks including getting to ”hang out” with Vs and ”learn about their culture” and whose responsibilities include promoting pro-V propaganda in their neighborhoods. Our cynical read is supposed to be: Nazi Brownshirt/religious cult. (Weirdly, no one on the show itself makes this connection, suggesting that in the world of V, neither WWII nor an Anonymous protest has ever occurred.) Ryan’s fate may be encoded in the name of the church led by this guy…

NEXT: Crisis of faith<p.

FATHER JACK LANDRY (Gretsch) He’s a Bible-believing scriptural literalist and second in command at St. Josephine’s Church — St. Josephine being Josephine Bakhita, whose harrowing life story is marked by slavery, forced religious conversion, and trauma so profound she forgot her given name. That’s some seriously heavy stuff. But in the world of V, healthy, able-bodied, securely employed people have no real use for religion. A robust ”spiritual connection” that can provide an ethical compass for living and cosmological context for existing? Bah! That’s for losers. Services at St. Josephine’s go largely unattended; according to Father Jack, the congregation consists of ”a heroin addict, two bag ladies, and Roy,” a geezer with ruined legs. In other words: people in dire straights, desperate for divine intervention that never comes. Like Tyler’s father, God in V is experienced as a non-entity, irrelevant and replaceable. Hammering the point home was a scene in which the statue of a crucified Jesus is made to fall by the quake of the arriving alien armada and shatters when it hits the floor, nearly crushing Wheelchair Roy in the process. Later, Wheelchair Roy finally gets the miracle cure he’s been praying daily for and regains his legs — thanks to the Vs technologically advanced medicine. Sorry, Yahweh, but there’s a new deity in town, and she’s blinding us with science!

And so it is that V speaks to a current moment when God has been deemed a dangerous delusion by The New Atheists. Truthfully, I thought most of V’s explicitly religious stuff was much too expository and dramatically clunky. But some of the ideas were provocative, if not overly fresh; the whole idea that a close encounter of the up close and personal kind would actually drive the faithless masses back to church, as they struggle to make sense of the implications, was a theme explored in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact as well as Robert Zemeckis’ feature film adaptation. Father Jack’s hand-wringing over of mankind’s V-worship — gratitude morphing into devotion morphing into zealotry — functioned as a succinct critique of all religions, including his own, though it bugged me that he wasn’t allowed to acknowledge the irony; it just made the character look stupid. It’s interesting to make the show’s man of faith its most articulate voice of reasonable skepticism about the Vs, but I think the show’s writers should sharpen and clarify Father Jack’s theological tumult. I simply didn’t believe his unwillingness to accept The Vatican acceptance of the Vs as ”God’s creatures,” nor did I believe his line ”I’m at a loss for explaining how God and aliens can exists in the same universe.” Actually, I think a real priest would accept the Vatican’s position, and I also think a thoughtful, brainy theologian could put God and aliens in the bed together and still respect himself in the morning. I suspect the only real reason V wants to make Father Jack so contrarian is to feed its larger What Do You Do If You Don’t Trust Your Leaders? Thematic. Tune in for V ‘s season’s finale, when a fed up Father Jack gives The Pope a good tongue-lashing and then angrily resigns his collar to become… an Anglican. The horror!

CHAD DECKER (Scott Wolf — Party of Five; Everwood) This is a good character. Chad is a newsreader for a cable news network who’s tired of being a mere talking head and yearns to do real journalism. Truly a hero for our times! Still, I was bugged by what struck me as inconsistent characterization. Quickly after being introduced to Chad as a reporter who craves respect, we see him rail at his colleagues for disrespecting Anna by pelting her with smart, tough questions about her origins and physiology. Chad’s idea of probing inquiry: Why are all you Vs so gosh darn perty? That’s pretty softball, and it really didn’t gibe with the Chad we met moments earlier, making a big stink about failing to get approval for a hard-hitting interview with the vice president. It made me wonder if maybe Chad was actually conceived as vain and venal, a satirical poke at infotainer anchormen, but was subsequently tweaked via an added scene or two in order to make him more likable to audiences. Someone should ask a serious, hard-hitting entertainment journalist to go find out if I’m right about that.

