It's hard to have faith in ABC's remake of alien-Trojan-horse show V. Paradoxically for a show about aliens who inspire unquestioning love and loyalty, it's been questioned constantly. But there's still hope, and you should still tune in tonight.
The reason why I say that so emphatically is, there's a tendency to avoid watching a television show if you think it's already pre-cancelled. Why give your heart to a piece of ephemeral pop culture that won't even last the five-to-seven years that a successful show lasts? Why become fixated on a story you know won't end? Part of the answer is that we are science-fiction fans, and having our hearts broken is part of the deal. But you also have to keep the faith alive that it won't happen this time.
So in case you've missed our grindingly depressing coverage (mirroring everyone else's) of V's misfortunes, it's had a troubled ramp-up. First it was put on a production hiatus for a few weeks, then it was announced that showrunner Jeff Bell (who was showrunner on Angel's final season) was being demoted — he's still around as a writer, but he's no longer in charge. Then before the first hiatus was even over, a second hiatus was announced, and the show was on hold for at least a couple of months. And then the network decided to air only four episodes, this month, and then put the show on hold until after the Olympics, in March.
And today, there's the news that Scott Peters, the show's creator who replaced Bell as showrunner, was himself ousted. His replacement, luckily, will be Scott Rosenbaum, who's been a producer on Chuck and The Shield. Judging from the USA Today article, it sounds like the root of all these problems, including the production turnovers and delays, is the network's discontent with the show's creative direction. Here's USA Today's succinct explanation:
[T]he series remake has run into roadblocks. V's pilot episode was well-received by advertisers and critics, but ABC's late-summer decision to start the show two months earlier than planned – in part to dodge American Idol and the broadcast of the Winter Olympics, also in Vancouver – led to script problems, which forced reshoots and a five-week production break.
The first of three planned story arcs was condensed from six to four fall episodes. And the show will test viewers' loyalty with a three-month hiatus; remaining episodes won't surface until March. A promotional campaign that called for planes to skywrite red V's over national landmarks was scuttled after publicity over potential environmental effects.
And Thursday, in a response to the show's production problems, Peters (USA Network's The 4400) was replaced at the helm of the show by Scott Rosenbaum (Chuck, The Shield), though he is expected to stay aboard as an executive producer.
"We had a great pilot, then a couple of great episodes, but we had a disconnect on where we were going from there," says ABC Entertainment Group chief Stephen McPherson. Though no stranger to tinkering (he made extensive changes to the original Grey's Anatomy pilot), "I hadn't had the experience of that before." But McPherson accepts "a little blame for rushing them."
Mitchell, who plays hero FBI agent Erica Evans, says the resulting changes merely speed the pace of storytelling to pack a bigger wallop, including big cliffhangers in the Nov. 24 episode. Filming on that episode is set to wrap today, giving actors another unexpected 10-week break as the show is retooled. (Mitchell will trek to Hawaii to shoot new Lost episodes.)
So, yes. A troubled show, even before its first episode airs — and this does remind me a bit of similar behind-the-scenes stories about Bionic Woman, Dollhouse, Life On Mars, and countless other shows that had difficult gestations leading to troubled runs. But these things aren't fore-ordained, and a show can beat the odds.
Here are some reasons why I'm still cautiously optimistic about V in spite of all of the negative buzz:
1) The pilot really is great. From what I hear, the pilot that airs tonight is much the same one we all watched at Comic Con, and it's truly impressive. I went into the pilot expecting, at best, pleasant mediocrity or a watered-down tribute to the geek TV of our childhoods. And instead, I was surprised by what a cracking great piece of television it is. The story of the aliens who arrive promising great wonders, but quickly turn out to be a lot worse than we realize, is retold at a zippy pace and revamped for our wired, media-savvy culture. And it's provocative to have a show that says that despite all of our proud cynicism and air quotes, we're still suckers for the first super-advanced civilization that shows up offering us small-pox-infested blankets.
2) The cast is terrific. This matters a lot. You know who they never replaced during Bionic Woman's behind-the-scenes dickering? Michelle Ryan. You could have swapped in a dozen different producers, and it wouldn't have made Ryan watchable. In V, Elizabeth Mitchell is proving that her sparks of versatility on Lost weren't just illusions — she's really great as the show's heroine. (And how great is it that we actually have a female lead on a network show, who's not Michelle Ryan?) Given time, Mitchell could be as great as Lena Headey as Sarah Connor. Also, Whedonverse alums Alan Tudyk and Morena Baccarin are also just as great as you'd hope — and Baccarin is so natural as a smarmy alien leader, you'll almost forget Inara.
3) Maybe all the tinkering really will make it a better show in the end. Rosenbaum coming on as show-runner is actually great news — and if he can bring a bit of The Shield to V, then we'll be doing great. Also, I'm not entirely sad to hear they're tightening the pace. When I hear that six episodes were compressed to four, or that a show is going to cut to the chase faster, I often secretly rejoice — the biggest pitfall with a show like V is that the mysteries will be sustained for too long, that characters won't figure stuff out until long after the audience has, and that we won't get to see people fighting aliens until season three. As the SF Chronicle's Tim Goodman points out, this sort of molasses-slow storytelling has already overtaken fellow ABC show FlashForward (which might get renamed "inch forward" soon) — so it would be a shame if it happened to V as well.
4) We sort of owe it to ourselves to support any show about alien invaders. It's not as if we have a bevy of alien-invasion shows to choose from, or really a bevy of shows about aliens period. American television seems to have abdicated the territory it once owned, of first contact, alien attackers, galactic imperialists, and so on. I am prepared to apologize for mocking the boring alien makeup on shows like Star Trek: Voyager, if it means that we'll get aliens on TV once again. But for now, if there's even a hope of getting a show about meeting people unlike ourselves on television again, we need to grasp it with both hands.
5) I'm hoping that the creative stew of influences will still yield something really subversive and interesting. Peters, who created The 4400, is still on board as a producer according to USA Today, and Angel's Bell still seems to be in the mix as well. And the pilot definitely contains a huge dose of the paranoia and concerns about selling out that those earlier works were all about. (There's the journalist who's willing to ask only softball questions of the alien leader, as well as the religious figures who hitch their wagon to the aliens' star.) So maybe if those things remain part of V's DNA, and they aren't part of what gets sacrificed in the network's headlong dash to create soft and mushy enough for the general public to chew and swallow, then we'll still get a show that challenges us and reminds us that science fiction, even on television, can be a thing of amazement.
So yes, it's worth risking another disappointment. V is on ABC tonight at 8.