I have a general affinity for science fiction, and the result is that I sometimes watch shows nobody has any business watching. There are some sci-fi fans who seem largely immune to the quality of any given show, finding contentment merely in the trappings of the genre. And then there are sci-fi fans who seem to find their greatest joy in savagely mocking shows they hate. I’m not either of those: I tend to recognize terrible shows as terrible and unenjoyable, but sometimes keep watching them anyway out of what can only be described as masochism. It’s not a loyalty to the genre or anything; it’s just habit.
Back when I was a foolish child, I frittered away countless hours of my life watching Star Trek: Voyager–not only in first run, but also in syndicated reruns that aired every night at 7:00 on the local UPN. And not because I liked it, but just because, well, it was a thing I did. In retrospect, all that time probably would have been better spent doing just about anything else. But we all make mistakes in our misspent youths.
Unfortunately, the passing years have apparently made me no wiser. The new bane of my existence is V, which at least doesn’t have syndicated reruns to take up my time. Nonetheless, it is easily the worst show I watch regularly and one of the worst shows on television right now. It may, in fact, be the worst show I’ve watched regularly since those fateful Voyager years.* It fails on almost every level, and even the one thing it does sort of well comes with severe qualifications. And yet I keep watching.
(*I should also probably confess to watching Sliders during roughly the same period. But I actually enjoyed that at the time. Yes, I know. Let’s not dwell on it.)
This terrible habit can be traced back to V’s pilot, which was genuinely good. It succeeded, more or less, by throwing as much shit on the table as it possibly could. The result was an episode that really moved, and the last ten minutes especially were filled with one reveal after another. The plotting was undeniably exhilarating.
But even in the pilot, there were obvious warning signs. The same plotting that made the pilot so much fun raised the question as to how the show was going to maintain that kind of energy in the episodes to follow. And with so much revealed in the final ten minutes of the pilot, just how many twists the writers had left to pull going forward. And whether they maybe should have saved some of those twists for later episodes. Also of issue was how such a special effects laden show was going to deal with the reduced budget of non-pilot episodes. And it couldn’t help that with so much going on, there hadn’t really been any time to establish characterization or theme. In making the best pilot they could, it seemed likely that they had actually handicapped the future of the series.
Still, nearly every show faces questions about what it’s going to do after its pilot and growing pains in its early episodes. Despite warning signs from the network (a reduced episode order, followed by a long hiatus and a new showrunner), it was not unreasonable to hope V would work through its problems and become a good show well worth watching.
That never happened, unfortunately, and the V we’re left with is a show that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Even worse, if it ever does figure out what it wants to be (the odds of which become more unlikely with each passing week and cancellation ever looming), it’s unlikely to matter. At this point, V is doomed to terribleness.
All of the plotting concerns in the wake of the pilot proved to be completely valid, with the average episode limping along dully, punctuated only by the occasional pointless explosion. The writers seem insistent that the show remain heavily serialized, and it suffers a great deal from the lack of structure that can go along with that. Despite the problems with an over-reliance on formula that have led to more serialized television, some formula is always necessary to ensure that episodes feel like episodes. Lost, for example, had flashbacks, while HBO shows specialize in short vignettes that build in power as the episode goes on. But V doesn’t really have much of anything. Every episode involves a mission of some kind, but those missions tend to be vaguely defined and vaguely resolved.
“Uneasy Lies the Head”* is typical, in this regard. We discover at the beginning of the episode that the Vs are harvesting human DNA to do something or other and carry out their nefarious plan, whatever that is. The Fifth Column decides to stop them by contaminating their batch of DNA by infecting some poor sap with a DNA-altering strain of influenza. The characters then spend several minutes sitting around explaining how this will work and how they will do it, which mainly serves to highlight just how hopelessly ridiculous it is. This is followed by a pretty well done action sequence, in which the team breaks into a medical facility. Which is then followed by more exposition explaining just how they’re going to infect the poor sap, something we never actually get to see, but probably would have been boring anyway. The Vs then beam up all the people whose DNA they want to steal (carefully selected by some nefarious method the show has tried to explain numerous times but is so dull that it’s hard to really care). Unfortunately for the Fifth Column, Contaminated Guy dies immediately upon landing on the mother ship, and when the Vs examine the body, they discover that the Fifth Column is on to their horrible DNA-stealing ways. Anna makes a big, dramatic deal out of this, though it’s not entirely clear why, given that the Fifth Column is utterly incompetent. The Fifth Column, meanwhile, remains clueless as to the complete failure of their mission, and in general nothing much really changes over the course of the episode.
(*Because when you watch V, you can’t help but think of Shakespeare.)