Regardless, I dig Chad, and being a journalist, I can empathize with his essential conflict. Intrigued by his flirty-banal question, Anna took a shine to Chad, and while ogling him on her hologram TV, she declared ”I want him.” Now, if you know the original V, and if you can recall its most infamous moment — in which the Anna analog opens her jaws grotesquely wide and swallows a guinea pig whole — your imagination might have run a little wild with the implications of Anna’s fluttery-eyed hunger. Mine certainly did. But after a cold shower, I resumed watching, only to learn that what Anna really meant was she wished to invite Chad to her sky fortress and allow him to service her… with a live interview. Her motivation: to assuage rioting earthlings profoundly rattled and angry by the Vs unwanted, uninvited quasi-occupation by reiterating their peaceful intentions and expanding their bounty of gifts — including an offer free universal health care.

Chad was totally chuffed. Finally! Respectability! But on the night of the interview, as he and Anna were powdered and wired and futzed, the beguiling Visitor gazed into his eyes and kicked him in the nuts. ”Just make sure not to ask anything that would paint us in a negative light,” she said, minutes before going live to the world. There was nothing malevolent in Anna’s tone. If anything, she came off admirably direct and candid. But Chad was chaffed, nonetheless, and informed her: Nope, that’s not how journalism works on Planet Earth, lady. (Insert ironic giggle here.) Anna threatened to walk away, which caused Chad to waffle, and then sealed the deal by appealing to his ego (”This interview is good for your career, is it not?”), which caused Chad to cave. He then bit his tongue and seethed self-loathing when Anna proclaimed to the global viewing audience that Chad was free to ask whatever he wanted. Afterward, Chad was promised more opportunities to enhance his brand by playing the role of Anna’s media mouthpiece — as long as he continued to be willing to sacrifice his ethics for the sake of a greater good Chad stewed but did not say no. Apparently, that really is how journalism works on the Planet Earth of V. Poor Chad! What a horrible ethical soul-crushing bind for a reporter to be in! I’m so glad something like that could never, ever happen here!

NEXT: What would Doc Jensen change?

RYAN NICHOLS (Morris Chestnut — Ladder 49, The Best Man, Boyz n the Hood) Last but not last, there was Ryan, a seemingly successful, seemingly well-adjusted young man who was genuinely, deeply in love with his girlfriend, VALERIE(Lourdes Benedicto of Cashmere Mafia and The Nine). He was buying an engagement ring and plotting an old fashioned, down-on-one-ring marriage proposal on the morning of the Vs’ arrival. But in the week that followed, Ryan was hounded by a mystery man named Georgie, who wanted to recruit Ryan back to a life that he was desperate to leave behind. ”I’m not that guy anymore,” Ryan insisted cryptically. Georgie pressed him, appealing to his conscience and poking at unspecified guilt (there were intimations of a tragedy that left many dead in Ryan’s past), and told him of secret meeting scheduled for later in the evening. Georgie said he hoped to see him there…

And of course, Ryan went — but late, to help save the day when it all went bad. Erica was in attendance, too (she learned of the meeting through an investigation into a terror cell comprised of evil Vs), as was Father Jack (who learned of the meeting via… some bleeding guy). The purpose of this clandestine gathering: to build an underground resistance movement opposed to the Visitors. Community organizer Georgie downloaded the deets. The Vs had been on Earth for decades, infiltrating every corner of culture, sewing seeds of instability — economic, political, religious — for the purpose of cultivating a market for The Visitors’ brand of salvation. But the Vs don’t want to rescue us from ourselves — they want to ”annihilate” us. In other words: It really is Independence Day. Before the meeting could proceed any further, a floating crystal orb zipped into the warehouse and fired stuff at everyone, killing some and knocking out others. Death Bauble was followed by brawling baddies, and among them was Erica’s partner, Dale, who turned out to be treacherous turncoat — a lizard alien in disguise, presumably part of the Vs decades-in-residence advance team. How I despised this development! The Mitchell-Tudyk chemistry was easily one of the best things this show had going for it — a certifiable Reason To Watch–and it PISSED. ME. OFF! that it was all for naught, that Tudyk was basically stunt casting for the pilot. My only hope is that V’s producers have realized they had gold with Mitchell and Tudyk and will invent some way to bring him back. Like maybe we’ll find out that there’s a Human Dale being held captive somewhere, and that an Alien Dale had recently assumed his identity to infiltrate the FBI. This. Must. Happen!

At episode’s end, Erica and Father Jack sat on a rooftop overlooking their city, pledging to be super-friends and vanquish the legion of doom that is the Visitors. Their resistance movement includes Ryan, who we learned was a lizard in disguise — but a good one, and one of many opposed to their kind’s ominous plans for Earths. The late game revelation that Ryan wasn’t truly human but rather was wearing a genetically engineered human suit poses all sorts of tricky questions, like, say, the practical mechanics of his love life with Valerie… but that’s another episode, I’m sure. Additionally, I’m looking forward to seeing more of his backstory in the weeks to come; I think this whole conceit that the Vs have been here a loooong time can supply with a treasure trove of intrigue and story.

But if V is to thrive beyond this initial pod of four episodes, it needs to BRING BACK ALAN TUDYK — plus continue to find ways to overcome its inherent liability, which the show itself called attention to with its meta-ID4 joke: genre exhaustion. The whole alien invasion thing really has been done to death, and you really do need a provocative point of difference to distinguish and capture the imagination anew. Continuing to explore the Big Picture impact that the Vs have on its fictional world — and using that exploration to comment on our real world–is one way to accomplish that mission, though I think V will have to get smarter in its execution.

And there’s also this: As it happens, I am old enough to not only remember the original V, but to claim it as a touchstone in my geek/fanboy evolution. I don’t think it would be fair to evaluate the new V by comparing and contrasting it to the original, but if there’s one value V 2.0 is sorely lacking from V1.0, it’s a spirit of fun. The original V possessed a fair amount of heady political subtext, but I seem to recall a show that didn’t shy away from its B-movie roots, either. See: Jane Balder opening wide for a guinea pig, or equally infamous, the lizard birthing sequence. Those moments made us gasp — and even then, made us laugh. The old V was just a plain old good time. The new V seems determined to be decidedly more respectable affair that’s well above guinea pig-snarfing giggle-thrills, as if guinea pig-snarfing giggle-thrills was a bad thing or something. I keep wondering if the pilot’s carefully composed peeks at what lies beneath The Visitors’ faux human skin — the gash in Dale’s head; the rip in Ryan’s arm — are part of a storytelling strategy designed to build to a big reveal, or indicative of the reports that ABC is afraid that show that is ”too sci-fi” will alienate (so to speak) mainstream audiences. I get the reasons, and they don’t offend me as a card-carrying geek. In today’s depressed media economy, networks simply can’t afford pricy spectacles like V by only generating small if loyal cult audience numbers. But here’s hoping that in the episodes to come, V can find a viable way to lighten up and have fun with its sci-fi self.

Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the premiere? Were you bummed by Tudyk’s quick exit from the show? And what’s your theory about the true intentions of The Visitors? Here’s mine: While I have no doubt that there’s a bunch of bad apples in the bunch, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Anna actually means everything she says — that at least her faction of the Vs are here to enlighten, improve, and love on us. In fact, perhaps Anna’s armada represents the subversion of a planned alien invasion, not the fulfillment of one. Thoughts? Post ’em!

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