The odd thing about V’s plotting is that it’s simultaneously too rushed and too slow at the same time. There are a lot of scenes in which the characters just sit around talking and nothing much seems to happen, but in many cases the show would nonetheless benefit from breaking its episodic plots up across a couple of episodes. The medical center break-in could have been the focus of a whole episode, as could have the decision to alter a fellow human’s DNA. Instead, each of those stories is allotted several minutes of exposition and a couple minutes of action in one episode. As a result, those stories are both rushed and boring, and the episode they’re a part of has a couple of interesting moments, but no real climax. This is what makes the show feel so meandering, and a tighter structure would probably go a long way toward solving the problem.
Indeed, the best episode of the second season–and probably the best episode since the pilot–was one in which the entire episode was simply centered around a very standard hostage situation. The structure built into that trope lent the episode the sense of building power the show usually lacks. The B-plot in “Uneasy” fares a little better than the A-plot because it too uses a simple trope to give the story some structure: Token Black V is now randomly a prisoner on the V ship (despite coming and going all the time before), the Vs are trying to kill him, and he is trying to get away. With the help of Supergirl and Jane Badler, he finds a secret escape pod and rides it to freedom. But while he himself manages to escape, his daughter remains in the hands of the Vs. This is a pretty well done story that offers a strong resolution while still providing serialized threads to pick up on later.
But even in the rare cases when V is able to provide its stories with a basic structure, it gets dragged down by heavy-handed thematic material. In the first season, this took the shape of fear-mongering, reactionary political allegory, which the show has thankfully jettisoned. Replacing this, however, is a vapid, religion-tinged philosophy designed around parallel moral conflicts that have created factions within the Vs and the Fifth Column. The conflicts within the Fifth Column are largely ornamental; they simply argue a lot over how much violence is OK to use in service of repelling the great V menace. As of yet, there have been no consequences whatsoever to any of those arguments. The Vs, meanwhile, argue over the merits of human emotion and the human soul, which the show seems to treat as a metaphysical reality, though just how the metaphysics work is unclear. (Can Vs gain a human soul? Wouldn’t that make it a V soul? And so on.) This has created factions within the Vs, with Supergirl, Badler and Token Black V getting closer and closer to forming some kind of an actual resistance.
This is all very similar to the thematic territory Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica traversed. That show presented the same kind of religious and moral conflicts in relation to humans and cylons. The difference is that V has proven completely incapable of presenting these themes in anything other than a sappy, ham-handed way. Despite nodding towards Battlestar Galactica’s complex religious material, V’s discussion of the soul has much more in common with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which also viewed the soul as a metaphysical manifestation of morality (though not emotion). But BtVS was able to get away with that simplistic metaphor because it was always just one of many tangential threads, not the central theme of the entire series. I generally respect shows that grapple with religion, but one of the reasons shows don’t is that it’s hard to do. Battlestar Galactica mostly pulled it off; V, on the other hand, isn’t nearly smart enough for this sort of thing, and the philosophical scenes tend to be alternately painful and unintentionally hilarious.
The emphasis on mounting conflicts is one of the few good things V has done recently, however. Granted, these conflicts are clearly orchestrated, often manipulative, and thematically insipid, but they have managed at the very least to infuse the show with something resembling actual tension for the first time since the pilot. Recent episodes have tended to introduce a couple of new conflicts each episode, and “Uneasy” is no different. I touched on most of these earlier, but Defrocked Priest and Elizabeth Mitchell continue their debate over how much violence is acceptable, which gets a marginally interesting denouement when the fellow they infect dies at the end of the episode without them knowing about it. Token Black V, Supergirl and Badler all team up and form a mini-alliance against Anna. And Hobbes, who set off the bomb that killed Mitchell’s husband a couple weeks back, ends up sleeping with her at the end of the episode. How much and how well V actually uses these conflicts is a bit of a mixed bag, but just having them out there makes the show more bearable and gives the still paper-thin characters an illusion of depth.
Maybe the biggest of V’s problems, though, is that it’s hard to tell just how seriously we’re supposed to be taking these manipulative conflicts and vapid philosophical ideas and ridiculous plot shenanigans. There are times when the show seems willing to push itself into camp, but for the most part it maintains a suffocating self-seriousness that suggests it hasn’t fully gotten over its delusions of Battlestar-like grandeur. Which is too bad, because it really needs to. This is a show with terrible special effects about lizard aliens and a worldwide resistance consisting of five people (sometimes now we see others on a video chat!). Even before touching on all the other problems with the show, that’s not a great recipe for creating Quality Television (which isn’t to say it can’t be done, but it’s hard), but it is a pretty good recipe for mindless entertainment, if only the show would let itself go. V has recently started amping up the gross-out gore (in this episode, people would occasionally vomit foamy pink stuff), which is a good sign in this instance. Likewise, the scenes between the once, current and would-be V queens have taken on a very welcome soapy quality (Badler, in particular, looks to be having a great time chewing on the very cheap, computer-generated scenery). Unfortunately, the rest of the show hasn’t followed suit.
But at this point, it hardly makes a difference. Even if it did reinvent itself as camp, it would still be an inferior option to The Cape. And being not quite as good as The Cape isn’t exactly something a show could brag about.